When K first suggested moving out to the countryside at weekends, my initial reaction was a cautious one. Having spent most of my childhood and adolescence marooned in rural North Nottinghamshire and longing for escape, I knew all too well the pitfalls of village life.
The village I grew up in was not typical of its surroundings. In an area dominated by collieries to the north and agriculture to the south, and nestling in the shadows of the local slag-heap, it represented a tight, plucky little enclave of Conservatism in a diehard Labour heartland. North Nottinghamshire may not have boasted of much in the way of a “county” set, but our village did its best to uphold the values of church-going, fete-holding, tweed-jacketed and navy-blue-pleated respectability. For several years during the 1970s, a sign on the village green proudly declared our status as the “best kept” village in our part of the county.
By the middle of the 1980s, the ground had started to shift. With the coal industry clearly in decline, and Arthur Scargill’s striking miners newly defeated by the Thatcher government, the chill winds of recession were blowing over us. Nevertheless, Thatcherism was not without its winners, and such winners as there were seemed to be headed in our direction. As the aging tweed-and-pleats set continued to merrily tootle along, with increasing irrelevance, so the “new money” moved in.
Returning to the UK after a year in West Berlin, I could instantly feel the sea-change. New dogmas had taken root, social divisions had widened – and amongst the emergent ranks of the newly successful, attitudes had hardened.
As a freshly politicised would-be radical myself, eager to position myself on the other side of the fence, the village provided ample fodder for my withering scorn. It’s like a downmarket Dallas, I would sneer to my student housemates in Nottingham, blithely unaware of my own crashing snobbery. But not without reason, for the place felt stuffed full with slippery philanderers and tinpot tycoons, gin-soaked lushes and tear-streaked tragedy queens – high on conspicuous consumption and surface gloss, barely concealing the ruthlessness and desperation which bristled beneath. Brittle, incestuous, claustrophobic and philistine: this was my perspective on village life, and I assumed it held equally true of all villages everywhere. No wonder that I baulked, however momentarily, at thoughts of returning.
There again, my perspective was inevitably skewed by the shifting fortunes of my own family, and my father in particular. Of which more tomorrow…