Saturday 2 April 2016

Country matters

I once met the composer Donald Swann, of Flanders and Swann fame. It was at a dinner party. He wore a dark blue Nehru suit, had the air of a prankish clergyman, was somewhat deaf and wonderful company. At one point our host bellowed gently across the table: 'Donald! What do you think of the countryside?' Taking his cue, Swann put down his glass, dabbed his lips with a napkin and began to croon (to the tune of Beethoven's 6th Symphony):

The country, the country,
It always gets me down;
The country, the country -
I'd rather stay in town.

I'm a city-dweller by choice and inclination. In our garden each morning I see and hear all manner of birds - swallows, blackbirds, wood pigeons, a robin, chaffinches. I saw a heron at dawn the other day, stretching its wings, which scared me half to death. There are other birds I cannot identify by sight or song, and the sound of the wind in the trees. I like all this but side with Auden who insisted that 'Tramlines and slag heaps, pieces of machinery / That was, and still is, my ideal scenery;. (But didn't he borrow or steal the machinery/scenery rhyme from Byron? I'm not sure where I read that - can anyone confirm this?)

Continuing my rural theme: do you remember Phil Drabble (1914-2007)? He was the affable Staffordshire-born naturalist who presented one of the most charming and delightful television programmes of all time: One Man and his Dog. Here's a description of the show by  Joe Moran in Armchair Nation: An intimate history of Britain in front of the TV:

Consisting largely of shepherds whistling and calling out commands ('Come by Meg', 'Steady lass') to a dog trying to get a bleating flock of sheep into a pen somewhere on a British hillside, it introduced viewers to this traditional British skill and turned the border collie into a cult hero. By the mid 1980s it had a primetime audience of 8 million on Tuesday nights on BBC2,  most of them town- and sofa-dwelling vicarious shepherds,  the majority of them women.

It was mesmerising television, and usually took place in a torrential downpour. You can see a post-Drabble clip of the programme here (although it's disfigured by awful music and a witless commentary by some telly sports hack - the original simple format buried in bolted-on novelty).

I remember vividly a Radio 4 broadcast in which Drabble was joined by the actor Kenneth Williams, for a trudge around some muddy rural backwater. Drabble was nonplussed by his strikingly camp companion, who complained bitterly and constantly about their working conditions. Drabble, if I recall correctly, was wearing stout wellingtons and a thornproof jacket while Williams had fetched up in a lounge suit and suede shoes. It was absolutely hilarious, and I'd love to hear it again. Many years later the late art critic Brian Sewell, the man with the poshest voice in the land, was regularly paired with the laddish radio presenter Robert Elms and a similar chemistry emerged.

More odd pairings like that, radio producers, if you please. But keep Piers Morgan out of it. Why mention Morgan? Because the word 'countryside' was once defined (by Stephen Fry, I think) as 'an overwhelming urge to kill Piers Morgan'. 

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