I have just finished James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life, perhaps the best book I’ve read this year and a beautiful account of the traditional life and perspective of a Lake District fell farmer. At the centre of the story is a very deep seated attachment to the mountain area where James’ forebears have farmed for six centuries and this has inspired me to write my next blog about the issue of “place.”
As a shepherd James uses a lovely word “hefted” to describe the genetic attachment which a flock of fell sheep have to the particular part of the mountainside where they have grazed for generations of summers. Place too has an enormous role to play in the human psyche, although increasingly less so since the start of the Industrial Revolution when the forces of capitalism began to uproot us from the patterns of settlement and work which had held or hefted the majority of us in one place for centuries.
My sense of place is very much part of my Welsh inheritance. Place is important in Welsh culture, unsurprising in a country which is made up of lots of small communities, often quite cut off from each other, even in modern times, by geography and the lack of fast communication links. Given the limited number of Welsh surnames it’s quite common to identify someone by a reference to the farm, street or hamlet where they live. The most famous of Welsh hymn writers is always referred to as William Williams Pantycelyn or sometimes just Pantycelyn as if the place as much as the man shaped the beautiful hymns he wrote. Many Welsh poems relate to places or features in the landscape.
My own family has wandered since the start of the Industrial Revolution and I have personally shifted home, several times in my life, often in search of employment. However I retain that strong sense of place. Where I live matters, the landscape whether urban or rural, the people, the sense or otherwise of community, the accent, the peculiarities of custom and practice which distinguish one place from another all make profound difference to my sense of wellbeing. My family ruthlessly take the mickey out of me for always wanting to stay behind at the end of film to see where it was filmed. The setting of a story can matter as much the story itself.
A sense of place matters too in politics and social policy. Landscapes and communities are fragile things and what they offer is so much more than bricks and mortar or a simple collection of amenities. The planners of the 1960s and 1970s have much to answer for the soulless and materialistic approach they brought to urban development which has scarred so many of our cities. Nowhere was this truer than in Birmingham, the city I was born and brought up in and whose concrete jungle I was so keen as a 20 year old to leave. This was a classic example of how government provided for the physical needs of city dwellers while ignoring their needs for community and wellbeing. While I believe planning and architecture has improved, and has lost some of the arrogant view that it knows best, the mistakes made in the developments of the post war period have cast a long shadow. How much have ugly dead end estates, with no sense of community and nothing for people to do been the breeding grounds of mental health problems, social issues, drug and alcohol misuse and crime?
Good places also need a viable economic focus. One of the themes of the Shepherd’s Life is the need to appreciate the Lakeland fells, not just as the playground of the urban masses, but also as an economic landscape within which a traditional and valued form of life, that of the hill farmer, can still continue. The balance of that economy is very fragile and vulnerable to external shocks. The joy of the hill farmer is not just admiring the aesthetic beauty of the mountains but in appreciating the deep enduring and sustainable relationship which man has built with this landscape. Such places all over the world are disappearing as wider economic forces undermine the basis on which they are able to survive. Their potential loss is an immense tragedy for humankind as we lose more and more of the diversity which is at the heart of what makes our world and our species so special.
We need wealth creation, but capitalism, left unchecked is an immensely destructive force. It raises places up like the Rhondda Valley, where my grandparents lived and where my father grew up. However when it’s finished it can leave them abandoned in a dark post-industrial no man’s land. Places of character and community can be left as islands of hopelessness where the only way up is out.
Preserving, creating or recreating good places is no easy task. It is not a thing for Governments alone although they can do much to enable it. It does need experts and it does those who can create and channel wealth in a benign manner. It more than anything needs people who care, who are prepared to put more into a community than they take out, who value the place they live in and are prepared to fight to make it a better place.