BY BEN EAGLE
“To me, England is the country, and the country is England. And when I ask myself what I mean by England, when I think of England when I am abroad, England comes to me though my various senses – through the ear, through the eye and through certain imperishable scents. .The sounds of England, the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy, the corncrake on a dewy morning, the sound of the scythe against the whetstone, and the sight of a plough team coming over the brow of a hill, the sight that has been England since England was a land. .the one eternal sight of England.”
Stanley Baldwin spoke these words in a speech in 1926 to engender his sense of what England was, is and supposedly will be forever. This vision of England as a tranquil, simple, wholly rural idyll swept up with the seasons and village life is a myth, even more so today than it was in the 1920s. The New Jerusalem of England’s green and pleasant land has barely been apparent for centuries. Today England has a majority urban population, a growing one at that and rural parts are spattered with their own issues such as how to sustain rural employment, how to tackle rural homelessness, how to hang on to young people and how to manage the demise of the small farm. Politicians are driven by a mantra that the economy must continue to grow and with it population must rise to serve ever higher living standards and therefore the country must build more houses in as many places as possible. Yet England in the minds of the English remains the vision of Baldwin’s romantic imagination, a place that is somewhere other than the place they see before them.
By 1926 the scythe was already being replaced by machines and as the English moved through the 20th century most grew up in a land of tarmac and polluted air, a far cry from rural existence. Country living and traditions became an irrelevance for the majority. As a result those who continue to live in the English countryside feel cut off from the political and economic trajectory of the country as a whole. England is a divided place, shown in an obvious sense by the Brexit referendum last year.
The English like to think of themselves as a nation of conservationists, with millions of them members of the RSPB or the National Trust. However, most remain disconnected from the natural world and blind to the population plummet of dozens of species in recent years including grey partridge, skylarks and water voles. The corncrake, mentioned by Baldwin, is as rare as rare and I don’t reckon that most would recognise its rasping calls if they heard it. Indeed, you are most likely to hear it on the fringes of western Scotland. However, it remains part of the imaginary England.
In the minds of the English there exists another England. It is the place they imagine they are living in, without actually being there; a collective haven, driven by rural romanticism. In the minds of the English England is a place of country churches, fields, gardens and villages; not roads, high rises, cafes and urban parks.
The English landscape is a far cry from Baldwin’s mythical country, with suburbia sprawling its tentacles over an ever increasing number of acres. Greedy developers and planners who lack vision beyond a few years have taken control and are taking us ever further away from mythical, Arthurian England. Yes, it still exists in some places, mostly in the quaint villages of Thomas Hardy country, but these places too have changed, as the only people who can afford to live there are city slickers who live half their lives on the road or the railway, commuting to their big city jobs. The English obsession with the past has become part of the way they see themselves, unable to imagine a future that accepts a changed identity from the England of Wordsworth, Constable or John Clare.
The tragedy of England is that the English have failed to construct an identity that has moved with the times and that accepts the reality of their urban existence. The English believe that England, proper England, can only be found in the rural landscape of old, to which it is impossible to return. It is necessary to instead construct an identity that celebrates urban living, and construct places where people actually want to live, rather than constantly thinking about ‘escaping’ to a rural arcadia. We need to stop imposing housing on areas that lack the infrastructure or the potential to thrive from a new urban existence and instead concentrate on improving the state of our current urban conurbations. Complaints of mass housing originate from genuine frustration over poor urban planning from people living in penurbia.
In penurbia urban life has begun to spill over to rural areas and it’s not often a pleasant or workable reality. If development must take place it must be coupled with improvements to infrastructure, cultural development, green space and commercial development so people can work locally and an area can redefine itself as urban in a positive sense. Simply building houses and then moving on is unforgiveable.
The English myth is not conjunctive to a modern overcrowded island. We must learn the art of urban living at the same time as supporting those who live in rural areas to thrive in a way that suits rural living. The town cannot become the countryside and the countryside cannot become the town. It doesn’t work and the concept of community falls apart.
If England is to avoid becoming one enormous suburb the English need to learn to live well in cities. Apartment blocks, whilst not fitting with the English idea of owning a part of English soil, are a much better use of space and while this country has an obsession for growing its economy and therefore its population we need to get used to it. If the English truly wanted their rural idyll they would have said no to a rapidly urbanising society decades ago.
Town centres are invariably poorly designed. Urban planning needs to become the art of the 21st century. We need to learn to live well with and in our cities and towns. Development shouldn’t merely be collections of identical houses, set out in the 1960s ideal of the estate. If the English imagined themselves as an urban nation life would be much better for those who live in urban areas, and it would also be much better for those living in rural places, left to develop in their own way without the imposition of suburbia, invariably the killer of community and ultimately, of England.
Ben Eagle is from Essex and blogs at thinkingcountry.com . You can follow him on twitter @benjy_eagle