Back in the 80s, I lived in a squat. In Brixton. During the heat of the riots. Outside my bedroom window, in the house I shared with three other earring-wearing, spiky-haired, Clash-loving post-punks, was the flat roof of the kitchen. During the summer I used to roll-up my mattress like huge souvlaki kebab and lay it on the flat roof. I’d sleep the night outside, under the stars, listening to the wailing of horny foxes and the soft pitter-patter of burglars, trotting nefariously through our back gardens.
Although I’d already lived in the big city for a couple of years—and mad, all-night 24/7 city life was what I most desired—there was still a powerful urge to have some contact with the outdoors. No matter how badly the outdoors may have been infected by the sodium glare of streetlights and howl of car alarms.
A few years ago, in the bite of the March rain and gales, four mates from Essex decided to visit me in Wessex for a slice of the Dorset outdoors. They came to fish, but the wind blew and the sea was about as kindly as a bull terrier with bunions. The only alternative I could come up with was a day spent poking squirrel dreys in my wood and fishing for trout in my wind-blasted lake.
We built a fire in the woods. A fire of wet cordwood that took well over an hour to nurse into decent flames. We felled a couple of trees, whittled cooking sticks, and whooped with joy when James—the most promising with a fly rod—ran into the woods clutching a dead trout with all the tail-wagging enthusiasm of a spaniel with a mouth full of pheasant.
We cooked the trout, pinned open over the hot smoke of the alder wood fire, then ate it with our fingers, sucking the bones and picking the cheeks.
My mates—James, Rob, Ash, Nick and Mark—all had proper jobs; responsible jobs with salaries and annual holidays—things I can only dream of, but what they don’t have is access to the big outdoors. Even if you live within an hour’s drive of the countryside, it’s still tricky to gain real access to somewhere unseen, unregulated, unspoilt and unpoliced. To drive into the countryside, even to set out on a footpath ramble, still doesn’t have the tang of being able to hunt, kill, and cook your lunch in the impenetrable peace and privacy of an isolated wood.
Six hours of grubbing around on hands and knees building fires, cutting wood, gutting and cooking fish, made these guys laugh and provoked in them a mighty thirst.
Since I’ve owned a bit of land, which has only been for a couple of years, I realise what I’ve been missing. Brixton taught me a lot of things, but nothing I really value or use today. I learnt how to ‘hotwire’ an electric meter and could quote specific references to Housing Law. I knew where to buy anything from an ounce of grass to a bundle of funny money. I knew a Rasta from a Yardie and how to evade London bus fares. But, I still don’t know the names of 90% of the wild flowers that are blooming by my lake.
‘I think it’s important for children to grow up in the city,’—is what I’ve heard many of my old London friends say in justification for sending their child to school everyday by Tube. ‘If they live in a city, then they’ll grow up to be streetwise.’ I didn’t move to London until I was 19. I’d lived in hickest north Norfolk for much of my teens, but when I moved to London, I became ‘streetwise’ in a fortnight. It wasn’t difficult. Honestly. It didn’t require years of training. If anything, I learned to be too ‘streetwise’, too quickly.
The hardest part has been unlearning the streetsmarts and learning some ‘fieldsmarts’. If I’d spent more time during those years engaging with Nature rather than engaging with the underbelly of inner London, I’m sure it would have been a gentler learning curve.
But back in 1982 there was nothing cool about the countryside. No-one I knew yearned to live in the country. Amongst my bunch of spiky haired mates the countryside had zero kudos. Much as I secretly admired him, Jack Hargreaves held no cache amongst the post-punk rockers of the early 80s.
Now it’s so very different; the likes of Ray Mears, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, and a raft of outdoor survival shows have awakened a brand new image of all things country. My Essex mates are as city-loving, candle-at-both-ends-burning as I was, but they’re also able to enjoy both city and country without any sense of uncool. My country outings during my early 20s consisted purely of visits to muddy rock festivals, or camper van loads of mates out to scour the Welsh hills and valleys for magic mushrooms. The countryside was somewhere we’d go if we had good reason, if there was something we wanted to extract from it. Not because of any real sense of connection or admiration.
Come to think of it, it’s probably a very good thing that we didn’t have much of an urge to enjoy the coutryside, now that I live in the country, I can’t think of anything worse than me and a load of my mates, aged 23, arriving in this green and pleasant county. Brixton was probably the best place for us and I certainly drank-up enough of the Big Smoke in my time dwelling in inner city London, to satisfy me for a lifetime.