Britain’s green and pleasant divided land
30 September 2009
Because politicians only occasionally take into consideration what is happening in the British countryside, rural policies and initiatives, when they do come, often have an other-worldly, Alice in Wonderland feel to them.
A few days, ago for example, a report was published revealing that a mind-boggling six per cent of England’s managed hedgerows – 16,000 miles, that is – disappeared in the decade between 1998 and 2007. The survey, which cost the Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs £10m, was sketchily reported. Perhaps attempting to add a recognisably human element, journalists reported that the problem was that “thuggish weeds”, notably nettles and brambles, had “tightened their grip” on the countryside.
There was another surprise. Apparently we now have a Wildlife Minister, Huw Irranca-Davies. Welcoming “a detailed snapshot of where we are right now”, he added that we should all work together to improve our ponds and maintain our “iconic drystone walls”.
This week the Wildlife Minster’s boss Hilary Benn has provided another snapshot. The problem, it seems, is not that the country is too wild, with yobbish nettles and out-of-control blackberry bushes in dire need of an agricultural Asbo, but that it was not quite wild enough. His department has been looking at the possibility of re-introducing a whole range of high-profile species. Beavers and white-tailed eagles are already being returned to parts of the country where it is believed they were once to be found. Soon wildlife lovers might be able to see elk, wild cattle, lynx, pictured, wild boar, perhaps even bison roaming these islands.
Something rather peculiar is going on here – the development of a two-tier countryside. An essential part of what is known as “rewilding” the landscape is that habitats and reserves should be connected across the country so that the various exotic and exciting species have the space to roam. The result will be good for tourism and will make the David Attenborough experience available to ramblers everywhere.
On farmland, though, the emphasis is altogether different. The emphasis is on profit and food production. When hedgerows start disappearing, the blame is not put on the farmers, apparently too busy making money to tend the landscape, but on weeds. As it happens, nettle and bramble are far from thugs, being particularly useful to a wide variety of insects and birds.
This double-sided view of the landscape, with protected wild places on one side and sites of production on the other, should be set against a background of unprecedented pressure on the landscape from housing, airports and energy projects.
Politically speaking, one has to concede that the New Labour view of the countryside is neat. On the one hand, Hilary Benn can claim to be saving the wild spaces, “wonderful places where wildlife, bees, flowers and trees can flourish, and we can enjoy them as they do.” Parts of Britain will be a grand leisure park, with elk, beaver, lynx and eagle roaming, scuttling or flying across a protected landscape. Then, across the divide, there will be the working countryside which above all exists to provide food, development and profit.
This vision might appeal to Whitehall. After all, it ticks the boxes marked “food production” and “leisure amenities” and “tourism”. The elks and beavers might enjoy it, too. For those living in the countryside, and for the landscape itself, the rewilding of Britain may turn out to be rather more than a party conference gimmick.
A torrent of red-hot rage to make you smile
With the kind of breezy certainty which makes their profession peculiarly irritating, a TV executive in America has pronounced that, “in times of recession people respond to warm-hearted comedies.”
Do they really? I suspect that what makes most of us feel better during these dog days of the downturn is not lukewarm humour but bracing red-hot rage. This week sees the publication of a book so hilariously angry that it makes the maunderings of TV’s Grumpy Old Men seem like twittering of blue tits in a cherry tree. It will, I predict, be one of the surprise hits of the autumn.
For years, the gamy biographer Roger Lewis has sent to friends an antidote to boastful Christmas letters – a bilious, dyspeptic and ferociously chippy account of his own disaster-strewn year. They have now been collected, with footnotes and additions (Lewis does not grow more forgiving over time) as Seasonal Suicide Notes.
There is nothing quite as funny as a man of middle years shaking his fist at the fates, and falling flat on his face as he does so. Basil Fawlty was an archetype, as was the Peter Finch character in the film Network and Michael Douglas in Falling Down.
Lewis has several advantages over his fellow enragés. He is Welsh. He is apparently rather overweight. If he is to be believed, his career staggers from setback to humiliation and back again. His grudges are nursed lovingly. He is often hilariously rude about precisely the people who could do him some good.
Yet here is the odd thing. As he howls at yet another professional slight, or lashes out at a revered member of the arts community who has died – Harold Pinter, Pat Kavanagh, Ian Richardson all get the treatment – there is something strangely cheering and life-affirming about it all. For me, Lewis’s comically demented rage is worth any number of warm-hearted comedies.
Let’s consign them to history
Responding to a complaint by Andrew Davies that the BBC is downgrading historical dramas, a BBC spokesman has conceded that Dickens is indeed being “rested”.
Trollope has turned out to be rather expensive, and there is a general feeling that the Austen franchise has been rather over-exploited since Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle starred in Pride and Prejudice. What excellent news this is. Davies may say plaintively that “people like bonnets”, but for too long mainstream drama has been slipping into the comforting world of the past. It is time for writers and directors to find more of their inspiration from the strange, alarming times through which we are living.