Coun­try Mouse

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Giles Wood

The fourth se­ries of Poldark de­liv­ered the ver­sion of Eng­land that I find in­fin­itely prefer­able to the rud­der­less ship that is the sta­tus quo. An era where men were men, and women were women, and there was a nat­u­ral so­cial or­der in which every­one knew their place and knew what was ex­pected of them.

Mer­ci­fully for our di­min­ish­ing at­ten­tion spans, each scene lasts only a minute or so be­fore the plot moves on. Crit­ics of the se­ries have been swift to con­demn it for its Eastenders- type mo­men­tum, with too much hap­pen­ing per episode.

But I en­joyed the Beano comic sim­plic­ity of the in­ter­ac­tions be­tween the char­ac­ters, along with the gen­eral law­less­ness. So em­bed­ded was I, that I was even dis­mayed when Ross re­turned from West­min­ster to deal with trou­ble at t’mine and cheated view­ers of a ro­man­tic re­union with Demelza – which would have set our pulses rac­ing – by go­ing straight to join the lads on a bond­ing fish­ing trip.

Next I’d hoped for an arm­chair fish­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, replete with his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate sea­far­ing para­pher­na­lia and sung sea shanties. But I was cheated again as, out of nowhere, our crew was set upon by swains and me­nials from a neigh­bour­ing ham­let in scenes of bare-knuckle vi­o­lence that ended in near-death for one rus­tic – al­though, hap­pily, Poldark pre­vailed and bought every­one a round.

Much as I fan­ta­sise about a return to the Poldark era, I can see there would be no place in such a so­ci­ety for a fig­ure like my­self. The work­ing and up­per classes have al­ways got on fa­mously to­gether. They hunt foxes, go rac­ing and drink in tav­erns to­gether. But nei­ther seems to have much re­spect for the mid­dle classes, a cat­e­gory which only emerged, as his­to­rian Richard Gough has noted, in the 19th cen­tury.

Here in Wilt­shire, as our for­mer nanny’s boyfriend once told us bluntly, ‘The vil­lage doesn’t know what to make of you. You are nei­ther one thing or the other.’

This sum­mer’s Al­ge­rian heat­wave has threat­ened to turn us all into Al­bert Ca­mus-style ex­is­ten­tial­ists. Cou­pled with the avail­abil­ity of strong liquor at prices cheaper than cow’s milk, it has con­trib­uted to an in­ver­sion of the nat­u­ral so­cial or­der and some Poldark- era-type, non-fa­tal in­ci­dents.

I will out­line the back­ground to my own re­cent in­ci­dent. But­ter­flies of con­ser­va­tion con­cern are mak­ing a wel­come come­back – par­tic­u­larly in farm­land where stew­ard­ship schemes, such as, for ex­am­ple, the non-per­se­cu­tion of this­tles, can de­liver en­try-level im­prove­ments for in­sects.

The small tor­toise­shell does not al­ways fly in a straight line. So, to get a good pho­to­graph with my new­fan­gled iphone, in my ca­pac­ity as self-elected bio­di­ver­sity recorder, I en­tered a field, no more than a couple of hun­dred yards from the cot­tage. I was walk­ing harm­lessly along a tram­line when I heard the sound of a quad bike roar­ing along the side of the field.

‘Who’s there?’ bawled the fa­mil­iar voice of Seth Var­den who works for the Big House. ‘You’re tres­pass­ing!’

I was wear­ing a small straw hat bear­ing the leg­end ‘Croa­tia’. As­sum­ing Seth, who has lived within 100 yards of us for 30 years, had failed to recog­nise me, I doffed the hat and called out, ‘It’s only me, Seth. Your neigh­bour Giles.’

‘Makes no dif­fer­ence who it is. You’re still tres­pass­ing. Come out of there now.’

I be­gan to ex­plain that post-brexit, agri­cul­tural en­viro-schemes un­der Michael Gove en­vi­sion a new era of co-op­er­a­tion where con­ser­va­tion­ists and agri-busi­ness­men will wan­der hand in hand, as it were, in a brave new world of an as yet un­spec­i­fied, grand, uni­fied, agri­cul­tural the­ory of ev­ery­thing.

In an­tic­i­pa­tion of that time, I was mak­ing a start by record­ing the bio­di­ver­sity within the crop it­self, rather than in the set-aside strip, as this would clearly be of rel­e­vance when es­tab­lish­ing new guide­lines.

‘You’re still tres­pass­ing,’ Seth growled. ‘Come out of there now.’

He dis­mounted from his quad bike and be­gan mov­ing to­wards me. ‘Un­less you want to set­tle it here...’

‘And if you talk any more rub­bish,’ shouted his un­cle Jake Var­dens from the side­lines, ‘you’ll feel the sharp side of my fist.’

Un­like Dustin Hoff­man in the cel­e­brated Straw Dogs – the moral­ity tale of what hap­pens when so­phis­ti­cated townie comes face to face with the pure mus­cle power of his raisin-eyed, ru­ral op­po­nent – I did not rise to the chal­lenge.

Be­cause of fi­nan­cial cuts, Wilt­shire Coun­cil can no longer af­ford the evening classes it once ran where the gen­tle­man in­sect-ob­ses­sive might learn the rudi­ments of self-de­fence.

It is easy to ex­plain this pas­sion­ate episode as a de­sire not to lose face once Seth had re­alised I was not a com­mon-or-gar­den tres­passer.

Most vil­lages have been eth­ni­cally cleansed of their orig­i­nal tribes, while ours hasn’t yet. The Var­dens have a strong ter­ri­to­rial in­stinct, based on blood ties, shared griev­ances, the ex­tir­pa­tion of man­ual labour by ma­chines and yup­pie in­com­ers.

Then there is the epi­ge­netic im­pulse to re­act in the way one might just as in the days when the ap­pear­ance of a stranger might sig­nal a threat to scarce re­sources.

I was nat­u­rally hu­mil­i­ated by my en­forced re­treat but Mary was un­sym­pa­thetic: ‘You like law­less­ness and knuckle-fight­ing when it’s in Poldark but not so much in real life? How would this have been re­solved in Poldark?’

Well, in Poldark’s time, it could have been re­solved by some friendly drinks in the lo­cal ale­house – but they’re all closed now.

‘And if you talk any more rub­bish, you’ll feel the sharp side of my fist’

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