Proper Country | Ralf Webb | Granta

Proper Country

Ralf Webb

I am a moderately articulate member of my generation, state-schooled and Russell Group-educated, conversant in liberal discourse and conditioned, under the assumed threat of social exile, to hypervigilantly assess and critique my own spectatorship and relative ‘privilege’ in any given situation. And so, when I moved back to the West Country after almost a decade of life in London, I had my hackles up. On arrival to the village where I was to spend the next six months, I observed that it distilled something quintessential about the rural west, the landscape of my childhood and adolescence, that I’d sorely missed. It suggested a quieter, simpler existence: a life buttressed by beanpoles and wellington boots, life inside an almanac. But I understood that my interpretation of this pastoral mise en scène was condescending at best, and dangerous at worst. The rustic rural, I knew, is an illusion, a ‘myth functioning as memory’, as Raymond Williams put it, that has a vice-like hold over the national imaginary. All those rolling hills and deep green valleys – the gilded bales of hay and baaing lambs; the wisdom of farmworkers and simplicity of good country folk – these things are not entirely real. They exist in a country of the mind. The reality of rural living, I was to relearn, is far more complex.

My return wasn’t a return home, precisely. The house where I grew up was sold well over a decade ago, following my dad’s death. My mum and her new partner subsequently spent eight years living in neighbouring Gloucestershire, before relocating here, to a village on the Somerset–Wiltshire border, some ten miles from my home town and birthplace. This was a half-return, in a sense: I’d come back to a place that was proximate to the past without being completely saturated in it. Nor had the move occurred under happy circumstances; it was by necessity, not choice. Where some of my friends had emerged from the pandemic unscathed, where others had even thrived – securing promotions, getting married and buying houses – I found myself, at thirty-one, scarcely employed, broken-hearted, and unceremoniously shunted out of the capital. I considered this an unfair fate. I was a loser of the lockdown lottery, a rapidly ageing millennial, lousy with new-found and revivified neuroses, subject to the single tax and unable to gain any traction in my life in the midst of the cost-of-living crisis. I was in a slump, and wanted to stew in self-pity, alone.

My mum’s return to the area was less equivocal. She’d found a job in a charity shop in our old home town, which meant bumping into people from a previous life on a semi-regular basis: one-time acquaintances, the mothers and fathers of my former school friends. They’d rarely recognise her. The moment you step behind a till, she said, you become invisible to most people. But this unlikely bridge to our shared past cushioned my sudden arrival in her present: it gave us plenty to talk about. After work, she’d provide post-shift dispatches – ‘you’ll never guess who I saw in town . . .’ – and our conversation became rich with reminiscences, retelling local lore in order to restore our connection to it, and thereby each other. My stepdad wasn’t entirely left out of these discussions. He’d take great interest in the shop’s daily turnover, falling into deep thought when presented with the figure, as though the townspeople’s thrifting habits expressed something profound about the regional psyche.

My stepdad – a retired engineer who sets store by shoe polish, Rothmans Silver, and his Black & Decker Workmate – seemed surprisingly easy-going about my arrival. And although he’d make quips about charging me fifty pence per shower and whatnot, I had to foist rent and bill money on him. There was no confusion in our relationship. He was wise enough – or kind enough – not to adopt an artificial role of paterfamilias, and for the most part we let each other be. I’d spend all day shut away in the back half of the converted garage, where a bar stool and knackered vanity table, elevated by stacks of books, constituted a makeshift office; he’d spend most of his time in the front half of the garage, where he’d established a workshop of sorts; the two of us separated by a thin plasterboard wall – and forty years.

But we came together at the dinner table, where our dynamic took on a different shape. He and I would occasionally find ourselves entangled in bitter disagreements over whatever happened to be in the headlines, each of us assuming the mandatory, opposing positions that culture wars, by design, encourage us to adopt. Often, I was more annoyed by the fact I couldn’t convince him to alter his opinion on a given issue than I was passionate about the issue at hand. These disagreements would dog us for days, and conversation all but stopped. Neither of us acknowledged this tension, relying on the only woman of the house to re-establish equilibrium through maintaining a state of steady, reliable domesticity, despite the fact she was the only one of us also doing shift work.

My mum and stepdad’s house lies on the outskirts of the village. It’s an ivy-eaten, post-war ex-council property surrounded by cropland, precariously placed on the side of a B-road, one of two such roads which, like cross hairs, bisect the wider parish. Along them, boy racers chase annihilation in souped-up hatchbacks, trailing clouds of vape smoke from souped-up vaporisers; while tractors, articulated lorries and army vehicles from the nearby MOD base tear up the tarmac. Despite its modest appearance, the house is sizeable. It has ‘good bones’, according to my stepdad. The gargantuan back garden leads onto flat fields, which stretch for several miles, before an escarpment cuts across the horizon: the site of an Iron Age hill fort, stamped with a white horse. When they moved in, my stepdad was tasked with taming the interior. He repainted and re-floored the entire house, and sourced electricians to do a wholesale rewiring, slipping bundles of cash into their palms (‘the old-fashioned way’) so they could pocket the VAT.

My mum focused her energy on the garden, pick-axing away bamboo and reseeding the lawn, which was covered in dead patches from where the previous owner’s dogs had pissed and bleached the grass. There was also the matter of the hot tub, installed atop a cement slab in the far corner, which absolutely had to be removed. The very existence of the hot tub was perplexing. She – and I, by extension – are from modest, Protestant stock, former members of the aspirant lower-middle classes, and allergic to ostentation of any kind. What kind of people, we wondered, would spend money on such a luxury, let alone have the temerity to install it out in the open air?

Finally, there were vermin. Rats had taken up occupancy under the rotten timber decking, and needed to be eradicated. Every conceivable tactic short of witchcraft was deployed: traps, poisons, ultrasonic rat repellents, culminating in my stepdad standing watch with his air rifle. He would sit outside, puffing away, sight trained on the rat runs – of which my mum, with the cunning of a military tactician, had sketched detailed blueprints – ready to squeeze the trigger. It took some time, but eventually the rats were exterminated.

The village proper is hidden down a hairpin lane half a mile from the house. There are Bath-stone weavers’ cottages, a large farm and its attendant outbuildings, an impressive manor house, and a small church that dates to the 1400s. Its serene graveyard is full of crumbling tombstones, spattered with fallen yew berries, like so many little drops of blood. In an overgrown meadow lives a nag nicknamed ‘Boots’, his face permanently concealed by a fly mask. The place could be described as a chocolate-box village, if not for the dozen or so modern homes of truly epic proportions that also line its single street, whose driveways are stacked full of SUVs and Teslas, and puncture any illusion that the village never escaped the nineteenth century. There’s also a pub, set back from the B-road and ensconced by towering poplar trees. In gentle wind, the leaves flash like shoals of fish. good food, garden, real ales reads the sign, five words that spell paradise to the old boys who occupy the locals’ half of the bar. The beer garden is usually quiet, criss-crossed by apple-fat fairy lights, with a flag of England strung limply on a flagpole. If an inquisitive drinker were to wander round the back, they would find, stowed away beneath a lean-to, three wooden statues carved from tree trunks: racist caricatures of Black jazz musicians, replete with exaggerated facial features.

At the last census, the population of the wider parish was three hundred. Ninety-eight per cent are white, the majority over fifty, and most identify as Christian (the Islamic faith is represented by a single self-identified Muslim). As though to allay any doubt as to the parish’s denomination, a man-size timber crucifix stands at the crossroads. It used to be a source of great local pride, until its century-old, metre-tall, solid bronze statue of Jesus – complete with bronze ‘holy nails’ for rivets – was stolen several years ago. The Jesus heist was no hack job, I learned, but had been carefully planned, and the culprits are rumoured to be local. Not local local – it’s inconceivable that anyone’s immediate neighbour would have committed such heresy – but from one of the less affluent towns nearby.

The closest bank, supermarket, post office, and doctor’s surgery are located in a much larger riverside town five miles away, which is almost completely inaccessible except by car. There is a bus, but it makes just one journey to the town per day, departing at an ungodly hour in the morning and returning at noon. Despite this economical schedule, it is so unreliable that no one bothers to use it. In short, this is proper country – or ‘the sticks’, as my stepdad would say – isolated and relatively cut off.

When I arrived in autumn, the village was undergoing two seismic changes. First, the landlord of the pub and his family were leaving the area for good. This barrel-chested, blue-eyed, ruddy-faced innkeeper – the kind of man for whom several pints would constitute an aperitif – had helmed the pub for many years, and his departure was lamented. The pub lay empty for a month before the new landlords moved in, a younger, married couple from Bulgaria. The gravity of the second change to village life can hardly be overstated: a family of Travellers had bought a plot of land from the farmer up Love Lane, behind the pub, and established residence, precipitating an immediate, parish-wide panic.

Anyone who has spent any time lingering in ‘proper country’ will understand this point. The Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are the target of a seething, unconcealed racial hatred, and pejoratives and slurs directed towards them flow freely from the lips of even the most progressive ruralite. With the Travellers’ arrival came discussion and debate. How many were there? Had the landlord left because of them? Were the Bulgarians somehow wrapped up in it all? In this mire of confusion and suspicion, the hand-wringing wetwork of local government got going, and the council sought legal advice to evict the Travellers. The Bulgarian landlords, meanwhile, were met with a frosty reception. In a Scrooge-like, cringing retreat, the villagers withdrew their patronage in those dreary winter months, leaving the future of the pub uncertain. It was a potentially disastrous act of community self-harm. A pub, after all, is one of the few ‘British’ institutions whose reality often lives up to its promise: a place of refuge, warmth and sociability – literally a public house – that lends soul and substance to a given neighbourhood. That the locals, so unnerved by our friends from the East, were content to let the beating heart of the community bleed out was astonishing. Even the five old boys decamped from their stools. Business, however, began to pick up again after two men from the family of Travellers started making regular visits: a reluctant realignment of villagers to public house that seemed more about reclamation than anything else.

One regular kept showing up, even throughout the pub’s fallow period. A man in his sixties, whose milk-white pallor suggested a dire need for sun exposure, yet whose insistence on wearing a polo shirt and shorts, regardless of inclemency, implied that he lived, in his imagination, in the Mediterranean; an impression underscored by the ancient-looking coupé he drove. This pale patron would appear almost nightly, accompanied by an older woman, presumably his mother, who seemed unable to actually go into the pub due to restricted mobility. Thus, the man would skip into the bar, emerge with two gin and tonics, return to the coupé, set them on the dash, mix the drinks, hand one to his mother, whereupon they’d clink glasses and drink, staying in the car the entire time.

My mum, stepdad and I would visit the pub perhaps three times a week throughout my tenancy, and my mum and I were quick to pick up on the pale man’s routine, deeming it ‘strange behaviour’. Perhaps we felt it necessary to put a distance between us and them. After all, our own routine was not all that different, was, in fact, a direct echo: she and I were merely a couple of decades behind. In making this judgement, we hoped to suppress the feeling that my return ‘home’ had set us both sleepwalking towards a future that resembled their present, which, we presumed, with no evidence but our own projected fear, was an unhappy one. Never mind that our routine was already more eccentric than theirs. We’d always opt to sit outside, for instance, even in the pouring rain, our collective desire to light up outweighing the minor discomforts of sodden clothes, cold hands and wind-blown hair. ‘This is nice,’ my mum would say, sincerely, as the rain lashed us. My stepdad would justifiably grumble, draped in an outsize raincoat, sage as a monk, the enormous hood shielding half his face, forming a dark crater out of which billowed smoke and cigarette ash.

The pale man and his mother sat in the coupé watching us, dry as a bone.

Our pub visits provided us with an opportunity for small talk. This usually amounted to regurgitated bits of news skimmed from a variety of sources: Sky News (stepdad), Channel 4 (my mum), Twitter (me). Each of us, for our own reasons, were casually boycotting the BBC. Later, at the dinner table, galvanised by cold cuts and excesses of mashed potato, this small talk would grow into something approaching dialogue in its truest sense, by which I mean an exchange of ideas. But the conversation was not exactly eloquent. With the generational gap, the unspoken and rarely tabled political leanings of each interlocutor, and my stepdad’s partial deafness and oft-malfunctioning hearing aids, misunderstandings and misdirection were rife.

Talk on the climate crisis, for example, might start well enough. It went like this: ‘The human race doesnt need any help,’ my stepdad said, ‘in killing ourselves. We’re perfectly capable of doing so alone.’ This was more or less a catchphrase of his, and although I’d heard it three dozen times in as many days, I nodded my head solemnly in agreement. But this didn’t sit well with my mum, who, while acknowledging the dire straits we’re all in, preferred to emphasise optimism over pessimism. Bored, impatient, leg jittering up and down, I saw this disagreement as the perfect opportunity to soapbox. Our obsession with extinction, I said, is really a desire for it; the truth is that, like the Žižek screencap I saw on IG, we’re all ‘perverts secretly horny for the apocalypse’. This stunned them into silence, enabling me to dig in my discursive heels. It’s your generation’s fault, I went on, luxuriating in a pose of bratty, latter-day teenage angst. What they’re really mourning in their talk of climate apocalypse is their lost innocence, the innocence with which they sauntered through their lives blasting aerosols and burning diesel and manufacturing crap, an innocence that my generation never fully possessed. This is why the most vociferous XR members, I argued, are the retired, middle-class ones: they can’t come to terms with their loss of innocence, and through protest hope to occupy the morally pure position of the white knight, and thereby reclaim it.

By this point my stepdad had, understandably, checked out, and was instead focusing on migrating a heaped spoonful of mashed potato from the serving bowl to his plate without spilling any. My mum and I continued the debate. Though she questioned whether my last point about older XR members was even true – it sounds like something you just made up, she said – I was convinced my diatribe, like the expanding-brain meme, was reaching its apotheosis. It’s mourning all the way down, I went on, the ‘olds’ only care about progeny and bloodlines and the fate of their inheritances; they try to convince you you’re a heartless monster if you can’t empathise with the future lives of George Monibot’s speculative grandchildren, or whatever.

Monbiot,’ my mum corrected me.

‘Robots?’ asked my stepdad. ‘Are you talking about that article on AI?’

‘What?’ I asked.

Monbiot,’ said my mum, ‘we’re talking about Extinction Rebellion.’

‘Lot of radicals!’ he said.

When we talked like this, it felt as though we were speaking in a different language entirely, a private language, a wonderful kind of gobbledygook, and I thought that if anyone overheard us – if the neighbour was eavesdropping on the other side of the wall – they’d think we were literally mad.

Id expected a certain amount of friction between me and my stepdad before I moved back. Apart from being an interloper, only emerging from a state of near-catatonic depression to crack wise at the dinner table, I was also an anomaly. My very existence complicated his understanding of the workings of the world. It was difficult for this man, who had retired after a fulsome career unmarred by redundancies or demotions, to fully comprehend what my ‘job’ as a freelance arts admin journeyman entailed. Still more difficult to explain that this was merely a meal ticket, that my actual, burgeoning career – I hoped – was as a quote-unquote writer; and that, despite not making much money doing either, I seemed intent on doing both. Nor could I explain to him that my entire professional world existed inside a screen, or that, when I appeared comatose, staring goggle-eyed at my phone, I was really trying to nurture the only social life available to me out there in ‘the sticks’. I’d help him navigate the digital-by-default facts of modern bureaucracy – obligatory online banking, QR codes in lieu of parking tickets, medical data locked within impenetrable NHS apps, and so on – but my obvious tech-fluency only accentuated his tech-illiteracy. Though I shared his opposition to digitisation, I had the luxury of doing so in the abstract, freaked out by the demonic data harvesting and surveillance of all these devices, yet insulated from the exasperation and alienation that comes from being unable to interface seamlessly with them. Exasperation because the vernacular of daily life had outpaced him; alienation because no one, nothing, cared or made allowances.

Though I’d long assumed this former pheasant shooter and Antiques Roadshow enthusiast was a cut-and-dried Conservative, the truth was more elaborate. I came to learn that although he is a monarchist, he is also secular, and actively detests the institution of the Church. Despite flip-flopping between Labour and the Conservatives for most of his voting life, he would choose to identify as a Communist, if only Communism actually worked. In his view, rail, water and electricity should be nationalised, but any politician who suggests as much is likely a far-left extremist and can’t be trusted. He voted for Brexit but wishes he hadn’t, considers the Tories ‘crooks’ and ‘racketeers’, and will, more likely than not, spoil his ballot at the next general election. His not-unjustified, free-floating disgruntlement at the state of the world would, occasionally, require a host off which to feed, something concrete to latch on to. At times, it latched on to the Travellers, what the villagers – aiming for diplomacy, but achieving dehumanisation – had come to term ‘the situation’. Though he didn’t display the same fervour about their presence that I knew others in the village had, he expressed support for their eviction, and we argued about it intensely.

As spring came around and I prepared to move out of the village – a room had come up in a friend’s flat in Bristol – the parish councillors and their solicitor, a coffee-stained pen-pusher from two towns over, mounted a legal challenge against the Travellers. The argument went that they were attempting to establish permanent residence, but hadn’t gone through the requisite channels to do so – planning applications and so forth – and therefore should be evicted. After a site visit and public hearing, for which the Travellers had their own legal representation, the council’s challenge failed, and it was found that no laws were being broken. This didn’t end the issue. While the councillors sought to regather strength, new arguments and rumours about the Travellers circulated through the village.

A particularly fierce one emerged that they were involved in hare-coursing – an illegal blood sport where greyhounds are sent to hunt hares – though, of course, there was no evidence to support this. But the rumour found traction with my mum, who has a deep and profound appreciation of wildlife. We rarely discussed the so-called ‘situation’ in blunt terms – it was a volatile subject – but I’d sensed, over the winter months, that she was as discomfited by the presence of the Travellers as she was by the fact of feeling discomfited. In this uneasy position, her instinct towards empathy – ‘Everyone,’ she said, ‘needs somewhere to live’ – was at risk of being overcome by the social contagion of hatred that had infected the village. This hare-coursing rumour threatened to be the tipping point, even though I knew she understood that the difference between hunting hares in the field and shooting rats in the rat runs is only one of scale and reward. Sensitivity to such hypocrisy wasn’t shared by members of an infamous, ostensibly ‘trail only’ local hunt, which counts among its ranks policemen, a former MP, and a prominent parish farmer. At the very same time that the hare-coursing rumour emerged, huntsmen had been secretly filmed in their tweed finery and velvet-covered Hamptons flushing a live fox from a den and throwing it to their hounds to be killed.

What is it about the Travellers that so perturbs the villagers? Why do they accuse them of invented crimes; not least ones they are guilty of committing themselves? Why do they want them gone? Whatever the cause of this hatred, it is surely not rooted in reality. For the Travellers living along Love Lane in a patch of field completely hidden from view are peripheral to the village; the villagers have no direct contact with them. None of us know anything about their lives; we do not offer them chickens’ eggs in gestures of neighbourly goodwill; we do not even know their names. The hatred towards them arises from the imagination, diffuse as vapour, to hang in little clouds of fear above our heads.

The villagers consider themselves prosperous and clean; the Travellers, they must imagine, are neither. The villagers are sure of their own skin colour, but they are uncertain of the Travellers’. And we live in a society in which the operative power of one’s rights – one’s right to make a home, to go about one’s life with dignity – corresponds to wealth and race. The villagers understand this, even if only intuitively, and so they cannot allow the Travellers to establish a home, however temporary. It would seem to pervert this principle of belonging, and it is this principle that gives the village its meaning and coherence. The arrival of the Travellers forced an unwanted introspection, forced the villagers to consider – if only for a moment – that their green and pleasant land, this 98 per cent white, Protestant pastoral, simply is not absolute; it is only a single strand in the communal mesh, intertwined with and inseparable from other ways of life.

Any departure from my mum and stepdad’s house is attended by their neighbour, a live-alone widow approaching ninety, popping her head out of the bedroom window like a cuckoo in a clock to ask where we’re going. This doesn’t feel as intrusive as it might seem, in part because she will, without fail, offer valedictions and well-wishes, no matter how small or trivial the journey. The day I moved out, she shouted down to me that she had prayed, together with her cat, that my move would go well, and that I’d be happy in my new living situation. Like most of the villagers, once you get to know her, she is kind and warm-hearted. That their generosity should be delimited by prejudice is a reality I struggle to accept. With the panic of a man clinging to the tail end of his youth, I worry that such diminishment of spirit correlates to getting older: that as the years pass by, a chronic lack of inquisitiveness sets in, an ossification of attitude, a hardening rather than a softening of one’s edges.

This isn’t a fear about becoming aged, exactly, but a premonition that the longer I live the more complacent and fatigued I’ll become, the more willing I’ll be to see threats where there are none, to interpret the world superficially, to withhold generosity and aggressively defend that which I think of as mine. The rural West Country, after all, is where I’m from. It is a part of me, and so too is this village, in all its Christendom and homogeneity. The old nag in the meadow kicks up dust, and the light glints off the poplar trees as though some celestial mason were taking a chisel to the atmosphere. In the pub the old boys, over pints of golden ale, talk about yields and storms. And around back, all our secrets and shameful fears are covered in cobwebs under the lean-to, out of sight but not entirely out of mind.


Photograph © Naomi Wood

Ralf Webb

Ralf Webb is a poet, writer and editor whose work includes the poetry collection Rotten Days in Late Summer. His non-fiction debut Strange Relations will be published in spring 2024.

Photograph: Fondation Jan Michalski © Tonatiuh Ambrosetti 

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