The tension between city and countryside, capital and regions, centre and periphery is ancient and probably inevitable, because of the uneven distribution of everything in human affairs. Its current pressure points include the possible independence of Scotland, resources for flood defences and—in the arts—the allocation of public funds between London and the rest of the country.
I spent yesterday in the Fens, visiting churches to test out an idea for a new regular marvel, and at a fine concert in a Norfolk village hall. The experience added to my sense that this binary opposition, easily reduced to a fight over resources, is just another dead end.
It was always unhelpful, because it caricatured society’s complex interdependency. But when movement and communication is easy (even in Fenland), it simply doesn’t reflect reality.
Last night’s concert was by an Irish singer, performing jazz arrangements of songs by Leonard Cohen. It was part of a tour that goes from Wick to St Austell, via Berlin and Ronnie Scott’s. The audience was mostly local, but some had come from Norwich and Ipswich – a good hour’s drive. Many of the villagers have moved there from other places, including London. Others are temporary residents, notably American military personnel working at the nearby airfields that contribute much to the area’s employment.
Between them, they organise professional and amateur arts events, while the local pubs and club are on Norfolk’s vibrant music scene. Village residents go to Norwich, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge, London and elsewhere to gigs, exhibitions and other cultural events. And I expect that some of them will be sitting down with Barack Obama and millions of others to watch the second series of House of Cards when it goes live on Netflix.
None of this fits easily into a simple opposition of central vs. regional life. That’s not to say that change isn’t needed or that the existing distribution of resources is right. But, in terms of its identities, cultures and interactions, Britain today must be one of the most diverse and complex yet known to history. It is really not well served by the kind of simplistic thinking so brilliantly satirised nearly 25 years ago in On The Hour:
It’s your region – you know where it is and how to spell its name. It’s a region with a character all of its own.
Man: Hello sir.
Reporter: My now, you have got a funny local accent. You don’t work with your hands for a living, by any chance, do you?
Man: No sir.
Reporter: I can tell actually, because even though you sound like a straw-sucking yokel, you do know who to call sir.
Man: Oh yes that’s right.
Reporter: Can you talk us through your choice of clothes when you get up on the morning?
Man: Just get dressed.
Reporter: Just get dressed like that.
Man: Oh yes that’s right.
Reporter: Well, you do seem jolly unsophisticated. What about music—how do you listen to music?
Man: Just listen to it. Relax with it on, sit back and hum them or whistle.
Reporter: D’you mean you don’t actually sit there and write it all down?
Man: Oh no.
Reporter: What a good old-fashioned serf you are. Thanks very much for taking the time to show us how backward everybody is around here. It really has been awfully funny.
Man: Thank you very much indeed.
On The Hour, 1/ 4 (first broadcast on BBC Radio 4, August 1991)