CITIES AND VILLAGES PART II: A VILLAGE FOR THE FUTURE
In the first piece on the relationship of cities and villages, I tried to give a realistic view of what it's like to live in rural France; or at least, in the rural north of the Aquitaine, where I live and where a 1000-year-old donjon crowns the village.
The Donjon that has stood over Moncontour since about 1020
Technically this makes us a bourg, a town beneath a castle, and our Mairie is not marked as a Mairie (town hall) but as an Hotel de Ville (a Ville is a city): the distinctions between cities, towns, bourgs, villages and even hamlets are flexible and not always observed. Recently, they have taken to flying three flags fabove our castle, which was built by Fulk de Nerreau in the early 11th century. They are those of Moncontour herself; of France; and of the European Union. Each of us is part of something greater. So far, so historical. But what of the future?
The Hotel de Ville, the former village school. The actual Mairie is the building on the right, an 18th century merchant's house, and the building on the left is the Donjon café-bar.
Now comes the inventive step, and a possible better future for (almost) everyone; “almost” because speculators, rentiers and other parasites might well find themselves worse off, though few other than themselves would shed tears. Suppose that a Universal Basic Income (UBI) were to be introduced. It's an idea that is becoming more and more popular and indeed is seen by many as inevitable in rich western societies. Suddenly, freed from the need to look for work, people could live in villages like this and do whatever they liked. Add in the idea of “homesteading” – restoring semi-derelict and even derelict buildings and gaining “sweat equity” in the process – and it's hard not to believe that people would want to move to the villages. Some, to be sure, would want to laze around and do nothing: to watch television all day, perhaps, though the attractions of French television are limited. But others would jump at the chance to practise their art, be it photography, writing, music, painting, sculpture... Even restoring houses, for that matter. I can't see the appeal myself, but some people love it.
Regardless of what you choose to do in a village, there are still plenty of opportunities for meeting other people in the community; and I do not use the word "community" in its current weak sense of people who have never seen each other. This is a typical communal dinner at a typical communal fair. Buy what you want from the various stalls, and eat it in company.
A couple of years ago I talked to the mayor about turning the village into an arts colony, albeit without the bit about UBI. Specifically (this was before Brexit) I asked how well he thought the village might welcome other Britons. He was fully open to an influx of artists, even British artists, and quite intrigued; but he couldn't see how to bring it about. No more can I. But introduce a UBI and suddenly the choices expand magnificently even if Brexit comes to pass and the British choose to isolate themselves.
Audience, concert, Moncontour. Which is better: people who have paid a lot of money for listening respectfully, or people who are enjoying themselves listening for nothing to local talent? The girl second from the left was brilliant at pulling faces, and a big advantage of a village is that people know who you are and where you live. Paranoia about paedophiles is greatly reduced, even if the girl on the far right was too shy to be photographed..
It's historically true that the arts have flourished principally in cities, but it's also historically true that there have been numerous “artists' colonies”. Especially with UBI, almost any village should be able to reinvent itself this way; the more if there were investment in rural transport by the re-opening of old railway lines, at the very least as cycle paths, and at best with electric rail-cars. Huge areas could simultaneously be regenerated and rendered ever more “green” while taking the pressure off cities. People could enjoy a much higher quality of life for much less money. Re-population of the villages might also lead to regeneration of at least some of the shops, and possibly to the establishment of more or less scattered specialist businesses: bicycle builders, for example, or even specialist market gardening, such as has apparently been enjoying a resurgence in Greece since the bail-outs. Elsewhere on the site there's a short story set in an imaginary Moncontour of the (fairly near) future, The New Gold Standard.
Mill, Moncontour. As far as I am aware, the building on the right is effectively uninhabited. You can see at least one of the massive cracks in the wall. Could it be made habitable? I don't know. But how much does it matter? Not every building has to be suitable for rebuilding and repurposing. Some of the countless outbuildings in rural France could be adapted. Others couldn't.
Admittedly there would be plenty who would regard the village life as purgatory rather than paradise, but what of it? No-one would be forcing them to move to the villages. This is why I decided to illustrate these pieces. Some will think, "Yes, I want that" and others will think, "Oh, God, no." If the latter want to spend their lives in the rat race, getting and spending, no-one is going to stop them. No-one would mind if they stayed in the cities, which should of course become pleasanter places to live with lower population densities. For that matter, of course, similar arguments could be applied to parts of some old industrial cities as apply to villages, especially “homesteading”. Of course, what looks awful when you're 25 may look a lot more attractive then you're 55.
Another great advantage of villages, and indeed of backwater cities such as Loudun, is that because land is not especially valuable, many handsome old buildings have escaped the wrecking ball and, now that we value our history more, will probably continue to escape it. Moncontour again.
A fair objection is that increasing the population of a village by 50% or more might involve the importation of a petty criminal or at least vandalistic element – think of graffiti – but even this is better addressed in a village than in a city. In a village of 500 or 1000 people, or even 2000, most people know one another: it's much harder to run away or to disappear than in a large, anonymous city.
In fact it's quite hard even in a city like Loudun, which might arguably define the upper limit of size for a “village”. A few years ago, three or four cars were stolen by joyriders and set on fire. The last fire was at 11 pm. By 3 am the culprits were all in police custody. And in the same city, again some years ago, there was an outbreak of graffiti at the Carrefour des Sourciers (the Crossroads of the Wizards), the confluence of a couple of mediaeval streets at the top of the hill where the donjon stands. It was soon cleaned up and it hasn't come back. By village standards, Loudun is big and noisy. After any modern city, it's a village. But as already noted, in practical terms, it's a very useful city, a commercial and cultural centre.
Still focusing on the drawbacks, there is always the possibility of some of the incomers being subjected to the sort of discrimination that falls short of vigilantism: a sort of collective disapproval. That can however happen anywhere, even on a suburban housing estate, and it is seldom totally random. Historically, every village had and has its “bad kids”, and usually a village drunk as well, but it is much easier to keep an eye on them and take care of them – even to help them, if they will accept help – if everyone knows who and where they are.
Bar football in the Hotel Coligny. Most people, no matter what their age, are basically decent and respond well to being treated like decent human beings.They are no keener than anyone else on people who are are not basically decent and do not respond well to being treated like decent human beings.
The above is no doubt utopian to some degree. Some will even condemn it as smacking of Polyanna. On the other hand, it's a possible future, and for many a desirable one. Unlike (for example) UKIP and Brexit fantasies, it is not purely retrogressive. Anyone who thinks we can go back to some idyllic past is simply mistaken. In the first place, the past wasn't all that idyllic. Ask anyone who lived through it. Even in the 1950s, the earliest times I can recall, grocery shopping involved going to numerous small and often not very good shops. Especially at the greengrocer's, you pretty much had to accept what the shopkeeper picked out for you. If you asked for a pound of apples, for example, they were rarely selected from the finest and shiniest examples at the front of the carefully crafted display, but rather, picked from the back where you couldn't see them. If you complained, you would be told that if they gave you all the best ones, it wouldn't be fair on other people. It would be hard to get away with that today. Prices often weren't marked, especially at the butcher's, so you wouldn't know what you were going to have to pay without asking; and even if they were marked, unless you were good at judging weights and cuts, you wouldn't know until it was cut and weighed. Compared with a modern supermarket, too, choice was minimal.
Not everything about today is perfect either. In the centuries before the invention of electric power and motor cars, our ancestors inexplicably failed to make provision for such things. Wiring in the villages can look a bit Indian. But hey: we have to live here, rather than just creating a theme park for visitors.
The same paucity of choice was true of fruit and vegetables, except perhaps in the biggest cities. There is plenty to be said for regarding avocados as something a luxury, but very little to be said for their being unobtainable. Aubergines aren't even much of a luxury, but they were rare or unobtainable too. And bell peppers. Or even decent Basmati rice. Rice was rice, and you used the same rice for puddings and to accompany curries (with sultanas in).
Not only was the past some way from idyllic: the world has changed, irrevocably and in many cases for the better. People have telephones, refrigerators and (in most cases, even if only via their smart phones) the internet. Their expectations are higher than they were even 50 years ago, let alone 200 years ago, and you can't put the genie back in the bottle.
The Citroen 2CV was designed just before WW2 and entered production in 1948. It is perhaps the ultimate European symbol of affordable, personal, motorized transport for the masses, unless you choose the Mobylette.
Above all, people expect to be able to go quickly, easily and relatively cheaply from one place to another, at least for a few tens of miles. A couple of hundred years ago, a round trip to Loudun would have been a major expedition involving several hours' walking or riding on a cart; though if you were rich you could ride a horse or use a carriage and cut the trip each way to an hour or two, depending on the state of the roads. When the train arrived in the late 19th century, a day trip to Loudun or even Poitiers would have become feasible, though few would have had the time or the money to take it at all often. Today, if I want (say) olive oil or tonic water, I can go to the Super U on the Moncontour road on the outskirts of the city; buy the oil; and be home again, all within an hour. It may be fairly expensive to run a car, but the marginal cost of a trip such as this is minimal.
It might indeed be possible to persuade people of the merits of cheap (ideally free) public transport, but the convenience of private vehicles is very high indeed, especially if you have to walk to the bus stop or the train station in the rain and then wait for your ride to come along; to say nothing of then having to get ten or twenty kilos of groceries (a modest weekly shop, especially if you buy a few bottles of wine) from the bus or train to your front door.
This is where small autonomous cargo vehicles, the sort of things now being used in some cities to deliver food, might really come into their own. They could charge in rows at the railway station; follow the shopper home, like a faithful dog; and then return under their own steam (or whirr) to the station. Until public transport is very cheap indeed, and pretty frequent, and makes it easier to shift moderately heavy loads, convenience will very often tip the balance towards private transport. This is especially true in the countryside, where distances are typically significantly greater than in the city and where a taxi or even a self-driving car might have to be ordered from some miles away.
Another view of the Donjon, with dirt road and woodpile
It would be perfectly feasible to ban private powered vehicles, or to tax them punitively, and you might even get away with it in a city; but in the villages such a move would (quite properly) be regarded as a tax on the poor. The rich and especially the second-home-owning rich could, after all, afford taxis. Few who live full-time in the villages run new cars, because there just is not the money about: if you see a new car, the chances are that it belongs to a second home owner. When it comes to another great urban fantasy, electric cars, charging is going to be a problem because in most ancient villages, parking is necessarily on the street: widespread ownership of carriages, let alone horseless carriages, was seldom envisioned half a millenium or more ago when the streets were laid out. Or rather than being laid out, came into being. Destroying a village to facilitate the charging of electric vehicles is clearly placing a doctrinaire vision of transport above the needs of people who actually live in the village..
Interior of Donjon (the castle, not the café-bar). It's mostly just an empty shell, but in one corner there is a staircase up to the roof: you can look out over the battlements. The first castle I remember from my childhood was Rochester, built after the Norman invasion in 1066. This is around half a century older.
To sum up, cities are not the only model for the future. Nor are electric vehicles. Nor, indeed, are... Well, most things, really. There is almost never a “one size fits all” answer to all the world's problems and opportunities, even if it sometimes seems that there is, at least to those lacking in imagination and living in cities and suburbs. There are other ways to live; and some of them are going to be better for both individuals and the planet as long as they are not touted as the only possible solution.
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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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2017