Town and Country

Town and Country

November and back from an icy rural France to central London and to read the Times Obit. of Ernst Gombrich. And with it to be reminded of a problem which even his splendid Art And Illusion never quite solved for me.

One of my indelible inter-war memories is set in the back of the family car, motoring back into London after a holiday or weekend in the country. Discrete villages, separated by the darkness of farmland, changed subtly into roomy and comfortable outer suburbs well hidden behind hedges. These, in turn, gave place to ribbon-building (without hedges), sleek factories and sodium lighting. The houses grew smaller and began to mingle with lit shops and traffic lights and the city that lay ahead.

This, so my childhood memory says, was bad, because what we had left was beautiful because it was countryside, whereas what we were heading into was ugly because it was city.

Years later I puzzled at Browning who (adopting the persona of ‘an Italian Person of Quality’ in 1855) wrote:

     Had I but plenty of money, money enough and to spare,

     The house for me, no doubt, were a house in the city-square.

The ‘Person of Quality’ lived ‘Up At A Villa’, suggesting that it was on a hillside looking directly down on where he wanted to be. How would that translate into London geography? Hampstead? Highgate? Could it be stretched to Sevenoaks or Hemel Hempstead or Pinner?

Browning was capable of donning any mask he pleased – and wearing it with conviction – so why should this one bother me? I put the question aside, but now Gombrich tempts me to have another look at it.

Does earlier literature and culture help? It doesn’t seem to me that texts such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Old Testament and the two epics of Homer regard the territory outside towns as beautiful. It can be god-haunted, awe-inspiring or terrifying, but it is a place to pass through, possibly to fight in, possibly a spiritual retreat for a short time, but not to stay in except to grow food.

Maybe this early the answer is simply that a town, even when it became a city, was by modern standards tiny against the huge backdrop of raw nature. A town was an achievement, put together not because of but despite the forces which threatened it. It needed a city the size of Rome  – and the reaction against it – to generate a pastoral idiom among the later Roman poets. But within a scale of four or five thousand years their time was short before the Goths arrived.

After the Goths there was, in the West, a pause of some fourteen hundred years during which there was not much time (before the next invasion or anarchic or religious attack, or the next famine or plague) for townies to wonder about the relative aesthetics of where they lived and what was outside. As late as the 14th century Chaucer pays tribute to Spring in his Prologue, but his pilgrims do not bother much about the beauty of the Kent countryside as they yarn away at each other.

Disregarding, if I dare, much that was written in the following three hundred years, the problem that I’m trying to clarify for myself begins to come into focus, in England at least, with the 18th century. City-earned wealth began to seek roots and authenticity in the owning of country estates. With it came the Enclosure Acts and well-guarded walls, Handel and Haydn, Addison and Steele, Reynolds and Gainsborough, Palladian architects such as Adams, Kent and Wyatt, and landscape gardeners such as Capability Brown, all of them teaching their patrons what was acceptable and pretty, as distinct from the chaos of the untamed. The archetype was the English garden: an enclosure within an Enclosure.

In retrospect it doesn’t seem surprising that there would be a reaction, a feeling that the containment had excluded too much. Nor is it surprising that the form – or lack of form – which the reaction took, involved losses as well as gains. What seems clear is that the Romantic Movement was born, somewhere roughly between 1780 and 1810 with the first evidence of the massive urbanization of Europe: the first of the generations who, cut off from the countryside, began to see it in sentimental terms.

It proved to be a long reaction, never quite reversing itself but instead fragmenting late in the 19th century into contradictory sub-movements which were still continuing or fragmenting when my father’s car made its successive journeys back into the city between the wars.

Have there been changes – I mean changes that affect my question – since the twenties and thirties? Yes, several.

Cities have got both better and worse. The slums have gone, but cars have almost fatally distorted city life. Outside the cities, real rural poverty has gone, but farming has increasingly become industrialized. Indeed the word ‘outside’ is open to question, for few areas in southern Britain are now truly outside the ambit of a city. The difference between city and country has greatly shrunk. It is difficult for a city-dweller to be ‘romantic’ about factory farms with no hedges, little wildlife, few birds and – when it comes – the wrong kind of silence.

And other, more personal, changes: a greater need, in my seventies, for warmth and comfort, the gradual loss of a sense of rural pagan magic.

But also, and possibly more important, what I hope for is a more dispassionate view of what my eye is actually seeing. A straight line, a circle, a curve, an angle, a colour, a particular light – all these are what they are, whether in the back-yard of a slum or high up on moorland. In my mind is a dark orange rectangle. If it were spread on the floor of a clearing in a wood, we would strive for words to catch its loveliness. But no, what I am remembering is the rusted corrugated iron roof of a warehouse in Manchester. I think too of an old Peugeot dumped up a lane in Tarn et Garonne. It had lost everything that could be torn from it. Early sunlight in March gave it something as lovely as any Cezanne. And the rooftops and small gardens that my room in London overlooks have all that I want from a landscape.

So, now, picking up the problem where I thought I had left it, I find that it has moved and changed its shape. Parallel with this it seems – possibly wrongly – that I have graduated from a classroom in which I was taught how to feel about what I saw. It was a teaching that worked by association rather than direct statement. Some of it undoubtedly came from my father, an ex-countryman who never could get the countryside out of his bones. He was always tetchy and silent on those evenings when he drove us back into the city.

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