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March 11, 2006 || 11:38 am
Return to Akenfield?

Our Poet Laureate writes "The faulty connection between town imperatives and country living remains one of the great national issues of our time." He is reviewing Return to Akenfield, the revisiting of the location of Ronald Blythe's seminal book published 35 years ago and documenting, in a precise and unemotional way, the massive changes brought upon the landscape and community of a pair of rural Suffolk villages by the post-war era.

Some of the new book, by the Canadian Craig Taylor, was reproduced in a recent issue of Granta entitled Country Life. I found it less affecting and stringently powerful than the original but to me, the interest was more in the fact that Granta was themed around the countryside, and it seems to me that these issues around the 'faulty connection' are becoming more and more evidently the national issue of our time. Yet the question of our countryside remains the elephant in the room in every discussion about, for example, planning policy, or immigration, or tax, or the aging population. We pretend that if we meet the aim of continuing much as we are, preserving hedgerows and allowing new housing estates to spring up in abandoned quarries where they are unseen and therefore almost do not exist, English life will be as arcadian as our national myths. 'Concreting over the countryside' - the much misused and misleading phrase - sums up all our worst national fears, equivalent to selling the family silver.

Yet as we all know, the arcadia does not exist, and possibly never did; and maybe never should. In rural Norfolk, social services are provided in English and Portuguese because of the number of migrant farm workers living there. The tragedy of the Morecambe cockle pickers was interpreted in the press as not a symptom of a countryside dystopia but in relation to global human trafficking and our immigration laws. No-one really stopped to ask why thirty Chinese were brought to a beautiful English county and asked to harvest our crops.

These issues are sort-of recognised, and mentioned, and made vague reference to in our metropolitan-centred press, but without real rigor or radicalism or the asking of visionary questions. At work, our proposal for the British Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale was subtitled simply 'What is the countryside for?' - and we came down to the last two, but lost out to a proposal about Sheffield. Architecture schools stick to safe territory of the gritty inner-cities, not the architecture of villages or fields. One issue of Granta and an article by Andrew Motion do not make a national debate. It is almost as though it is too much to actually contemplate that this might be the big issue, that the national psyche-probing that might result would open up an abyss at our collective feet.

I was surprised, in the State of the Cities report that came out this week, to read that only 58% of our population live in cities, after years of reading that around 90% of us live in 'urban areas' - which are defined in a somewhat meaningless way that takes in almost every decent market town. I had thought that one of the justifications used by politicians and the media to dismiss 'rural issues' as irrelevant was this statistic that hardly anyone lived there, that these areas should by rights bow down to the needs of the urban majority. But actually it seems that the balance of rural to urban population is much more equal.

I doubt that this small statistic will suddenly make our political masters sit up and think about the 42% who live in rural areas - a sizeable part of the country, and the proportion would be even greater if the report included Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But I continue to hope that the elephant in the room will eventually get the notice that it deserves; that the urbanites discover the real radicalism that is present in rural areas, and are forced to question their assumptions about the countryside.



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