All week long, I’ve been thinking about Adam Nicolson’s account in Perch Hill of why he moved to the country. It begins with a dinner in Mayfair with his mother and a stepfather he can’t stand. He quotes the stepfather-‘it’s only worth reading one book a year’ and describes the dining room: the Chinese silk on the walls, the silver swan salt cellars, the Madeiran linen, the polished mahogany. He calls it an alien country.
When the dinner finally ends, Adam strides out into the London night like a political prisoner released from captivity. He decides to expunge the evening by walking from Mayfair to the edge of Hammersmith where he lives. He makes it all the way to Lillie Road, where he sees three youths on the pavement ahead, two on the inside, one on the kerb. He resists Daily Mail paranoia and walks past, avoiding eye contact, but he catches the kerbside boy nod to the others seconds before they squirt ammonia into his eyes. He’s forced to kneel on the pavement and they go through the pockets of his suit.
The mugging didn’t lead immediately to the move to a run-down farm in Sussex. The humiliation of the attack collided with more everyday humiliations: a marriage ending, a book that wasn’t getting written. Life is like that. It’s rarely one defeat that knocks you down, but a grab bag of defeats. Adam, blessed with talent, wisdom and a patient woman, pulled himself together and began a new life. Refuge in the country. Country life.
That’s what the emails that have been arriving all week say. ‘Thank God, you live in Suffolk.’ ‘So glad you are in the middle of nowhere now.’ A friend from way back: ‘At least you farmers have shotguns!’ But nobody lives so deep in the middle of nowhere that they can watch the flames on their screens, the glorified muggings of high streets and communities, and feel secure in their pastoral civilisation. A thousand acres of wheat and barley don’t make a rural barricade that will protect us from the horrors of the outside world. And we are as connected to that world-call it London-as our fields are to sky.
One of my aims when I diversified this farm was to provide jobs for local women with children. Those children with idyllic country childhoods grew up. Three-all boys-graduated from university last year. We called them ‘The Three Degrees’ as they searched for-and found-jobs in London. We celebrated because this is what we want: our children to live in a bigger universe, to have interesting lives. To succeed in the real world. London is the single point on the compass that touches all our lives.
We could as easily have called them the Found Boys. That would distinguish them from the Lost Boys ‘who fall out of their perambulators when the nurse is looking the other way. If they are not claimed in seven days then they are sent far away to Neverland to defray expenses’. The Neverland of today is a world of teenage mothers, homes without fathers, estates riddled with drugs, crime and the smell of urine in the lifts. The most powerful man in Neverland is the drug dealer and the gangs of Lost Boys are his slaves. It is an alien country.
I confess that I don’t have anything distinctive to say about the amoral savagery of these Lost Boys, and I feel uneasy when I read those who think they do. I used to believe that education, free healthcare, social services, child benefit, housing benefit, unemployment benefit were the miracles that would save them, but my algebra didn’t calculate that benefits would make it easier for fathers to decamp, would give birth to a gang culture based on violence, drugs, guns, Rolex watches and Nike trainers. I don’t have answers, but I know this: until we find a place in this society for the Lost Boys, we are all living in an alien country. We cannot defray the expenses.
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