Blue skies, sheets of stratus clouds, rolling hills chequered with drystone walls and dotted with sheep: this is the archetypal image of the British countryside.
Pastoral landscapes such as this one – Narrowdale in the Peak District on a Sunday morning in late April – still occupy a distinct space beyond their own material boundaries in dominant cultural imaginaries and representations of this island. This aesthetic space sustains and is sustained by practices of pastoral production and consumption, and almost unconscious ideas about land and labour, nature and society.
The pastoral also has a specific history in the British context. From the fifteenth century onwards, as feudalism shifted towards capitalism, land previously lived and worked on by peasants was gradually appropriated and replaced with sheep pastures in the process known as enclosure. Although mostly associated with the eighteenth century when enclosure became more legally formalised, this process produced often devastating effects for communities over the long period of its unfolding. Problems with enclosure and the pastoral can be seen as early as 1516, when in his tract Utopia the Renaissance humanist Thomas More uses sheep as a metonym for the new landowning class and their exclusions. He writes that sheep ‘that were wont to be so meek and tame, and so small eaters, be become so great devourers and so wild, that they eat up, and swallow down the very men themselves. They consume, destroy, and devour whole fields, houses, and cities’.1 Later, in Volume I of Capital (1867), Karl Marx uses enclosure as a key example of what he calls ‘primitive accumulation’, in which means of production are seized from labourers and privatised.2 These processes were reproduced beyond Britain through colonial expansion; as John Kinsella writes in an Australian context, pastoral works ‘to recreate European, specifically English, rural power-structures, the reconfiguring of ‘home’ in an alien landscape’.3
Nevertheless, the pastoral remains embedded in our popular and artistic culture, and is continually being revised and revitalised. In 1935, William Empson published Some Versions of Pastoral, outlining both a critique of the pastoral’s embedded social hierarchies and erasures and its diversity in British literature and culture.4 In another very important account, The Country and the City (1973), Raymond Williams writes that the pastoral is ‘a particular kind of reaction to the fact of change’ that found pronounced expression in Britain as a mode of response to the rapid transformations of the industrial revolution but also the longer-term social processes hinted at above. Williams argues that pastoral has a nostalgic feel, in which labour is subsumed and made invisible within the ‘natural order’.5 Characterised in this way, the pastoral feels very apt as a way to think about the rhetorics and aesthetics of a recent change in Britain – namely, Brexit – and the feelings and actions that have contributed to it. So I thought I’d offer some (pre- and post-) Brexit versions of pastoral for twenty-first century Britain:
1) Monbiot vs sheep
Back in 2013, George Monbiot wrote about the economic and ecological problems caused by British sheep farming. Despite being integral to the British pastoral, sheep have been shown to cause severe soil erosion and cycles of flood and drought in upland pastures. In addition, Monbiot argues that British sheep farming is unproductive, propped up by significant subsidies under the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) while the food supply continues to rely on imported meat. Interestingly, Monbiot explicitly links the problems he identifies with the pastoral:
I blame Theocritus. His development in the third century BC of the pastoral tradition — the literary convention that associates shepherding with virtue and purity — helps to inspire our wilful blindness towards its destructive impacts. His theme was embraced by Virgil and the New Testament, in which Christ is portrayed both as the Good Shepherd and as Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, ‘who takes away the sin of the world’. The Elizabethans revived the tradition, and the beautiful nonsense Marlowe, Spenser and others published about the uncorrupted pastoral life resonates with us still. Their eclogues and idylls, bucolics and mimes persist today on Sunday-night television, through which we wistfully immerse ourselves in the lives of hunky shepherds and adorable lambs, sheepdog trials and market days.
As someone who has been lucky enough to study English literature, I would resist Monbiot’s pigeonholing of a whole body of complex, sophisticated writing as ‘beautiful nonsense’. Nevertheless, the link between literary and cultural representations and ongoing relationships with land and industry is highly suggestive. And more on ‘Sunday-night television’ later.
In a more recent article from 2017, Monbiot considers the impact of Brexit on British farming. He identifies three key issues that make farming ‘uniquely vulnerable’ post-Brexit: the complexity of negotiating tariff deals without forcing farmers out of business; the dependency of the industry on migrant workers; and its reliance on EU subsidies to keep going. Monbiot suggests that the only real way forward for the post-Brexit pastoral is a kind of anti-pastoral, in which agricultural labour is recognised and supported by public money but ‘accompanied by rules strong enough to ensure that farmers can no longer pollute our rivers, strip the soil from the land, wipe out pollinators and other wildlife, and destroy the features of the countryside with impunity.’ This version of pastoral is undoubtedly the most strident and polemical of any I’ll consider here, but it’s certainly not the only approach.
2) God's Own Country (2017), directed by Francis Lee
Like Monbiot’s journalism, this film challenges Romantic notions of the pastoral, calling attention to the bleakness, bitterness, and isolation of farming. With notable similarities to Brokeback Mountain (2006), the film traces an emerging relationship between young Yorkshire farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor) and Romanian migrant labourer Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), and in doing so calls into question ideas of masculinity and sexuality often embedded in rural identities and imaginaries. Unsentimental yet tender, God’s Own Country intersperses tough physical and emotional labour with the intimacy between and across humans, animals, and land. Rather than a traditional, idealised pastoral representation of these relationships, Lee unapologetically foregrounds their raw material and fluid interactions; opening with Johnny throwing up in the toilet after a heavy night at the local pub, the film is punctuated by blood, placenta, saliva, semen, faeces, mud.
Not only this, but Johnny and Gheorghe’s relationship unfolds against a backdrop of family and social tensions and the everyday practices and problems of small-scale farming. These tensions become particularly pronounced in the wake of Brexit; without the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and subsidy scheme, small British farms could be significantly affected, while an end to freedom movement for migrant workers like Gheorghe is likely to produce a labour shortage. In this context, God’s Own Country offers a critical pastoral, sensitive to issues that Monbiot brings to the forefront, but never entirely abandoning a pastoral imaginary. In amongst the mud, the racist slurs, and the hardship, are rare moments of warmth, connection, and nurture.
3) Zeta Landscape (2005-present), Carol Watts
Zeta Landscape is an ongoing sequence of poems written from and about a particular sheep hill-farm in Wales. Different parts of the poem have been published in a number of journals and anthologies, and the first five poems can be read online in the How2 special issue on ecopoetics.6 Throughout the series, Watts experiments with conventions of pastoral poetry by introducing numbers – both mathematical and economic – to the landscape, its producers and inhabitants. We can see this in the poem ‘7’:
do these add up are they outside subsidy or
logged in magnitudes of adjustment the value
of a warm animal less than the cost of quantifying
its warmth or inspecting animation each sixteen
days the collisions of neighbouring hillsides result
today in corpses by the river seven blown fleeces
In this excerpt, Watts refers to the ‘subsidy’ that Monbiot identifies as a key issue in post-Brexit British agriculture. By foregrounding numbers and economies in the poem, Watts works to ‘subject the seeming pastoral ease of Romantic identification…to hidden kinds of accumulation’ – in particular the accumulation of capital and its close interlinking with social injustice and environmental degradation.7 Where Thomas More used sheep metonymically to critique emerging capitalist landowners, Watts explores and resists the ways that in capitalism ‘the value / of a warm animal’ can become reduced to ‘the cost of quantifying / its warmth’. Not only this, but this poem also calls attention to much longer histories of human intervention of the seemingly ‘natural order’ of the pastoral; ‘sixteen days’ refers to the average length of a sheep’s oestrous cycle, yet the hillsides in Britain in April might lead us to believe that the annual springtime rhythms of lambing are ‘natural’ rather than domesticated and regulated.
4) All Aboard! The Country Bus, BBC4, 29 August 2016
The BBC’s slow-TV hit – two hours of real-time bus journey through the Yorkshire Dales – attracted almost a million viewers back in the summer of 2016, just over two months after the Brexit referendum on 23 June. This is perhaps exactly the kind of ‘Sunday-night television’ that Monbiot critiques as a means of perpetuating ideas of nature and nation that reemerged in some of the rhetoric surrounding Brexit. Nevertheless, All Aboard! is an intriguing twenty-first century pastoral, in terms of its form as well as its content.
With little dialogue or action, All Aboard! offers up the pastoral as a form of temporal and spatial retreat in the context of accelerating cultural and material consumption. The pastoral has functioned in this way since landscape tourism became popularised in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, recorded in a large number of works from Daniel Defoe’s A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-27) to Dorothy Wordsworth’s Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland (1803) and extensive journal writings. Despite this long legacy, All Aboard! is a cultural product with a distinctly twenty-first century remit. Primarily conceived of as an experiment in television rather than an invitation to go out into the hills, it reconstructs the pastoral as a mode of viewing in which the object being viewed (such as the landscape) becomes almost secondary to the process of sitting and absorbing at a far slower pace than is conventional. This growing genre of television does its own pastoral work, however, in presenting itself as a new kind of ‘natural order’ amongst the artificial, disjunctive, and hyper-accelerative aspects of contemporary culture.
5) Alstonefield (2003), Peter Riley
I started in the fields just north of Alstonefield in the Peak District, so that’s where I’ll finish too. Peter Riley’s book-length poem is filled with pub lunches at The George, ghosts and gods, industrial and agricultural histories. At the beginning of the eighty-page fifth section – a long philosophical meditation on an equally long night ramble around the surrounding hills and dales – Riley spends a rainy Sunday morning at a car boot sale:
…Dampening, I turn down
a plastic shepherdess at 30p and go back
to the car. And sit there waiting in the rain
for something better than pastoral, some-
thing less fairground and more circus,
something to take the truth of the west-
ern world out of its pocket and purchase
life everlasting or a well meant Friday hug. 8
From what begins as a seemingly mundane moment, Riley shifts to consider ‘the truth of the west/-ern world’, a ‘truth’ that reiterates in colonial manifestations and justifications of pastoral. He parochialises this ‘truth’, locating it in a ‘pocket’ with connotations of capital as well as limitation and enclosure, and exchanges it for either the grandiose ‘life everlasting’ or the humble, common ‘well meant Friday hug’. However, neither outcome materialises; just after Riley finds himself ‘waiting in the rain / for something better than pastoral’, he writes ‘No use waiting. Turn the key, go. Go where?’ (24). The references to the car are important here; in his notes, Riley writes that ‘it is impossible anywhere in the Peak District, even in the middle of the night, to get away from the sound of the internal combustion engine for any length of time’ (103).
Interestingly, in Staffordshire Moorlands – the parliamentary constituency Alstonefield is in – 64.7% of voters voted to leave the EU, in comparison to 51.9% nationally, a fairly common outcome in safe Tory seats in largely rural areas and communities. This is not to equate the pastoral with Brexit, or either with political conservatism (my own feelings about voting Remain are complex, and the EU certainly leaves a lot to be desired). Rather, it’s merely one highly contemporary example of the way that the pastoral has developed as cultural construction and lived practice across the stratified landscapes that come together to constitute some versions of Britain in 2018. Might there be something ‘better than pastoral’ that we could strive towards in the coming months and years? As I ponder, like Riley, ‘let me wander still in the open / fields of failure’ (25).
1. Thomas More, Utopia, translated by Ralph Robinson, 1551. See: https://archive.org/details/utopia00arbegoog.↩
2. Karl Marx, Capital Volume One, translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin, 1976 , pp. 878-79.↩
3. John Kinsella, Disclosed Poetics: Beyond Landscape and Lyricism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007, p. 3.↩
4. William Empson Some Versions of Pastoral. London: Chatto & Windus, 1935.↩
5. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City. London: Chatto & Windus, 1973, pp. 32-35.↩
6. See: Carol Watts, Zeta Landscape. The Ground Aslant, edited by Harriet Tarlo. Exeter: Shearsman, 2011, pp. 111-19; Zeta Landscape. Poetry Wales, 45.3 (2009/2010), pp. 25-29.↩
7. Carol Watts, ‘Zeta Landscape: Poetry, Place, Pastoral’, in Placing Poetry, edited by Ian Davidson and Zoë Skoulding. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2013, pp. 281-304 (p. 285).↩
8. Peter Riley, ‘Alstonefield: a poem. Manchester: Carcanet, 2003, p. 24.↩