The late Phil Drabble seems to have been a crusty old cove whose off-air views were often at odds with his gentle, murmuring tones as presenter of One Man and His Dog. He had little time for feminists, Whitehall officials, ramblers or what he called “green welly wallies”, and talked nostalgically of the days when homosexuals were socially ostracised.
But now that he has finally been ushered into his own celestial pen by the Great Shepherd, there has been a spasm of public nostalgia for the man and his series. “You created an island of peace in a time full of turmoil and strife,” wrote one emotional fan, bidding farewell to Drabble on-line and recalling the programme in which the greatest excitement was a group of unco-operative sheep and the loudest noise a shepherd’s whistle. “Oh noo, they’re startin’ ter graze,” Drabble would say at a moment of rare drama. “That’ll points off fer sure.”
His death is also a reminder of how perceptions of the countryside have changed. Drabble wrote a regular column for 25 years in the Birmingham Evening Mail but was sacked in 1990 by an editor who believed that, for modern readers, “the countryside holds little interest”.
Today it holds interest all right, but the world captured by One Man and His Dog is long gone. The rural fantasy is no longer a gentle, pipe-smoker’s view of a hillside with sheep, a shepherd and his collie, but is lifestyle-based, property-centric. It is about the perfect country kitchen, the lovely view, the convenient run to the local shops. The green welly wallies have had the last laugh.
This city-dweller’s view of rural life sees it as a place of escape, where a young family can ratchet up their ratings on the happiness index, reduce stress levels, enjoy a better quality of life. It is Titchmarsh Country, with wildlife and the environment contained, to be enjoyed from a distance, an amenity for mum and dad and the kids.
The Government shares this lifestyle view of rural Britain. No administration of recent years has been quite as urban – at best, suburban – in its attitudes and background. Blair, it was said, had an abiding antipathy towards the countryside and saw it as a place of political trouble and few votes. Brown, if anything, is even more of a townie, as is his man at Defra, Hilary Benn.
As if in defiant response to this wary, sanitised view of the country, a new approach to writing about the wild is now winning readers and influence. Roger Deakin’s recently published Wildwood – A Journey Through Trees is not only a scholarly and heartfelt exploration of the part woodland and timber have played in our lives but is a powerfully personal celebration of the link between the natural and the human, the wild and the cultivated.
For Roger, who died last year at the age of 63, the natural world was not something out there – a view to be enjoyed, an escape from the stresses of everyday life – but was around him, within him. Woodland, he wrote, had been suppressed by the busy modern world but lived on as what he called “the subconscious of the landscape”. So woods were “the guardians of greenwood liberty, of our wildwood, feral, childhood selves”.
What comes through in Roger Deakin’s writing, and was at the centre of his life, was the obvious but subversive idea that wildness – the kind of unkempt, fecund energy that plays no part in the banal Escape to the Country fantasies – is essential to our survival and sanity. It is why the countryside matters, why it is not just the rare and the endangered that need defending, but the everyday.
Roger was “an explorer of the undiscovered country of nearby”, Robert Macfarlane writes in his own extraordinary quest of a book The Wild Places. Having visited the most scarily isolated and inhospitable parts of these islands, Macfarlane comes to the startling, rather optimistic conclusion that the best kind of wildness is that which is to be found all around us. “It was there, if carefully looked for, in the bend of a stream valley, in the undercut of a riverbank, in copses and peat bogs, hedgerows and quicksand ponds. And it was there in the margins, interzones and rough cusps of the country: quarry rim, derelict factory and motorway verge … Wildness weaved with the human world, rather than existing only in cleaved-off areas.”
These are daring visions, blowing away the idea that culture and nature, the garden and the wilderness, are opposites of one another. They fit uneasily into the rural lifestyle programmes of TV and, more important, they make government policy which prefers to keep the countryside neatly divided – landscape, humanity, amenity – infinitely more complicated. But they are the key to our wildwood, feral, childhood selves.