Stop calling the countryside racist

This relentless demonisation of rural folk is itself a form of prejudice.

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

Topics Identity Politics UK

As regular as clockwork, as the winter begins to thaw, the first few snowdrops and crocuses are pushing through, and the first few grifters are seen on TV, lamenting that the British countryside is racist.

It would be tempting to simply dismiss this nonsense as cynical, attention-grabbing cant, mere honking on a clown-car horn.

The trouble is, while the now regular ‘countryside is racist’ claim usually comes from a shouty guest on breakfast TV, this time it is being made by a supposedly serious organisation. Wildlife and Countryside Link – a charity umbrella group that counts the WWF, the National Trust and the RSPCA among its members – has accused the countryside of being a ‘racist’ and ‘colonial’ white space in a report to the UK parliament. So we probably have to take it a little bit seriously.

In some ways, this is just the continuation and distortion of a long-running trope. In British culture, there has always been a dark side to the countryside. Folk horror has been popular as long as I have been alive. Think of The Wicker Man (1973), Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) and the bizarre coming-of-age TV drama ‘Penda’s Fen’ (1974) from the BBC anthology series, Play for Today. Even The Archers retains the power to shock. Sometimes.

All of these play up the eerie ‘otherness’ of the countryside, the primeval horrors lurking just beyond the streetlamp’s glare and the reliable phone signal.

This notion that evil lurks out in the countryside was well established enough by 1932 for Stella Gibbons to pastiche it brilliantly in her novel, Cold Comfort Farm. It informed the famous opening scenes in An American Werewolf in London (1981), which took place in the Slaughtered Lamb pub on the Yorkshire moors. I even wrote a series of sketches about it myself for a Radio 4 comedy. These were dispatches from a ‘rural correspondent’ who had been stationed in ‘Market Hangworthy’ after the Countryside Alliance march in 2002. Our reporter was alarmed by the presence of a pickled human head in a pub, which had once belonged to the last highwayman to be beheaded under the jurisdiction of the local assizes in 1974.

Long before we told stories about outer space, the forest and the moor were the places where no one could hear you scream. And where the kindly village bobby was in league with the pagans anyway.

All that has really changed is the nature of the perceived threat. Where a traditional folk-horror narrative led ineluctably towards the gruesome death of the intrusive protagonist, nowadays the city folk fear they will be exposed to ethnically insensitive microaggressions. I dare say that these are far less dangerous.

What is sad is just how counterproductive the never-ending ‘countryside is racist’ campaign is likely to be. Rural folk hearing their capacity to welcome strangers called into question like this are hardly likely to soften towards their accusers. Plus, the ethnic-minority people who keep hearing they will be excluded will now think twice before becoming the vanguard into this supposedly hostile terrain. And that really would be a shame.

Many country folk do indeed resent the urban plodders, to varying degrees. But their deepest loathing is often not for those with darker skin or foreign accents, but for those on the other side of some forgotten boundary no longer recorded in County Hall.

Of course some prejudice exists in the countryside because, well, people exist there. But there is surely as much good and bad in their hearts and communities as there is among the denizens of the Clapham Road or the Bull Ring.

Still, it is strange to hear it said that the countryside is considered to be especially ‘exclusionary’. After all, compared with nightclubs, football stadiums or the Tower of London, it has as absurdly low a bar to entry as one can imagine. The countryside is not a Bible written in Latin, or a dance hall that requires white tie and tails. The pubs play the same pop and serve, give or take, the same beer as they do in the cities. The brands in the Spar are the familiar ones. The sky darkens at the same hour, even if that darkness does then remain disconcertingly visible and unmitigated, except by stars.

One thing the countryside doesn’t have is advertising, propaganda, slogans and signs. Indeed, one of the reasons the countryside offers the most restorative experience I know of is the lack of all this guff. There is a distinct lack of messaging – top-down, infantilising messaging, in particular. When you gather up your belongings after a well-deserved sarnie or two in the lee of a friendly boulder, you do not hear a recorded voice mewling at you to be sure to make sure you have all your possessions, to take care when leaving the crag. When you make your final assault on Great Gable, no one tells you to ‘Mind the Gap’.

So please, if you have any inclination to go to the countryside, just go. Don’t let the culture-war nonsense put you off. Sure, you might encounter the odd blank stare that might even feel unfriendly. But ultimately, sheep are sheep, and you’ll have the last laugh in the pub.

Simon Evans is a spiked columnist and stand-up comedian.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Identity Politics UK


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