What, one wonders, could possibly be more alternative -- more mutually exclusive -- than the city and the country? In the city you imagine that no other world could exist. In the country it's the same. Each thinks the other is a jungle -- one made of concrete and steel, the other of muck and mud. They are like the seasons: summer is a condition that doesn't admit the possibility of winter. The city and the country are similarly convinced of their own totality, difference and, of course, superiority.
Or so goes the theory. The truth is somewhat otherwise and far more fun. For a start most city people are much fun. For a start most city people are much more interested in the country than are country people. City people buy the books on rural life, go bird-watching, join cycling clubs to feel the fresh hill air. It is city people who are dumbstruck by the sheer majesty of treetrunks or the detailed glories of the hedgerow. They long to return to their roots. As for country people . . . they still have their roots and are not too sure how special these fibrous encumberances are. Their interests are buildings, shopping, machinery, industrial archaeology, the charm of backstreets and alleyways. To country people, birds are often pests; cycling is inconvenient and slow compared to a Mercedez Benz or a train, and the air of the hills is just a rather nasty wind.
Take another example: gardening. Gardening is not something that country people do. My farmer neighbor is stunningly uninterested in plants. He literally would not know a pansy from a primrose. He doesn't know what the right season for planting trees would be. Where are the great botanical gardens of the world? In cities. Who dreams about the possibility of self-sufficiency? City people. Fresh home-grown produce is the delight and enthusiasm of urban man (or suburban man, who is always a city-dweller moved out, never a country dweller moved in). The farmer's wife provides her family with tinned or frozen convenience food bought in bulk. You won't catch her podding peas or digging potatoes: they come in plastic bags.
It is proverbial that inner-city children frequently believe that milk is born in bottles and that eggs are made in factories. Country "folks" are otherwise informed. But they also know that if there was a way in which cows could be persuaded to bottle the milk themselves, no one would be more pleased than the farmer. It isn't the country people who protest against factory-farming. To them it is just unromantic common sense to rear chickens in batteries and collect eggs mechanically: eggs should be made in factories. It is city peoole who will drive miles to buy "free-range" eggs. In the country they come packed and graded and three weeks old. Sliced white bread and margarine abound in farm kitchens. Butter and home-baked, wholemeal, healthfood bread is for city folk.
It is one of the ironies of the city/cuntry divide (through which flows a river full of delusions) that city-dwellers have such strong notions about country matters like factory-farming. And yet they themselves (as every countryman knows) work, eat, sleep, shop and socialize in factory conditions, in the same cramped proximity as battery hens. They cry "cruelty" to modern farming methods when some of these are quite evidently kinder to animals than a modern city is to its human inhabitants; and kinder too, than the old farming methods were: cows that today spend the winter months freely moving and feeding in vast new buildings, would, some years ago, have been tethered immovably in a confined stall for the same period. If I were a cow, I know which I'd like best.
Country people, naturally, also have their own bagful of unfounded theories about city-life. They believe that city people are forever jostling, persistently rude or indifferent to each other, continually mugged, always pressured by time and the rat-race, spend money like water, and breathe unbreathable air. They believe that although cities are thrilling to visit they are intolerable to live in. They are convinced that city-people are either over-provided or deprived, too rich or too poor, overdressed or shabby, familiar or stand-offish. Country people believe all this because they spend a lot of time watching television (which comes to them from the city) and this is the picture city people paint of themselves.
It is certainly strange. In answer, they (the country people) play along very obligingly when city television-men come out to make rural documentaries. They do their utmost to fit in with city theories about rural living. After all city people know best. They hide their longing for a local laundromat and fish-and-chip shop, for good public transport and a cinema. Instead they present themselves as all agreeable rusticity and felicitous idyll.
Some years back a friend in New York sent me a newspaper cutting. It was a preview of a downtown production of "The Farm," by the English playwright David Storey. This play is set in a Yorkshire farmhouse. What intrigued me was the notion of a cast of New Yorkers trying to imagine themselves into his setting. I live in Yorkshire in what was a farmhouse, and I'm surrounded by houses which still are; Storey's play comes quite close (for a city-writer) to the kind of characters who live around here. The farmer is still tied to the drudgery of aggriculture, a slave of the land in spite of all modernization, obstinately old-fashioned, chauvinistic, anti-education. His family, aware, as he isn't, of the urban world, is educated into city-attitudes, but no more contented than he. The conflicts are realistically drawn. The play's Manhattan producer evidently was concerned that his actors should all the time be conscious of this remote, English rural air: they should feelm the bitter, bone-chilling wind off the moors , the primitivism of the cold domicile: the audience should be shivering in the presence of a nineteenth century, Wuthering Heights-ish atmosphere. The Brontes ride again. The fact is that Soho, New York City, is infinitely colder in January than Yorkshire is ever likely to be, and also that David Storey's stage farmhouse should probably be modernized throughout, double-glazed, centrally heated and equipped with the latest hi-fi, color television, freezer, washer, spindryer and so forth. . . .
However (not having seen the New York production), I can't help wondering if it was any more packed with city delusions about the country (or American ones about the English) than our local productions of the last two years have conversely been; we chose three Neil Simon comedies. "The Odd Couple" in the wilds of old Yorkshire? Now there's a thought to rock the Big Apple to its foundations.