In an unsafe cage

Town and Country
April 23, 1999

Reading this book just after the death of Ted Hughes, I wondered if "Hawk roosting" was going to be apposite, for the poem ends with keeping things "like this" and we have, says Ian McEwan in his preface to this collection of essays, much to be grateful for, and much to defend. But the basic stance of the contributors is a desire for change. They acknowledge that the simplistic "country good, city bad" dichotomy of the 1920s will no longer suffice, even as a dream: hard drugs are as easy to get in Ambridge as they are in Acton.

Hence the volume has five main sections in which an interesting variety of 30 authors talk of "Reconceiving the relationship", "The countryside: myths and realities", "Food and animals", "Development and settlement", and "Urban futures". All these 26 chapters are topped and tailed with an introduction and a two-part conclusion by each of the editors. The context is almost entirely English and the contributors mostly present anecdotal and persuasive material (some of it polemical) rather than analytical approaches.

Who then are the guilty parties? The Common Agricultural Policy is in every identity parade; the motor manufacturers lurk on street corners offering private pleasures; and worst of all are the city people who think that they know better how the rural inhabitants should comport themselves and bring their lack of cultural competences to the benches of both court and pub.

What then are the sentences? In essence, both editors urge on us more local power. Anthony Barnett wants "a more honest regional Englishness that identifies with both city and country" and Roger Scruton (talking particularly about the conservation of the past) urges that "the effective measures come always from below". Both seem unexceptional suggestions and well in tune with much thinking about the distribution of power in post-industrialist societies. Yet the farming-out (if we can use that phrase) of decision-making about rural economy and city life must nest inside our overall environmental relations, of which they are a visible and lived part, but ones that might also take note of what science tells us about our relations with the non-human world. How will reform of the CAP, better land-use control over housing expansion and more reliable public transport engage with the problems that might present fundamental threats to health and livelihood?

None of the essays directly approaches, to take an outstanding example, the question of carbon emissions. Though it is plain that lower car use will help (though probably not as much as making fewer of them in the first place), and that flying in parsnips from Australia is going to add to the atmospheric loading of CO2, the type of work that looks at land use and economy in terms of its carbon-emitting and sequestering properties is not central to these authors. Neither are the long-term effects of the many chemicals that are emitted into the air and the water. Genetic engineering of crops might well produce the biggest changes of all in the types of farming, but here there seems to be only the one reference where a vet simply says "stop it".

Overall, then, I am not convinced that this book takes the necessary debate over (a) what type of environment we want and (b) what we must accept, any further. Within its chosen limits it is a very interesting compendium of a spectrum of views but those boundaries seem mostly those of the golden triangle. I do not recognise the problems of upland County Durham nor of Easington Colliery in these pages. Nor do I see the impact of the World Trade Agreement, the Buenos Aires negotiations or the reach of the biotechnology multinationals. Eventually, I thought that Hughes's "Wolf watching" had most in common: these authors feel caged yet not protected, and they know instinctively that there is a better world out there. I think though that they need a wider set of horizons within which to look for it.

Ian Simmons is professor of geography, University of Durham.

Town and Country

Editor - Anthony Barnett and Roger Scruton
ISBN - 0 224 05254 3 and 05250 0
Publisher - Cape
Price - £17.99 and £12.99
Pages - 379

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