A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Countryside constructs, or Aga Saga sensibilities.....

Sometimes environmental reporting in The Observer is of Posy Simmonds-like risibility. Today, we have a classic episode: 'Families' lives poisoned by crop spraying' (The Observer, May 2). The opening of this piece is pure Aga Saga:

"They left London to raise a family in the rural serenity of Lincolnshire. Now they fear the fields that surround their cottage are slowly killing them because of the pesticides used to spray crops."

First, you will note that nobody thought to interview a family who had lived around Brigg, say, for all their working lives, or even for generations. Of course, these might have known that Lincolnshire is a working country county where farmers produce things. Secondly, the protagonists had to be ex-Londoners (I don't blame them, just the reporting), and just examine the language of 'the rural idyll': "left to raise a family" [Hard luck to the millions who remain - I suggest you all leg it up to Lincolnshire too. Lincoln would love that!], "serenity", and "cottage". Oh! It is so Miss Marple, so Masterpiece Theatre! We are in Tweesby-in-Dale, for sure. These are the Aga Saga sensibilities of a metropolitan elite newspaper, and they show, yet again, how far most of our Sundays are from down-to-earth, regional Britain. Dreadful, dreadful stuff.

But such sensibilities know no bounds to their patronising attitudes. In the same newspaper, we have the following: 'Why a day in the country is a hard mountain to climb for black Britons' (The Observer, May 2). In this, environmental groups are reported as lamenting the fact that too few ethnic minorities visit the countryside for recreation (I suspect some organisations are under pressure to achieve PC statistics and targets for their visitor groups).

Most sadly, I agree that there are instances where black Britons who do go into the countryside are given a frosty reception in the pub or cafe. I don't think this is always an intrinsically racist reaction, as such, but more an insular fear of the 'other' (especially of the urban 'other' - constructs go both ways) and of all 'incomers', however temporary the visit. But thinking more deeply, has it dawned on the 'social engineers' reported in this piece that many folk might not want to go into the countryside in the first place? We forget too easily in our arrogance that the writ of the European, post-industrial, romantic myth about the [wet, cold and muddy] countryside is an exception in the world at large, and not the norm. Moreover, the old view still lingers in Britain, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that the countryside is somehow more 'moral', and 'God made the country/Man made the town'.

We should, however, remember that many of our ethnic minorities have only recently fled from rural drudgery and deep poverty to try to find a better life in towns and cities. On a world scale, the Dick Whittington Syndrome far, far outweighs the Aga Saga Syndrome of the rich and the pampered. Yes, of course, we must most certainly make things as welcoming as possible for all in the countryside, but please, please permit people to make their own leisure choices. I have one friend, for example, who loathes the countryside in every guise. Place him in a muddy field, and he just wants to run. One look at Parliament Hill Fields, even, and he would have it covered with buildings in the twinkling of an eye. People have many different constructs of 'the countryside', from the 'cottage-with-roses-round-the-door' to a backward land of dung and death. It is a tad racist, and culturalist, to try to impose one set of constructs on others.

But let's get real. Despite many efforts to kill it off, the countryside still persists in Britain - just - as a working domain. Perhaps the Aga Saga brigade would be better going after that 'Essential Tuscany' currently on offer for a piccolo £2 million in the 'Homes' Section of a rival Sunday broadsheet.

Mind you, all this pales into insignificance when we turn to The Independent on Sunday (as ever). Today's prize for daft environmental reporting must go to this piece of hyperbole: 'Why Antarctica will soon be the only place to live - literally' (The Independent on Sunday, May 2).

So there you have it. Forget Tuscany, folks. Keep that for 'Under the Tuscan sun'. After all, you'll soon be able to buy a cottage-with-roses-round-the-door in Queen Maud Land. How (n)ice.

Philip, looking forward to seeing his daughter who lives in a country town surrounded by sugar beet and smells. Lorry [truck!]-load of laughs.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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