Sunday, March 24, 2013

Liking the idea of liking the countryside

“It’s very pretty and suits urban people who don’t particularly like the countryside but like the idea of liking it,” James Hanning, a co-author of “Cameron: Practically a Conservative,” said of the Cotswolds, the hills that include Chipping Norton.
That quote is from Amy Chozick's piece in today's New York Times about Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire, the area that includes David Cameron's constituency in Witney.  Chozick begins her piece, which appears in the Fashion & Style section, with this:
The power centers of British politics and media may reside in London, but their tentacles extend to a tiny working-class market town with rows of glistening stone buildings, 17th-century pubs and a medieval church. 
This politically conservative Tory stronghold in rural Oxfordshire, with its green hills dotted with sheep and cottages with slate roofs, is in some ways London’s amped-up version of the Hamptons — if President Obama, David Axelrod and Rupert Murdochwere neighbors and went horseback riding and ate suppers together.
Chozick also quotes Alastair Campbell, communications director for former (Labour Party) Prime Minister Tony Blair:
If you go to Chipping Norton, there are farm laborers and miners. But if you really breathe in the essence of the place, it’s what you imagine David Cameron being.
I don't think of the Hamptons as rural, but this story reminds me of the ways in which rich Americans consume the countryside--at least certain amenity-rich segments of it--as in New England and the West.  They seem often to be attracted to a faux rural, one with picturesque main streets associated with rural gentrification .... but without, ahem, some of the downsides of agriculture and "unenlightened" neighbors.  I am reminded of this quote from a 1991 Maryland case, County Commissioners of Carroll County v. Zent:
Circumstances which are accepted as natural and normal incidents of a rural society by those who are nurtured by an agrarian environment do not always match the expectations of bucolic life anticipated by suburbanites as they move out to the countryside. While new residents may well expect, and accept, vistas of fields of waving grain, pastural [sic] scenes of dairy cattle on the hillside and the rustic ambiance of the pond and wetlands area in the meadows, they sometimes belatedly discover that the plow precedes the grain, manure accompanies the cattle, mosquitoes infest the ponds, and the products of the fields and animal husbandry must go to market.
587 A2d 1205 (Md. Ct. of Special Appeals 1991).  At issue in the case was rural residents’ operation of a junkyard, contrary to zoning laws, which the court held legal as a long-standing, non-conforming use.

This set who "like the idea of liking the countryside" have been called "nouveaux rustiques" by Brian Donahue (2001).  They also remind me of the work of Greg Fulkerson and colleagues at SUNY Oneonta who have written of the rural simulacra, using nearby Cooperstown, New York as an illustration.  See more here and here.

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