Don’t be fooled, says Tom Eaton, life on the platteland isn’t nearly as idyllic as city slickers think
Dreams of an idyllic lifestyle lure many urban dwellers to go rural. But don’t be fooled – the platteland isn’t all it’s made out to be, cautions Tom Eaton.
Country life. Living in the country. For city slickers those are magic words, a spell that conjures woodsmoke-scented tranquillity. A little cottage, a small patch of garden, a pond, somewhere out there…
Out where, exactly, is vague: the spell doesn’t give directions. Maybe that’s because “the country” isn’t so much a place as a way of living. For many city people, it’s somewhere where shaggy, dirty grazing animals wander, lowing, into your kitchen. But that’s basically a house with teenagers in it, so perhaps that’s not a great yardstick. For others, it’s somewhere where the solitary shop only stocks things you don’t need to refrigerate, like those flavoured milks or locally produced garlic polony called something cheerful like Laughing Otter, which might contain actual otters.
Those are good yardsticks, but for me the true test of whether or not you’re in
the kontrei is the magazines for sale at the local filling station. I don’t care how many rusted Peugeot 404s you’ve seen lying upside down in dry river beds: if the covers on that magazine stand are glossy and written in English you’re still in the suburbs. But don’t be fooled by Afrikaans magazines either. Some may have reassuringly old-fashioned titles and chaste-looking matrons on the cover, but they can still contain pure filth about women who have careers and who enjoy sex. No, only when the magazine rack contains just two publications, Landbouweekblad and a copy of the all-in-pictures Grensvegter from 1986, that you know you’ve truly arrived in the heart of the country.
This is usually the moment when most city people are suddenly overwhelmed by the desire to leave the country at once. It is a natural and healthy response. Living in the country is awful. We have known this for millennia. Ten-thousand years ago we all lived in the country, and what did we do? We invented cities. Let’s not kid ourselves: most people who live in the country wish they could live somewhere else. Their dreams are neon-lit, a procession of strip malls and traffic jams and electric fences and supermarkets, the delights of Babylon…
But for those with enough time and money, the very things that torture rural people promise an escape. Where locals see isolation, inefficiency and deprivation, city wanderers see wideopen spaces, slower rhythms and a release from materialistic pressures. And so they linger, and sometimes their lingering becomes more permanent. They become residents and let the country creep into them like the roots of a willow slowly punching through the mudguard of a long-forgotten Studebaker lying crumpled in a ditch.
Of course, they will never truly become country people. The platteland is kind to the orphans of the cities but they always remain foster children – loved but not blood. Blood is important out here. You need to have bled into this soil to belong. True, sometimes that’s simply the result of standing on a broken 7-Up bottle while walking home drunk one night – but still, the myth is strong. To belong, you need a pedigree of suffering. You need to have lost a great-great-grandmother to a British firing squad, or an uncle to an ostrich stampede, or a finger to the frost of ’96. Or, at the very least, your virginity behind the town hall after a particularly frenzied langarm session.
The myth of country life would have us city slickers believe that country folk are the salt of the earth. I’ve never understood that expression, seeing as how when you add salt to earth you get crop failure. But there are certainly salty ones among them, and peppery ones too: rich and poor, wicked and kind… Scratch the wholesome surface and you find the full spectrum of human magnificence and murkiness. Mother hens live alongside con artists. Crumbling relics, lost in nostalgia for a golden age that never existed, shake their heads at the youngsters desperate to leave the farm for the dorp, or the dorp for the city. Amateur politicians hold court in the hotel bar, while secret poets look up at the stars…
Which is not to say the small towns or farming districts are packed with interesting eccentrics. Sometimes the widest horizons encircle the smallest of souls. South Africa’s farming districts are home to just as many boring people as anywhere else: the shopkeeper who will tell you about her best friend’s divorce until you buy a fake Chinese-made Swiss Army knife and stab yourself in the thigh just so you have an excuse to leave; the slow-talking farmer who wants to explain to you, over the course of two hours, the differences between the 1974 S-Class Mercedes and the 1975 S-Class Mercedes...
There isn’t a lot of money flowing around these parts, but luckily talk is cheap. Maybe that’s why there’s so much of it out in the country, and why so much of it is gossip. Where lives are twisted around one another like the doughy coils of a koeksister, idle chatter becomes a kind of syrup that binds the whole thing together.
I was going to suggest that the rural rumour mill is a particularly productive one, but the truth is, it’s not a mill. Mills are slow, grinding, labourintensive contraptions, a hopelessly inadequate metaphor for the speed with which platteland rumours start and flourish. Out here it’s a rumour Molotov cocktail with a short fuse and a shaky hand on the Zippo.
Consider the Saturday morning church bazaar on the village’s market square. The dominee’s wife drops her packet of tissues. A local chicken farmer picks it up and returns it to her. She smiles; their hands touch briefly during the exchange. Before the icing has hardened on the Widow Fourie’s carrot cake and faster than you can say, “I always suspected he had wandering hands, the dirty chicken-wrangler,” everybody knows that poor Dominee has moved into the church office to escape the wreck of his marriage and is putting on a brave face for the congregation as his wife and the poultry pimp cavort in broad daylight.
Fortunately, though, there is seldom any lasting damage or ill-feeling. Country people know that nothing lasts – not roofs, not leivore, not shock absorbers, and certainly not rumours. Life picks up its skirts and walks on towards the next drought, the next harvest, the next minor scandal, as predictable as heartburn after that fourth chop for breakfast.
So it always has been. So it always will be. Well, until they run out of Laughing Otter polony down at the Hyper-Save-o-Rama on Kerkstraat. Then all bets are off.
You need to have lost a great-great-grandmother to a British firing squad, or an uncle to an ostrich stampede, or a finger to the frost of ’96. Or, at the very least, your virginity behind the town hall after a particularly frenzied langarm session.