It is difficult to know what Stuart Burgess, chairman of the Commission for Rural Communities, would make of the events of Wednesday afternoon in my local village. A young man wearing a balaclava drew up in a silver car outside the village shop, which is also the local post office. He jumped out and, wielding a handgun, demanded the post office takings. Unfortunately, Wednesday is the post office’s half-day closing. The robber retreated with a few notes from the confectionery till and drove off.
On the one hand, this little tableau of village life might offer some reassurance to Mr Burgess, whose The State of the Countryside 2007 has just been published. Young people are leaving our villages because of lack of professional opportunities, he concluded – and yet here was one, working as a freelance, in the heart of the countryside. On the other hand, the robber’s lack of forward planning knocks a bit of a hole in the report’s claim that educational standards are higher in rural communities.
An armed robbery which takes place in small village, however blundering, is a brisk reminder that the image of the country peddled in TV lifestyle programmes and cosy Sunday night dramas is a fantasy, designed to appeal to discontented townies, and the Commission for Rural Communities was right to provide a reality check. Yet the panicky coverage of their report – “Villages losing their lifeblood as young people head for towns”, one headline read – was hardly justified by its contents.
Young people may be leaving the countryside, but only for a relatively short while. Between the ages of 35 and 45, the trend is in the opposite direction, particularly among parents of young children. Only the most youth-crazed of commentators could seriously describe people of 20 to 35 as the lifeblood of any community.
To get a balanced picture of what is going on, it is worth looking at another, less weighty report which was published this week. Natural England has announced that “the gardens of England are under threat”. There is now so much concreting over of lawns, so many busy, Titchmarsh-style water features and decking arrangements, that in London alone, an area 22 times the size of Hyde Park has been lost to wildlife.
Just as The State of the Countryside 2007 looks enviously in the direction of towns, so Natural England is arguing that cities should be greener and wilder. Both essentially want country people and townsfolk to become more similar to one another.
There is another approach: celebrate and preserve the difference between the urban and the rural. Children are increasingly raised in the country but, in their teens, they find the whole trees and hedgerow thing a bit of a drag and after school, they head townwards, where they pave and deck their way through their twenties and early thirties.
One day, suddenly, they realise there is a quieter, saner way to live and they move out, or back, to the countryside where their mature dynamism benefits village life. Quite where our neighbourhood gunman fits into this scheme of things is difficult to say – he is the one young person whose lifeblood the village is quite happy to do without – but, looking beyond him, there is surely a case for letting people in the country and the city be true to their instincts, whether towards concrete or greenery.
Rural and urban life each have their styles and advantages. It is in trying to create a hybrid of the two where the difficulties begin.
Love has its sticky moments
It has been a bad few days for virginity. Here a High Court judge ruled against Linda Playfoot, a 16-year-old who wanted to wear a purity ring to school. Meanwhile, in America, what is known as “abstinence education”, which receives $176m in federal funding, has been shown to have little effect on teenage behaviour.
Explaining why his campaign Virginity Rules is important, Eric Love, a purity activist from Texas, used two strips of sticky tape to show a reporter what happens to young people. Wiping the tape along a dusty floor, he then put them together. “The marriage pulls apart so easily,” he said. “Why? Because they gave the stickiness away.”
Here, truly, is a warning for the young. Avoid engaging in metaphors before you are ready – or you could end up with stickiness all over your face.
* The rather sad tale of Nigel Dempster, recounted in his obituaries, is a reminder that, while scandal and gossip are still with us, time has, unusually, brought a measure of maturity. Parts of the media are still obsessed by sex and money, but at least the snobbery and sanctimoniousness of the 1970s now seem dated and embarrassing. Then, there was no limit to the obsession with class and infidelity. With wet-lipped excitement the news would be reported that the Hon Jonty Randy-Bastard (Eton, Magdalene and the Guards) had been seen at Annabels with leggy actress Milly Goldigger to the distress of his wife Topsy, who hunts regularly with the Beaufort, their two children Miles and Serena, and their three labradors. Dempster fitted snugly into that world. When the author Willie Donaldson told an ancient joke about him, involving a late night on the tiles, nudity and a double-decker bus, Dempster, enraged, sued. In those days, gossip was a very serious business.