Woodward (1996) regards the notion of the rural idyll as ‘hazy and unclear’ but goes on to settle with the definition ‘a set of ideas about rural areas as aesthetically pleasant and desirable places to live in’. Two centuries ago the majority of the population lived in rural areas and were mainly people who worked hard for little whether it was self sufficiency or for local land owners. These poor farm labourers gradually moved to the urban areas with the sophistication of machinery and state legislative moves guiding them through loss of rural work (Short, 1992).
And so here begins perhaps the idealisation of the rural from a place where the majority of us lived and knew and understood to the now idealised pleasant and desirable home of the minority. As the urban landscape is easily vilified by both rural and urban dwellers alike so is the rural revered. But are things as pleasant and arcane as we imagine? Perhaps it is the image itself that is the idyll and not the rural reality. So how is it that an impression of an area that covers a large part of the country and is evenly spread allowing access to all can be misrepresented in the minds of the mass of the population and how do we come to form these views?
Representation and Identity
These impressions are formed throughout our lives taking data from a huge variety of sources whether they are personal experiences, media imagery, fiction, music, art, advertising or any of the other sources that help to mould our ideas. This idea that we form includes factors such as a vision of the landscape, the economy, the society and its population. With many factors and a variety of sources the possibilities for what each individual may construe as ‘rural’ start to seem endless. However, when many people have a similar idea it may be coined a popular image and for this to form there must be a popular representation of that concept, the popular discourse, and this appears to be the case with the concept of rurality. Groote et al. (2000) suggest there are six aspects of the construction of an identity:
1. It is ascribed by people to an area, i.e. it is a social construct
2. It is based on perceived characteristics or qualities
3. It is based on the past
4. Different people and/or institutions with different interests in an area may proclaim differing identities – identities by definition are contested
5. Analysis of the ascribed identities is important in understanding the power balance between groups – identities are contextualised.
6. Identity is dynamic as are the claimants, their power relations, functions, goals and circumstances – identity is therefore a process.
The importance of this must be emphasised as although it may not be a correct or realistic representation if it is what people perceive to be ‘true’ then their codes of behaviour towards it will be influenced making the unrealistic representation a ‘true’ object as it is reacted to in a ‘true’ sense. This in turn moulds the object, rurality, through the specific actions of people towards it. An example of this may be tourism whereby a representation is used to attract tourism. This image may ‘hide’ social problems. This also demonstrates a power balance in this case the power is economically based. The attraction of tourists then informs decisions taken about an area such as maintaining aesthetics to encourage tourism. It may also influence local expenditure, economy and society by changing business markets, changing labour skills and workforces and encouraging businesses.
As Laing notes
‘In the spheres of both individual action and collective social policy and endeavour, it will be the resulting perceptions, perspectives and ideas which (irrespective of whether they are ‘correct’ or not) decisively inform the way in which people attempt to make their own history.’
Power relations here are very important. There may be very differing reasons for people to push a certain representation above another but it is often economic, whether that be small local business such as cottage industry, farm shops, bed and breakfast or large companies such as dairy and meat producers. In these situations we could say the larger the business the greater the advertising the further it reaches but the image of country life sold to us by industry is advertising and so any rural probelms are truly hidden.
Interestingly the rural people themselves do not wish to seem to dispel these notions. Woodward (1996) notes in her paper on the Rural Lifestyle Project that:
‘the notion of deprivation was contested by many living in the areas studied and dismissed…this may arise from an unwillingness to ascribe a pejorative set of meanings to particular groups raising issues of inclusion /exclusion.’
Woodward (1996) also suggests that this may be in response to the ‘other’ – the urban, with the rural-dwellers attempting to reinforce their differences and as the urban landscape is generally viewed as the problematic one it then follows that the rural is systematically removed of problems to be the opposite. Respondents of the project used themselves words such as ‘tranquillity’ and phrases such as ‘attractive quiet little village’ (Woodward, 1996) so reinforcing the outsiders’ perception: the popular discourse.
In the broader sense we may also look to the creation of a national identity, an idea of England and ‘Englishness’. Laing regards the ‘mythology’ of the rural as starting in the Victorian period, a time of movement from the rural to the urban as part of the process of industrialisation. The urban was dirty and polluted, squalid and overcrowded but the place of wealth and education, the rural became romanticised and affiliated with amenity and health and ‘simple’ folk. Such ideas can still be sensed today in the current popular discourse of rurality.
A classic example would a character from Emmerdale (whose name I have so far been unable to find out but think it might have been Barney!) who represented the farm worker, a character who was uneducated and naï¿½ve with big rosy cheeks. Another is the television programme ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ which contains the characters of the powerful land owner, the poor uneducated farmer worker and other ‘simple’, healthy country folk. Woodward (1996) notes that poverty in the country becomes normalised so that it is no longer an issue but a necessary component of rural life.
Perhaps the most famous example of rural representation is the radio programme the Archers. Originally a fictionalised farming informational programme the representation that it gave was discussed by the producers and it was deemed that it should be ‘to present an accurate picture of country life…and the many problems of living that confront country folk in general’ but also an intention that it should present a ‘positive image’ of country life for a predominantly urban audience (Laing,). Laing also notes that
‘The programme development policy was to aim for a content of 15% instruction, 10-15% natural history and folklore and a remainder of entertainment based on the family unit of the small farmer construed as being the hardcore of the rural population.’
With such representations going out to 20 million listeners in 1955 (Laing) and the English desire to construct an identity that seems to have become an amalgam of the farm labourer and the land owner we could expect the popular discourse of the rural to be based on the ‘traditional’ white family unit of father, mother and children living on a family run small holding of mixed farming based on self sufficiency and small farm sales with an oak tree in the garden and the scent of English roses.
Academics have produced work on the notion of representation of rurality and how it differs from reality. This work is very important in helping policy makers realise that social issues may be disguised both unintentionally and intentionally and how power relations effect that representation. In their work the academics have themselves attempted to define the rural through a variety of systems as well as attempted to understand the process of representation itself. These constructs of the academics may as such be termed ‘academic discourses’ and stem from both lay discourse (the popular narrative/discourse) and the objects of the discourse (Halfacree, 1993). Perhaps what we are more concerned with here is the ‘lay discourse’, the words and concepts understood and used by people in everyday talk (Halfacree, 1993).
This social representation was first developed by Moscovici (Halfacree, 1993) and is concerned not only with how people consume information from a variety of stimuli and experience but also with how they verse such concepts. Such lay discourses are both the result and cause of ‘identity’. An extract from Ivanic in Haartsen et al (2000) describes discourse as ‘the mediating mechanism in the social construction of identity….producing and receiving culturally recognised, ideologically shaped representations of reality.
The Rural Group of Labour MPs commissioned Rural Audit (1999) notes:
‘rural Britain has an image in people’s minds of providing a healthy, attractive environment, of work on the land, of cheap housing and strong social networks which compensate in many respects for low incomes and little choice in types of employment, goods or services…..but an apparently sound constitution conceals some serious and longstanding problems.
Rural poverty is perceived as a contradiction in terms (Rural Audit 1999, Woodward, 1996) and yet in 1990 DETR found that one quarter of rural households were living on poverty margins with the elderly, low paid manual workers, the unemployed and sick and self-employed particularly affected, they also found strong polarity of income in small areas enhancing relative poverty and feelings of exclusion (Rural Audit, 1996). However, rural problems can be both exclusive to rural localities: lack of services; transport issues and in common with urban problems: low employment; housing; drug and alcohol abuse. It is very difficult to separate these issues as they are so very interlinked and both reactionary and causal.
The Rural Audit lists the main issues as being: social exclusion (sexuality/race/age); services; families – childcare, pre-school availability and after school amenity; transport; income. All of these issues may be worsened by misguided perceptions which can influence services on offer and their priority.
Homes and Housing
One irony is that those that seek the rural ‘idyll’ can be the same that lend a hand to destroying it. City dwellers with enough disposable income are buying second homes in the countryside. One estate agent recently estimated there to be around 206,000 second homes in England and that figure was said to be rising (Lacey ; Doney, 2004). These second homes are often bought up in the ‘idyllic’ location and lead to soaring house prices in specific and desirable localities taking housing out of the financial reach of many young families.
Such houses are frequently used for weekends only, leading to an economic structure that suffers a weekday/weekend imbalance. Such imbalances provide inconsistent work availability for locals and Andrew Simms notes in Lacey and Doney’s (2004) article that many weekend visitors are buying provisions for their weekends at supermarkets on their way out of town thus not using much of the local facilities ( a further irony here is that the supermarkets often control the pricing structures of the downstream leg agriculture and so too put financial pressure on farmers). Such home owners do not make use of local services such as health facilities and schools, reducing their demand and threatening their existence. He also states that:
‘second home owners must become embedded in the community…to prevent more hollowed-out communities and dead picture postcard villages.
This month, the West Midlands Rural Housing Network event met in a bid to formulate a new regional housing strategy.The report of the event in the Birmingham Post noted several problems that needed addressing including the current shortage of affordable homes available to local people, especially young people who tend to live at home or move to the towns. Such town migration can create a reverse commuting culture of farm workers who have to rely on their own transport ( creating additional costs) due to lack of public transport especially at ‘farm work hours’. Loss of young people to the towns leads to loss of viability of shops and services (such as the buses) and schools. The same article records Liz Flood of the Countryside Agency as saying
‘A lack of affordable housing seems to affect all aspects of rural life, such as maintaining a local force workforce or keeping schools open’.
The relationship between identity and policy is two way – policy may be built on identity but at the same time identity is changed or constructed through policy (Groote et al, 2000). Thus it is of extreme importance that the processes of representation and the power relations within that are understood by the policy makers if they are to fully fathom the issues in an area and tackle them competently. Does it matter that the popular discourse may be so wrong? Perhaps this also brings an economy to the countryside. Perhaps it is necessary for our own sense of national identity and our historical roots. Perhaps it gives us all some hope that there is an idyll out there somewhere or as Newby put it.
‘somewhere at the far end of the M4 or the A12 there are ‘real’ country folk living in the midst of ‘real’ English countryside in – that most elusive of all rustic utopias – ‘real’ communities’. (Laing).