That was it. They mystery was solved.
The odd thing about this is that the gentleman has lived in the country for twenty years. I don’t know where he was born, but he certainly spent some of his childhood in the countryside. He does a few country sports. And yet, my mother is right. We both knew it instantly. He is not a countryman.
I, on the other hand, think of myself as a countrywoman. This is equally odd. I left the rolling downs of the Lambourn valley far behind me at the age of fourteen, and dived into London, where I swam happily for the next fifteen years. At one stage, I grew so urban that I refused perfectly nice invitations to leave the city. I much preferred Soho on a Saturday to Suffolk. I liked dodgy transvestite clubs where you could get a drink after hours and those members’ gaffs where they would lock you in the back with a deck of cards and a couple of famous comedians for illicit poker games.
The gentleman, on the face of it, has much better rural credentials than I. Yet the countrywoman exists deep in me, in my bones. What does it even mean? I’m not sure I could tell you. It’s something to do with the rhythms of the land, understanding the ebb and flow of the seasons, being rooted in the earth. A real country person can tell when it is going to snow by merely sniffing the air. (It’s the scent of metal.) They mark the years by harvests and lambing and the movement of the cattle. They know where the weather comes from and appreciate lichen. They are attuned to the small changes in a vast landscape.
But I think it is more than this. Any fool really can learn those things. I’m very sorry to do this to Lady readers, but I think it’s a soul thing.
There are lots of people who live in the country but are not country people. They like it when the grass is green and croquet may be played and tea taken on the lawn. They love it when the bluebells are out and the lambs are frolicking. But when it gets dirty and muddy and tough, in those bleak days at the end of winter when it seems the leaves shall never return to the trees and the land shall remain forever barren, they fly away to hot places abroad, or rush off to have lunch at the Ivy. They need comfort, finding the bare views too cheerless.
I think the real countryperson is so dug in that they love the place even when it is at its most awful. There are days when I stomp through sucking mud and dirty rain to look after my cross horse (she is prone to grumpiness in the wet), or risk turning my ankle on frozen rutted ground as I break the ice on the water troughs when I sometimes think ruefully of that sophisticated urban life. When every article I own is covered in smears of earth I do ruefully remember the days when I used to brush up quite well. But the love that keeps me here is too strong for flight. You have to winkle me out with a spoon, these days. I can’t leave my hills, because I am stitched into them. If I must go away, I pray it is not at a crucial point in the seasons, so I shall not miss the last leaf fall, or the first snowdrop flower. I once almost wept on the M6 because I was not going to see my little apple trees blossom.
Countryman or countrywomen is more of an insult than a compliment, these days. The sharp urban creations are the clever, polished ones, the shakers and movers, the ones who come on the radio and pronounce. Only last week I heard a young city fellow mock Matthew Parris, because he was broadcasting down the line from Derbyshire, where he could see his livestock grazing. I’m not sure Matthew Parris is in fact a countryman, but he was taken for one, and it counted gravely against him.
But it’s a little bit like handedness; you are either left-handed or right-handed, and there is nothing you can do about it. I am a countrywoman, for worse or better. I have metaphorical and sometimes literal hayseeds in my hair. I wear them with pride.