Village my arse!

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Take off those wellies and Tarmac the veg patch - London's attempts at maintaining a fairytale rural life into go against everything that makes our city what it is argues Time Out's columnist Michael Hodges

  • Village my arse!

    Villagers arrive for a day out in London

  • ‘You see that?’ The man in blue overalls and Wellingtons pointed at a greeny brown lump on his forehead. ‘It’s shit.’
    It was shit. A large lump of it, attached to his brow. His colleague, also dressed in an ancient boiler suit and gum boots, laughed in agreement.

    ‘Aye,’ he said. ‘It’s shit.’

    I had just moved into a Yorkshire village and this pair of agricultural labourers – splattered with ordure and gently reeking – were attempting to unsettle me; to see if I was either gullible or an idiot. Strange, as I wasn’t the one with shit on his face.

    Refusing to be unnerved by men wearing faeces I stayed on in the village and over the next two years assisted at the birth of a calf, was hospitalised twice with leg and then eye injuries, was attacked by a ferret in a public house, very narrowly avoided death by charging bull, and befriended Billy, the self-proclaimed oldest paperboy in the world. And at 75 he probably was.

    By day I watched the drug squad flounder through the woods in search of a narcotics dump they would never find and by night I watched the drug dealer, equally baffled, digging sadly by moonlight and lamenting that he could remember only ‘burying it by a tree’. It was like James Herriot, but with a demented edge and after two years I had learned that village life is mainly a matter of jealousy, bad feeling, resentment, insecurity and filth – a dystopian world of bitterness and pig swill. And that farmers don’t go to farmers’ markets.

    So when I arrived in London ready to make my way in the city and enjoy all the delights therein I was surprised to encounter people attempting to maintain a version of rural living. But there it was, a line of villages that stretched across the city’s southern half from Eltham in the east through Blackheath and Dulwich before ending in Barnes in the west.

    This version did not include 75-year-old paperboys, the rural poor or pig swill. If this was rural life, it was the rural life of the Home Counties – a landscape of ersatz, pointless holiday hamlets sitting among unworked fields and woods – and it begged one obvious question: why?Like many London conundrums the ‘A-Z’ had the answer. Blackheath lies above the racial hotchpotch of Lewisham, Dulwich between Peckham and Brixton, and Barnes between a loop in the Thames and miles of common land that protect it from the council estates of Roehampton and the roving, dissolute poor of Hammersmith. The map made clear that one of the most racially varied places on earth had been fenced off by a row of whites-only colonies. If most Londoners lived in a melting pot, this was an ice compartment. Twenty years later the process has accelerated. As London has ceased to be the capital of England and become a world city that floats above Englishness and the flag-waving idiocy that implies, London’s villagers, too racist for one path and horrified by the other, have amplified their attempt to create a faux England. And like all such attempts it is essentially rural, an Arcadian vision of what the country might be, built around the visual signifiers of a long-lost land: post office, village pond and church.

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