Why get your head together in the country?
My idea in renaming the blog bit of the website has root in my new (still in production) book, ‘A Hero For High Times’, and it is, at least in part, a reaction to my writing and thinking about the exodus of the hip ruralist diaspora from the cities in the sixties and seventies that gave rise to, for example, the self-sufficiency movement.
The ‘counter-culture’ has always had a strong ruralist wing. Getting your head together in the country is an idea that goes back to… ? William Morris? Thoreau? Rousseau? Wat Tyler? The Essenes? Dunno. Abraham left Ur for the Promised Land; maybe people have been leaving towns to go to the country for as long as there have been towns.
I’ve also done it because I’m a country boy, and this is my blog, so I just can. If people do the sorts of things I do (write books, make occasional radio programmes, compering etc), there’s often an easy assumption that those kind of things must happen in cities, and especially that London, and that people who do those things must either live in London, or, if they appear to live in the country, must have a London flat, or have sold up their London home to come out here in the first place.
But I was born in the country to country folk, into the rural working class. My grandparents are buried in the yards of the village churches where they worshipped. My parents live next to fields my step-father squatted and ploughed; they can walk out onto Downs where he mended hedges and kept the paths, and where my cousin still works now. Even growing up in the middle of Newhaven, I was never more than a five minute walk away from proper countryside. Even when I lived for 5 years in Little Scotland in Lancaster, those streets that so resemble Coronation Street to Londoners, this was the view from the end of Inverness Road, where I lived with my daughter; one of the views that encouraged my idea of Pancester. Yes, those are snow-capped mountains. A ten minute walk from that house in the other direction, and you were into the Forest of Bowland.
I’ve only lived in proper cities for short periods; once in the early eighties, when I lived in Brighton, and then for a couple of years after ye olde Millennium, when I lived in a squat in Islington, believe it or no, before buggering off to do literary butlering in a very dark and deep Devon.
The place I’ve lived most happily, though, is Mid-Wales, first in Lampeter in the late seventies, and then in Radnorshire, from 1987 to 1990 and then 2006 onwards. Mid-Wales is hippy heaven, and has been for a long while. In 1987, I met Bob Rowberry, who is the subject of my book, really; who has lived out this way, on and off, since he got back from Afghanistan in 1972. He’s a country boy too. Part of my childhood, and most of his, was spent growing up next to Ash Ranges in Surrey, a part of the world that Daniel Defoe in his ‘Tour of the Whole Island…’ described as a ‘desert’; one which has, for a very long time, been abandoned to warfare.
Whatever the ‘counter-culture’ was, or is, I think those of who self-identify as somehow being part of it have always claimed the Diggers, the True Levellers as our forefathers. They came to Surrey, to these barren heaths to try to build a new kind of world.
There’s very little counter-cultural energy left in Surrey, these days, I suspect, if there is anywhere. But though energy might be low, it hasn’t entirely gone, I think. I still meet people in the country who are trying to think about how culture might be differently done. I still go to events that seem worth reporting. So, I’m going to try to concentrate the blog on matters rural and rude. The Elizabethan Diary of a Country Hippy it won’t be, because I’m too vague and lazy, but I’ll aspire.