The Canon - Rural Rides By William Cobbett

December 31, 2009

While in Farnham one October to teach journalism, I recalled my first encounter with William Cobbett, a famous son of the Surrey town. My inspirational A-level history teachers used his weekly newspaper, the Political Register, as a classroom aide-memoire for industrial instability. In his 1830 collection Rural Rides in the Counties, Cobbett's horseback journeys became reports on the state of the land and the battered agricultural labourers whose plight he so deplored.

Scrutinising towns, farms and villages in southeast England, he drew upon his own hard-won agricultural experience and deep sympathy for the "chopstick" and farmhand to produce a unique work of non-fiction. Significantly, his position of solidarity framed him as a man of the people, not an outsider. This makes Rural Rides an immensely powerful piece of travel writing that is still in print today when its many contemporaries are long forgotten.

Intrigued, I acquired second-hand a Penguin English Library edition, previously owned by the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. Rural Rides' relationship to that institution is part of the story of cultural studies as an academic field. Raymond Williams (especially in 1973's The Country and the City) presents Cobbett's late political commentary - embedded in his travel writing - as giving popular politics a voice. This follows on from the work of E.P. Thompson, who made Cobbett the sole individual with an eponymous chapter in The Making of the English Working Class (1963).

Williams and Thompson recognised that Cobbett's mature publications gave expression to a nascent class consciousness, despite lapses into casual anti-Semitism and a common-sense English bluster that sometimes displaced reasoned analysis. Yet these flaws in Cobbett's radical vision do not detract from his urgent tone, backed by exasperated witticisms. Rural Rides unlocks a world in which social classes seldom met but constituted parts of their identities and allegiances using the printed word: hence Williams imagining Cobbett's travel writing as the outdoor counterpart of Jane Austen's novels of social advancement, set inside country houses that were accused of ruining the farming communities around them.

The significance for journalism of Rural Rides is that it organised state-of-the-nation writing as a travelogue. Whereas different sections of the Political Register carried distinct content, separating reportage from opinion, Rural Rides took rich descriptions of country life and rounded them off with indignant rage at "tax-eaters", "rotten boroughs" and "the Great Wen" - the capital city that embodied the monstrous political system. Cobbett's proposed remedies were often impractical in an increasingly industrialised society, but his palpable anger foreshadows subsequent traditions of powerful campaigning journalism.

My colleague Michael Rustin, who was deeply involved in setting up the cultural studies undergraduate degree at the University of East London, has argued that modern radicals should rethink Cobbett as an inspiration for effective popular journalism. This challenge gives me continued pause for thought, not least when I bought another used Penguin edition of Rural Rides - this time earmarked for pulping - from Jumaira Plaza in Dubai. From Farnham to the Arabian Gulf, the disenfranchised still need hard-hitting writers who can stand up to injustice.

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