View from the Bridge: 66

by John Morrison


66: Second Thoughts

You need to be a farmer - or a certified insomniac - even to think of watching early-morning television. The farming programmes used to present the livestock prices. But now, with the future of hill-farming looking so bleak, auction prices just make farmers depressed. Instead, in an effort to send agricultural folk off to work with a light step and a song in their heart, the farming programmes have become relentlessly upbeat.

What nobody could have anticipated, though, was the instant appeal of You've Been Farmed : a cheap and cheerful montage of camcorder clips, based on Jeremy Beadle's ground-breaking show. Red-faced farmers are laughing themselves silly at these amusing and possibly unrehearsed vignettes of country life: accidents with hay balers, children falling into middens, and cross-species sexual encounters hilariously interrupted by a disgruntled farmhand with a hand-held video.

The jokes are lost on the beleaguered Smallholder family, for whom the fabric of rural life is unravelling at a startling rate. Now it's looking pretty threadbare. They're appalled by their farming neighbours, an antipathy that seems to be mutual. When they first arrived they had been gratified to find, on more than one occasion, that some local worthy had left a brace of pheasants in the Smallholders' porch. But those days are gone. If their farming neighbours leave anything now, it's more likely to be the steaming contents of a fully-laden slurry tank decanted provocatively in front of the double garage.

Aspects of country life that initially seemed quaint and endearing now merely irritate. For one thing, it's so bloody noisy . Farmers never talk to each other; they shout . Their dogs bark all night. Even the monotonous bleating of grazing sheep can exacerbate Mrs Smallholder's migraines.

The countryside doesn't, after all, smell of fabric softener - especially when the wind is from the south. Mr Smallholder realises, too late, why their farmhouse had remained empty for so long before they moved in. When he asks his immediate neighbour whether it is really necessary to have so many dead animals around the place, the answer is hardly reassuring. The farmer shrugs his shoulders, noncommittally: "Nahhh", he says, "it's just a perk for the men".

Mr Smallholder is confused by the dumb insolence of his neighbours. He'd been looking forward to having a few picturesque yokels around the place, to add a sense of scale and a little local colour to the rural scene. But they don't even doff their caps to him, or, if they do, it's merely to wave them in a sarcastic parody of deference. Instead of doing unspeakable things to semi-domesticated animals, they should be leaning on gates, chewing straw and giving misdirecting lost motorists. For a man who spends his working hours surrounded by toadies, lackeys and lickspittles, it's disheartening to come home each night to nothing but scorn, slurry and sedition.

After a few months of attempted integration the Smallholders are spending more and more of their leisure hours with other disgruntled exiles from the city. Liquor-fuelled evenings when they can let down their defences and admit that the much-vaunted attractions of country life are just lies and innuendo, propagated shamelessly by estate agents and the editors of glossy lifestyle magazines. Amongst friends they mutter conspiratorially about terse, unfriendly farmers who seem to appear - at any moment, without warning, their clothes in disarray - from sheep-fold and byre.

Talk usually turns to the attractions of the city: the very same lifestyle the Smallholders were so keen to abandon just a few months before. Shallow, meaningless relationships with other over-paid financiers never looked as good as they do now.

One Monday morning, late for a meeting, Mr Smallholder is hurtling through Milltown. Momentarily distracted by his car-phone (just another double glazing salesman), he manages to miss a jay-walking freemason by inches, but only by mounting the pavement and wiping out a bus-queue of pensioners. As he prises the last shopping bag out of the bull-bars, he suddenly sees the folly of his ways. There's no time to waste: he storms into the estate agent's office. "You know that farmhouse you sold me six months ago?..." The lady behind the counter nods apprehensively. "...Well, put the bloody thing up for sale again. And phone an ambulance; I'm late enough as it is...".

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