The country is an abstraction. Lin Sampson believes that if you do the maths you can extract from it what you need.
We are in the country, yippee! The Aga is on (it has taken three people and most of the night to get it working), a Karoo lamb is gently roasting. The vegetables are beyond green. Outside, hens peck and in a nest of straw lies that most perfect of objects, a new-laid egg.
There’s a lot of rustic foregrounding, a vegetable «forest» and a canopy of trees. Everything is popping, even the farmers wife. Around here fecundity is the catechism. Just the word «country» glows with a natural light. «This.» says the host, whose blood group is cabernet sauvignon. «is the life.»
We are visiting what is known as a «lifestyle farm», the latest trend in the leisure bible. The rich Camps Bay businessman has bought a slice of the Tankwa — where on some moonlit nights you can hear the bucolic sounds of a rave party — where people go for a dip into «country life». It is not unpleasant, although a peacock sounds its pulsatile tinnitus scream all night and the farm dogs are off the chains. They have taken against the moon.
We have paid to have an authentic country experience and when we leave to drive the 300km home, I am laden with carrier bags of stuff that has to be «returned to the shop» in town. «We have to buy everything in town,» says the farmer, who is wearing a knock-off Barbour jacket.
The word «country» is a carnival of delusion. It is a dream a lot of people fall for. fed by arousing pictures of dimly lubricious novels and artfully touched-up magazines.
Ralph Krall, the grumpy and ancient Cape Town decorator, gave up his beautiful house in the City Bowl and made for the open sky and pastoral delights of the plains of Camdeboo. a place once beautiful beyond the telling (to crib a few words from Mr Paton). According to one 19th-century ideal, the nobleman’s estate partook of the authenticity of village life and. in Aberdeen, once a small God-fearing town with an underscore of Scots discipline. Ralph hoped to find something of his soul. However, it is now full of potholes. Tik. Chinese shops. alcoholics and poisonous water.
«I am finished with the filth and cleaning the garbage and the filthy bukkies (sic) and all the rude farmers just parking where they want and leave (sic) a mess behind,» he writes on his blog, The Poison Pen. Once driven to extremes when his lawnmower was driven over, he turned his hose on the driver.
But these backwaters of existence sometimes breed, in their sluggish depths, strange acuities of emotion. Sex is always on the run in the country. As children, we were sent to farms in the country to learn Afrikaans where we met well-endowed boys with names like Kwartus, and the dominee put his hand on our thigh under the table.
Think of those Bronte sisters, half-mad with tracking down men, Jane Eyre creaming round the countryside in the hope that a handsome stranger would fall off his horse at her feet, and ol’ Thomas Hardy jumping milkmaids and falling in love with less of the d’Urbervilles. Meeting people in an internet cafe in town doesn’t have the same crack.
The thing about the country is that it is forced illusion. No-one wants to see someone sticking a tube up a bull’s bottom or spraying a field from a tin marked «poison». It is difficult enough for the city slicker to imagine how any farmer could make money out of a million half-dead bushes.
City slickers want to see green wellies and that terrible child Romeo Beckham wearing a Burberry, and maybe a horse in the distance. But if the country is going to work for me, it needs the drama of nature. The heady night sky in Sutherland, with the long hoots of wild birds, the bloodied claws that poet Ted Hughes writes about, the flying of feathers, the pale haunches of a leopard through the dappled trees, and tormented Heathcliff looking for Cathy. A wild branch tapping against the window at midnight.
Forget the pot of home-made jam with its gingham-cloth top (gingham is very country), the endless baskets, the freshly baked loaves of bread. For me the country must contain the footfall of history, harrowed deep and discarded from an evolutionary past, a place where one can watch the moon set behind the horizon and a tree wither away, a place where one can get a sense of one’s own mortality.
As we leave the rural idyll. I finger the egg in the nest. It’s ceramic. The country spell is very frail.