It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the wonderful tale of Liz Jones, the me-and-my-mad-life columnist, and her experience of life in the country. With shotguns, sheep, toothless locals and a tearful heroine, it is as if Straw Dogs had been re-made by the Carry On team, with the part of the frightened townie, originally played Susan George, assumed by Joan Sims at her most shrewish.
Jones made her reputation by writing about the end of her marriage. Such was the ferociously embarrassing detail (bad sex, no sex, infidelity, unpleasant personal habits) that it made for shamefully compelling reading. After her divorce, Liz moved to a farmhouse on the edge of Exmoor; she needed, she wrote later, to get away from the “gunfire, feral children and aggression” of London. Last week, at least two of the three turned out to have followed her to Somerset. Someone blasted at her letter-box with a shotgun. When asked by the police who might be responsible, Liz Jones confessed that the list of possible suspects was as long as her arm.
Of course, one should not be light-hearted about someone’s property being shot at – letter-boxes can be quite expensive – but it is difficult not to see in the war between Jones and her neighbours a perfect comic parable to illustrate the chasm of distrust and misunderstanding between town and country. Versions of this row will be taking place in villages and small towns across the country and, with the accelerating exodus of the middle classes from large cities, similar skirmishes are likely to continue for some time.
This particular ruckus has come to light because its principal victim (or offender) lives rather publicly. Earlier in the year, Liz Jones confided that she had not had sex since moving to the country, explaining that “if men have teeth in the West Country, it’s a bonus”. The car parks of her local town of Yeovil are awash with drugs, she has written. Restaurants serve all their food in baskets. Many of the older families in the area are inbred. Local shop assistants “have learning difficulties and have never heard of Illy coffee”. Few clichés about the ghastliness of rural life remain unturned.
Words, or rather too many of them, tend to be distrusted in the country. I once wrote an article about the hunting and shooting of brown hares in East Anglia. The next day, I was door-stepped by an angry farmer; the day after that, there was a dead leveret on my doorstep.
Yet one suspects that it was not Liz Jones’s sneers about locals which had one reaching for his shotgun. The attitudes she embodies are shared by many people – usually middle-aged and quite well-off – who move to the country in search of an elusive dream of niceness, birdsong and tranquillity, as they have read about in lifestyle magazines. Somerset, Jones once wrote, was so unspoilt when she arrived that it was “like stepping back into the Fifties”.
That fantasy demeans everyone, and not just because it is stupid. The countryside is really not a cosy, ooh-arr Vicar of Dibley kind of place. The idea that it is miraculously exempt from the pressures and problems of modern life is gormless and patronising. The fact is that, although there is more traffic than ever between town and country, there remain profound differences in attitudes and ways of life between those who live in each of them. Indeed, ignoring those differences – treating the countryside like a prettier, more old-fashioned version of the town – betrays the kind of metropolitan arrogance which country-dwellers find particularly annoying.
So if a dog kills a farmer’s sheep, as one of Liz Jones’s is said to have done, it is a more serious matter than if it had killed a squirrel in Hyde Park. Her boast of bringing employment to the area – “I employ a local gardener, tree surgeon, equine vet, two chiropractors, an equine podiatrist, a holistic shearer, an ecologist” – is likely to bring more hilarity than gratitude.
The hostility towards Liz Jones was not, as she has grandly written, caused by the “insularity, boredom or fear” of her rural neighbours, but because she represents a brittle, ungenerous, metropolitan approach to life which they distrust. Who knows, they might even be right.