CITIES AND VILLAGES PART I
We need cities, of course. They are breeding grounds for ideas, above all among the young; though as you grow older, you may not need quite so much external stimulation. Indeed, reflection may in later life count for more than stimulation: Machiavelli wrote The Prince in exile. Cities were all but inextricably mixed with manufacturing, too: not just the dark satanic mills that turned out iron and steel and clothing and steam engines and motor cars, but also the publishing houses, printers, playwrights and theatres who supplied different but also pressing needs.
But do we need quite so many people in cities? Especially today? Especially ourselves? At all stages in our lives? Now that dark, satanic mills are all but gone from so many countries, and where those that remain are operated as much by robots as by human beings; now that it is easy (and usually cheaper) to build new factories on so-called “greenfield” sites; now that communication and transport are so easy; now that the disadvantages of cities are so much greater than the advantages, for so many people; perhaps, in the light of all this, it is time to rethink how we should use cities.
Cities are of course great centres of consumption. As my my brother memorably put it some decades ago: "I love the bright lights and tooth decay" Today he could add, "And huge stacks of cheap Chinese plastic".
We might take as our model the ancient Roman patrician ideal of being brought up in the countryside; going to Rome (today, pretty much any big city) in one's 'teens or twenties; and then, in middle age, retiring to the countryside again. Few of us have patrician estates (except perhaps the grandees of the Conservative and Unionist Party in England) and even fewer have slaves, but we don't really need either any more. Nor do we much need the grandees of the Conservative and Unionist Party, for that matter. The Western world is rich enough that surprisingly many of us could enjoy a similar life to the Roman patrician of old, albeit without the slaves and with significantly reduced levels of sexism and violence. Failing that, there is a great deal to be said for living in villages and small cities anyway.
In 1987 I left Bristol, one of the great cities of the world. I moved to Guadalupe on California's Central Coast, which was a city in name because that's what Californians call an incorporated township. Elsewhere, with its population of 5000 people, it might more properly be regarded as a big village. In 1992 I came back to the UK and lived in Minnis Bay on the Kent coast. The Bay is effectively a suburb of Birchington, which calls itself a village but is home to some 10,000 people. Since 2003 I've lived in Moncontour in rural France, a more conventionally sized village of under 1000 people. In all three cases – California, Kent, the Aquitaine – the nearest supermarket with what most city dwellers would regard as a sensible range of goods has been 10-20 miles away (16-30 km), though I'll come back to shopping later. I have not, in other words, lived in what I would call a proper city for three decades, since I was 37 years old; and I have not missed them.
The day I began this, for example, I cycled over to the next village, St. Jouin de Marnes. The baker there is widely acknowledged to be the best for many miles around. It's not far, just 3.4 km each way: a whisker over a four-mile round trip. On that round trip I was overtaken by three or four cars, a tractor, and a couple of large trucks. People tend to forget that we need large trucks in the countryside. How else, after all, are we to get the food that we grow here into the mouths of the people in the cities?
Until well after World War Two, all the local farms were worked with beasts: oxen and horses. The first tractor arrived in the area in 1948. Consider that every time you take a horse out, you have to give it the equivalent of a 3000 mile service for a motor car.
Obviously I could smell the vehicles as they went past. Briefly. Mostly, though, I was breathing impressively clean, fresh air. I could smell lavender as I pedalled out of the village, followed by recently cut stubble from the fields on either side of the open road and cut grass from the verges. In St. Jouin there was the smell of the bakery.
But man cannot live by bread (or bicycling) alone. What are the other attractions? Well, the Friday after I started this, I went to a vernissage, a first night, at the gallery that forms part of the local Tourist Office. It was... frankly, not brilliant. But I have seen some very good exhibitions there, and many of the other artists in the area were there for the vernissage, as they so often are. Rosé wine, orange juice and nibbles were provided. During the summer there are free concerts in one of the village squares and at the Donjon café-bar a few yards from our house. We also have what the French call animations, events. Again as I write this, there is one coming up: Le Temps des Lavandières, with re-enactors showing how clothes used to be washed at the Lavoirs (riverside wash-houses), clog dancing, and displays of old tools. My wife Frances and I will have a table of the latter, with kitchen tools past and present. We're hoping for reactions along the lines of “Oh, yes, I/ my mother/my grandmother used to have one just like that.” There's no money in it: it's done for fun and out of a sense of community.
Concert, Place Coligny. The building in the background is the new, old school, which replaced the one that is now the Hotel de Ville. Behind it, there is an even newer school, primary only. This new, old school is now the library.
Or if I want to be on my own, or to take a walk with Frances, there are all but endless sentiers, footpaths. Historically, much of the terrain was wetland, but it was drained over the course of many centuries, starting over a thousand years ago: the river Dive (pronounced “Deeve”) was canalized and runs through Moncontour as “Les Trois Dives”, the three Dives. And we have our own gardens, one by the river and one behind the house; though we're thinking of selling the one by the river, because we never use it and it's a lot of trouble to maintain.
To return to the shopping, there have always been shops within walking distance of where I have lived. There were lots in Bristol, of course, but also in the villages: Masatani's in Guadalupe and Co-Ops in both Minnis Bay and Moncontour. If I want anything in the slightest bit exotic, though, I've had to use the car ever since I left Bristol. From Guadalupe this meant Santa Maria (10 miles/16 km, population about 106,000); from Minnis Bay, Canterbury (13 miles, 21 km, population about 43,000); and from Moncontour about 20 km/12 miles to either Loudun (population 6500) or Thouars (population about 10,000). In Moncontour, “exotic” includes things like fresh herbs or olives or free range eggs. For that matter, the last time I called in at the local Co-Op, they had neither frozen peas nor fresh tomatoes.
The Super U in Thouars, where we probably do rather over half our shopping.
Nor is “exotic” the only criterion. Try “affordable” as well. A bottle of Scotch is about 50% more expensive at the Moncontour Co-Op than at Super U in Thouars; wine is about twice the price; and now that we no longer have a butcher in the village – they closed half a decade ago – the nearest is in St. Jouin de Marnes, a couple of hundred yards from the aforementioned baker. Choice is poor; availability of any given cut is patchy; and prices are high. Nor is quality anything remarkable. There is an excellent butcher's in Loudun, but it's slightly further away than the nearest supermarket.
Do not, incidentally, be taken in by urban fantasies of weekly or twice-weekly “farmers' markets.” Most areas are more or less specialized in what they grow. In Moncontour, melons are silly-cheap in season. Often, we get several free. But the melon season is short, and how long can you live on melons anyway? There's a superb cheese maker in the village – they raise their own goats - but as with melons, the idea of living on goat cheese is of limited appeal. Local garlic is excellent but again the season is relatively short and you can't really live on it. The same is true of apples, onions and tomatoes.
Maize is grown for cattle feed, but harvested too late and too coarse to enjoy as corn on the cob; wheat and barley are better bought milled, as flour; and sunflowers and oilseed rape are useful for oil, but again are not things you would buy as local delicacies. Excellent local veal ends up in both the supermarkets and (more expensively) at the artisanal butchers, with periodical sales when there's a glut. Veal calves are of course an inevitable by product of dairy farming: anyone who drinks milk and won't eat veal is something of a hypocrite or self-deluding. For much of the year, and with most products, local markets (weekly in most villages, twice weekly in some towns) rely on exactly the same imported produce as the supermarkets, but charge a lot more for it.
In my head I can already hear the whining voices of a certain kind of self-righteous and indeed sanctimonious city-dweller saying that a 4 mile round trip is no distance at all on a bicycle; that 10 miles each way should be perfectly achievable; and that I shouldn't be drinking whisky or wine anyway. Many would say that I shouldn't eat eggs or meat either. Or drink milk. It's odd, come to think of it, that so few hair shirt manufacturers advertise in the Guardian. All I can say is that they can live their lives and I will live mine. I was born in 1950: I'm an old man. I don't really enjoy bicycling, but I do it for three reasons. It's cheap; I get the benefit of the exercise; and I do actually have some regard for the planet. Mine is not a bad life, and although it wouldn't suit everyone, it's surprising how many people say they envy me. This is sometimes based on a less than perfect understanding of how I live, though. For example, the ride into St. Jouin is mostly easy enough, but there's enough of a climb into St. Jouin that many people are surprised when I tell them that I cycle all the way up it. Overall it's about 18 km/h there, and 22 km/h back. In old money, that's 11 and 14 mph.
Several things come out of this. The first is that even if I need cities, I don't have to live in them: as long as I can get to one, that's enough. The only city I could even consider moving to now is Arles, and even then, my enthusiasm diminishes by the year.
When you live in a village, cities look increasingly frenetic. This is in Loudun, hardly a mega-metropolis, but the sheer proliferation of signs is very citified.
The second is that the idea of abolishing private transport is, for those of us who live in the country, something between risible and horrifying. Try carrying more than a very few kilos of groceries on a bicycle, even if you are young enough and fit enough for a 30-50 km round trip: 20-30 miles. When I was in my 20s I used to cycle to work and back, 8.7 miles (14 km) each way, but I don't think those days are likely to return, and besides, even if I were to cycle into Loudun to choose what I want to buy, and then ask for it to be delivered, that would mean being home for the delivery. Long gone are the days when Cook (or a slave) would answer the bell at the Tradesmen's Entrance: life ain't like that any more.
Of course I could order on line, but there are several disadvantages to this. There are still the problems of delivery times; if they are out of stock, it's much easier to look around for substitutes when I'm in the store (quite apart from the risk of their making unwanted and inappropriate substitutions without asking me); there is always the possibility of seeing something at the shop and changing my mind anyway; and besides, what sort of life is it when we live our indoors, tapping out our entire lives at a keyboard or pushing a mouse about on a pad?
July 14th, Bastille Day. The village turns out for a parade, with fireworks afterwards.
The third thing (which I wasn't fully expecting when I looked up the population figures) is that a “city” is much more a question of a state of mind than of population; or possibly, more a question of history. Loudun was founded in pre-Roman times and was known as Lugdunum, after the god Lug. There's a mediaeval donjon (the big rectangular tower in the middle of a castle), a magnificent church (St. Pierre), an even more magnificent ex-church now used as an exhibition space (St. Croix, 11th century), at least a couple of museums, a velodrome, and lots of other things including several quite good supermarkets such as Super U and Leader Price, the latter a sort of French equivalent of Lidl (there's a Lidl in Thouars). There's also a good butcher, as I said, and and the nearest we have to a whole-food store, Terre y Fruits. The population of Loudun has however been in decline for the last decade or more (it was over 10,000 at one time) and today it is about 6500: less than the “village” of Birchington.
The whole question of rural population is fascinating and not a little depressing. When I arrived in Moncontour in 2003 the gendarmes came to welcome me/check me out. For something to say, I asked the population of the village. It was much lower than I expected. They explained that about a third of the houses were occupied all year; about a third were second homes, mostly for Parisians; and about a third were for sale, or falling down, or both. I've since learned that by local standards, we're quite big. The population of St. Jouin de Marnes (of the baker and butcher) to our west is under 600; of Martaizé, about 8 km (5 miles) to the east, under 400; of Marnes, some 3 km to our south, under 300. Then again, we're something of a rural hub: medical centre, pharmacy, primary school, bank, post office, hairdresser, Co-Op, baker, café-bar, hotel-restaurant... Some of the smaller villages have none of these.
In all fairness, "habitable" is as much a state of mind as "city". The thick, soft stone of the region corrodes alarmingly. On the other had, they make up for it by using it in very large blocks: you can afford to lose quite a lot before it really matters. And its always reparable...
At the time of writing, about half a dozen habitable houses were for sale in Moncontour, and at a rough guess, at least half a dozen more could quite quickly be rehabilitated. The latter figure might actually be as high as two dozen or more; and some are worth virtually nothing. That's in one village, remember. Even a habitable house in a village like ours sometimes goes for under 50,000€, call it £45,000 or $60,000. At twice that, there is a wide choice: you might even get central heating, which isn't cheap or easy to install when you're looking at centuries-old walls that are a couple of feet thick and made of a mixture of stone and mud, often with some mortar mixed in. We don't have town gas, either. In the depths of winter we tend to huddle in front of our (wood) fire, or stay in the kitchen which has been warmed by the stove, and at night we greatly rely on our electric blankets and our wheaties; but all in all, it's not a bad place to live. In fact, I suspect that it is the best place I have ever lived as an adult. But I didn't move here until I was 52.
Where are these grotesques from? Nobody knows. They are one of the mysteries of Moncontour. They were almost certainly "liberated" from an old chapel; and when I say "old", I mean 600-800 years. We're good at recycling in the countryside...
In Part II I go on to consider a possible future for villages, and a different vision from the urbanization that has been predominant for over 100 years. You might also be interested in the background to the pictures in both parts of this article. Click on this link for information about the photography, and you will also find further links to short stories set in Moncontour
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