This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
It seemed at that moment that the old Roberts radio my mother had always liked so much was going to be kicked across the floor. It was the sweet whistle of a teal that finally did it. “I can’t take it any more,” she shouted, “I can’t take any more of this Radio 4 shit about birdsong and the wonder of being locked down in the countryside.” I had been in Dumfriesshire at that point for just eight weeks but my mother had left the county only once in the preceding year.
Currently, when you ring someone in rural Britain and ask how they are, there is a popular stock response: “Oh I’m not doing too badly,” a sheep farmer in the Cheviots said to me last month, “Lockdown round here hasn’t really changed the way we do things.”
When you see next to nobody all week, walking down to the pub for a few beers on a Friday evening or having people round for Sunday lunch is a vital thing
In reality, this and answers like it, are a bit of a bluff. When you see next to nobody all week, walking down to the pub for a few beers on a Friday evening or having people round for Sunday lunch is a vital thing, but beneath the stoicism there is some truth. Much of the countryside felt just as hollowed out and empty before the pandemic struck as our cities and towns have felt since.
From my kitchen window, on a clear day, between two hills out to the west, I can just see a bit of moorland that belongs to Patrick Laurie, a pal who farms Riggit Galloway cattle. Last week he admitted that while Covid has added a sense of claustrophobia to his life, loneliness lay heavy across Dumfriesshire long before any of us had heard of Wuhan.
Decades ago, farming meant being part of a team all pulling together on a piece of land that was often home to a small community, whereas now that team is mechanised with often just a lone human to make sure the cogs keep turning. Last year, Patrick’s second book, Native: Life in a Vanishing Landscape (Birlinn, £9.99), was published.
With the possible exception of James Rebanks, every Londoner’s favourite shepherd, there is nobody writing about the British countryside today who articulates the extent of what we’ve lost with as much earthy richness as Patrick but, despite critical acclaim, you won’t see Native on any bestseller lists. After all, the British reading public nailed its colours to the mast in 2018 when it declared Chris Packham’s Fingers in the Sparkle Jar its favourite piece of nature writing.
Patrick wouldn’t live anywhere else but he’s pretty up front that in Dumfriesshire and other swathes of truly rural Britain, there is no sparkle jar to stick your dry cracked fingers in. “It’s shit living in the countryside,” he admits. “It’s shit in loads of ways. We have to sacrifice a lot.”
Last year at the Wigtown Book Festival, there was a complaint: too much blood, too much death, and too much darkness in Native. Where was that sparkle all those nice nature writers manage? It makes Patrick laugh but he admits he’d maybe be better off financially if he just gave the market what it wanted. The recipe doesn’t seem to be that complicated: big up the tranquillity, go heavy on the peace, and promise people that no matter how unbearable their lives are, a bit of fresh air and getting some bantams will make them all better again.
The pictures represent rural Scotland in just the way that middle-class urban Britain likes it to be served up, a far cry from the truth of life behind the lens
Hanging in my kitchen is a calendar of scenes from the Highlands. On one page, a puffin perches by a grassy tussock with six silvery sand-eels hanging out of its mouth and in another, the calf of a Highland cow, with a face like a small bear, stands next to its mother. The cattle belong to my aunt and the pictures were taken by my uncle, twelve sparkling renderings of a place that can be hostile, dark, and lonely.
The pictures represent rural Scotland in just the way that middle-class urban Britain likes it to be served up, a far cry from the truth of life behind the lens. Like Patrick my aunt and uncle wouldn’t live anywhere else but equally I imagine they accept that they would have been much happier at times if they had.
If he came into some money and didn’t have to farm quite so hard, Patrick tells me he’d go to Glasgow more. It seems a bit lowly for one of Britain’s best rural writers but when he lies in bed at night he often dreams of going to the cinema. “Do you remember that music, the Pearl and Dean title music?” he asked me when I rang. “God, I loved that.”
Meanwhile, down the hill, my mother is making post-pandemic plans. There’s a restaurant in Edinburgh she wants to visit, far from the teal, right in the midst of the madding crowd. When normal service resumes, with the exception of a few closed pubs and restaurants, our towns and cities will fill up again but for those in rural Britain, beyond where the tourists flock, the loneliness won’t lift.
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