Pastoralism

Better Than a Real Estate Guide

Bibury-village-Cotswolds

In an earlier post, I went on in great length about where I could and couldn’t live, and why (hint: if you think your medium-sized city is attractive to me, think again).  For those of you who are terminally time-strapped or just lazy, I’ll give you the Cliff Notes version: Big, big cities (think ten million or more) anywhere or tiny, tiny villages in some civilized piece of Europe.

I don’t need to know too much about big cities, because I’ve been to a whole bunch of them and lived in a few.  They are, essentially, all alike across continents and cultures, and, if you have the means, all can be enjoyed.

But villages…  the last time I lived in anything resembling a village, I was a young child.  And even that was more a pastoral suburb than a real village.  I can’t visit a village in Argentina because they are different from the ones I like, and whenever I’m in Europe, I tend to spend all my time in Art museums or lake Como, so I don’t get to check out real villages.

So I did what I always do in these cases:  I bought a book.  And I’m so glad I bought it that I’m going to tell you all about it.

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The book is called The Most Beautiful Villages of England by James Bentley and with photographs by Hugh Palmer, and it does just what it says on the tin.  It’s a visual tour of some of the prettiest little collections of houses you’ll ever see.

Are they the most beautiful in England?  I really don’t know.  I’m certain the authors thought so, but I’m equally certain that, somewhere in the Costwolds, the inhabitants of some picturesque village get together once a year to protest the snub of not being included by pushing pins into voodoo dolls of the estimable Messrs Bentley and Palmer.  You can’t please everyone.

But you can please the reader, and this book is very good at that.  It’s a warm sensation knowing that, if I want to enjoy looking at pictures of English villages, I don’t have to do so on a screen – this is probably EXACTLY the kind of book that is saving dead-tree publishing.  It’s not possible to enjoy it the same way electronically, no matter how wired to your PC you might be.

Apart from the sheer visual beauty, you get a good walkthrough of the history of the featured villages, which are often chilling.  Why?  Because the pretty, picturesque parts of these places were generally built to house people who “belonged” to the land.  The real country swells lived in the big house on the hill, the one with lawns tended by seven hundred gardeners costing the earl a grand total of three pounds, two shillings a year.

Now, of course, they are just beautiful places, and it’s better that way.

England is probably the best place for tiny villages – although both France and Italy will get their due consideration if I can ever write a novel that spends the better part of a year at number one on the NYT bestseller list and simply move away from the faster-paced life I currently “enjoy” – right after I get tired of Tahiti, of course. I spent hours poring over this book trying to chose which village would produce the best writing if I had to walk its streets and look at its scenery every day.

And that, of course, is the crux of it all.  I know many writers in rural areas want to hit it big and move to New York.  I spend plenty of time in New York every year, and yes, it’s a wonderful place (my recommendation to writers who make it big is to buy the Park-view apartment from Devil’s Advocate), but having lived my entire life in a place just as big and bustling means that my own ideal place to wrestle with the follow up to whatever novel made me famous – and all the pressure that comes with that – would be a leafy back garden, preferably with a stream running through it somewhere in England.  I could happily spend a summer writing there.  This book has given me a couple of places to look into when that happens.

In winter, of course, look for me in Tahiti.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  He is probably best known as the author of Siege.

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Et in Arcadia Ego

John Reinhard Weguelin: A Pastoral (1905)

Whenever anyone asks me if I’d live in a certain place, I generally pause for a second and try to understand the type of city on offer before responding.  Over the years, I have found that my honest answers tend to gravitate towards two extremes: places like New York and places like Ysbyty Ifan*.

Essentially, this seems to mean that I enjoy living in huge megacities or in tiny villages or rural towns with not much in between.  The megacities, require little explanation.  You’ll have decent museums, opera, retail and basically everything else civilized life requires (even bidets in many cases) at a world-class level.  Normally, these cities are the repository of national treasures or at least the best stuff in each country.  The art museums in New York or Paris are much better than the ones in Chicago or Lyon (and yes, I am aware of the Art Institute).  Likewise the rest of the cultural, gastronomic and retail experience – not to mention the fact that most companies you’d want to work for have offices in the bigger cities.  And the megacities are immensely cosmopolitan, while medium-sized towns only think they’re sophisticated.

So, medium-sized cities are out, then, but why this preference for the smaller places?  How come I’d happily spend my days staring at a stream in some village whose location in the English countryside only makes sense as a medieval watering hole for horses, or alongside lake Como, or in a French agricultural town?

The people who criticize me most, of course, are those that live in San Francisco, as they think everyone should like it as much as they do.  The fact that I don’t, and that I think it’s a bit too American and not global enough leads to anger, which turns to disbelieving rage when I then turn around and admit that I’d happily live in a village whose inhabitants might not even have heard of the concept of passports and other countries.

But life without amenities only works if you truly strip everything to the bare bones.  Medium sized cities have all of the frustrations of the large ones without the benefits.  I always thought that that was the reason behind the extreme nature of my preferences.

But upon further analysis, it becomes evident that humans have always been looking for that lost pastoral paradise, and it is a recurring theme in everything from religion to secular art.

The most obvious example, of course, is the Garden of Eden.  As a species, it’s pretty clear that humans have felt overwhelmed by the frantic pace of modern life and the loss of innocence ever since Mesopotamian times (the Eden myth has it roots in an earlier mesopotamian legend).  Though little recorded evidence has been left behind, it’s easy to imagine ancient Babylonians complaining about them newfangled sails: “If Marduk had intended Man to navigate without rowing, he wouldn’t have invented slaves, I tell you!”

Claude Lorraine: Pastoral Landscape

It never stopped.  In classical antiquity, the name of the pastoral Greek region of Arcadia was borrowed to represent a back-to-nature utopia, and it informed quite a bit of renaissance art.  William Shakespeare, of course, famously used a pastoral setting in his comedy As You Like It, which idealizes the throwing off of the chains of court life for a country setting – in fact, many of The Bard’s romantic scenes take place out in the boondocks somewhere.

After Shakespeare, the Pastoral movement in art and literature had its ups and downs in Western culture, but survived to the end of the 19th century – even unto that ultimate loss of European innocence, the Great War.

Cotswold Village

World War I effectively ended the tradition, but added even more of a sense of loss to modern elegies – it marked the end of nobility as a social structure, with all that that implied.  We’ve gone into this before when dealing with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but the search for simpler times in the twentieth century went far deeper than just a few Oxford laments or Finzi-Continis.  Hippies were essentially pastoralists trying to shoehorn their anxiety about modern complexity into 1960s cities (which explains their failure to gain much traction among “regular” people in the US who were involved in a clash of civilizations with a still-strong Soviet Union).

Postmodern pastoralism is, of course, dismissed by modern philosophers as a delusion for the privileged (or perhaps a privilege of the deluded).  It’s intimately tied to the image of German bankers taking their helicopter to their French chateau retreat – or English lords driving their Range Rovers away from Parliament and into the mile-long drive of their stately manor.

Unlike the philosophers, I find both of these options admirable**, but I would actually go one step further and remove the bank or Parliament altogether.  If you’re going to aim for a relaxed existence, why bother with the distractions (yes, I know it may be necessary to rob an armored car in order to gain the capital to allow this, but today, let’s forget both minutiae and morality).

Even more than the economics and decadence, I believe that postmodernism frowns upon this because having an appreciation for the Pastoral implies both the sophistication to understand what that ideal means and the willingness to throw off socialist ideals of urban life and egalitarianism.  Anyone who can both choose and afford to remove themselves from the urban tapestry of enlightened society is clearly a dangerous non-systemic element…

Most readers of this blog DO fall into that category anyway.  And while your budget may not stretch to that chateau, there’s nothing wrong with a thatched cottage in the Cotswolds or a nice stone house in Champagne when you tire of the hustle and bustle of Shanghai or Sao Paulo.

And if anyone looks at you askance, just tell them that a whole bunch of renaissance painters, plus Shakespeare agree with you.

*It’s in Wales, if you were wondering.

**If this offends you, you should really have read the Classically Educated Manifesto before reading the article…