I woke up in Hampshire last week and didn’t know where I was – or who I was – or when I was. There was a bus outside the window and unusual sights beyond (trees! open spaces! thatched roofs! Splendid wee pubs filled with dart boards and friendly, ruddy faced landladies!) Was I in an H E Bates novel? No, but I was in a village a short drive from Petersfield visiting a particularly splendid branch of my family, complete with a lovely, vivacious eight month old who made three robust attempts to remove my earrings by dragging them out through the earlobe. I felt a bit like Paul McGann’s character in Withnail and I – not that I had “gone on holiday by mistake….” but that I carried the city with me, dressed differently, had unkempt hair, and would be suspicious when viewed through the bi-focals of the local farmer’s wife in my quest for wood and milk.
Clusters of my family have landed towards Hampshire and Dorset and soon I will be calling the A3 my second home. “Farewell!” they say. Drop, drop, drop, off the London suburban perch. “Hello!” they bellow from Hampshire down the phone. I can hear the mud. I can see the new, rural layer of skin on their faces that has been pleasantly revealing itself now the London urban grime has sloughed away. “You must visit!” The line drops. Suburban London is a little emptier. It’s rare that I get out to the country; or rather it’s rare that the country will have me, but when I do the bucolic cosiness of the south and south west tends to strike me somewhere within and I feel distinctly enriched. Having arrived in Hampshire at tea time on Tuesday, we had not been able to see it, which made waking up on Wednesday morning particularly surreal. Getting back to Lahndahn on the 0948 to Waterloo was disturbing of course, but then it always is; Kenco coffee; raddled old copies of Metro, counting down the Surrey towns and the south London slurry sites and finally lurching into Waterloo, the Bakerloo Line, the office…. 18 hours was enough of the countryside to remember what it looked like, to receive a giddy shrug from it, and to allow it’s prettiness to seep in, only to have to turn around and head back to Lahndahn just at the moment you might actually be enjoying yourself.
What I meant about returning to Lahndahn was that I was returning to my reality. As I have mentioned on these pages before, I am a bit of a hybrid of Town Mouse and Country Mouse, which means that topographically I am schizo. My mouse whiskers have been bristled as much by urban stench and street awareness as they have by Chiltern breezes. I like and relate to urbanity, but my formative years were spent sitting in a vegetable garden looking at the five berries our barren strawberry patch had birthed that year and wondering whether we just ought to turn it over to turnips. Trips to London were intoxicating, ludicrously exciting and uncommon, which explains my grateful bemusement at actually living in the city, a bemusement which remains solid and undimmed after sixteen years. So, I am unsure whether, when I actually go the country, I am so deeply ensconced in urban fantasies of rural beauty that I can’t see its reality at all, or whether I am simply regressing to the person I was in 1986? Is the stillness of village life lurking in me somewhere, ready to bowl me over during menopause when I can retire to a Wiltshire shed with a potter’s wheel? The countryside changes you – but then is it being away from the city that makes us feel different, or is it being away from the real, everyday commitments and work of city life? We are all different on holiday. It may not be the hedgerows of the home counties, but the smack of liberation which is so pleasant. How far can it really be felt if it isn’t your reality? In Town Mouse and Country Mouse – a story whose foundations go back to classical times – each mouse spends the story convincing the other of the merits of its life. The urban mouse is a bit superior regarding the country mouse’s simplicity and the country mouse thinks – basically – that the town mouse is mad. It is satirical and untimately town life comes off worse. Well, we know that the town is dirty, filthy, drug-infested, rude, expensive, drunken, anxiety-making and fearful but that’s why we like it. ( We love a bit of drunken anxiety late at night) but it’s an age old mice debate that no one can win.
Human beings are, it turns out, no more capable of viewing life from another’s perspective than the two mice. What people love is leisure. What they hate is labour. It is the intoxication of escaping from your reality that seduces, irrespective of whether you are a town mouse delighting in the spaces and clean smells of the country, or whether you are a teenager from Suffolk who heads up to London on the train, desperate for a slice of yer genuine city decadence, and to return the next morning bleary-eyed, hungover, coke-raddled and broke. Despite the obvious differences between town life and country life they are very similar in the nature in which they are experienced: The world, whichever you are, looks lovelier from the outside, and is sweeter for the visitor.
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every Thursday.