I read Country Life magazine most weeks. My aim used to be to sell up in London and find a house advertised in its Romanticised pages, ideally in rural North Yorkshire. There, I would carry on reading Country Life, and become so countrified that I would see nothing unusual in its adverts for tweed plus fours, or bows and arrows, or small portable drinks cabinets for use when shooting. I might even, as the financially independent, mildly strange owner of a minor castle in Northumberland, have cause to call upon the mysterious person or persons who advertise in the following terms in the magazine: "Absolutely anything achieved, handled or transacted on your behalf. Utmost discretion"; or consult those who advertise that they will supply "legally and with confidence the ancient French titles of Marquis, Count or Baron".
Now, however, property outside London is little cheaper than property inside London. The differential is roughly 25 per cent, rather than 50 per cent, as it was ten years ago when my Country Life dream began. At one time, the country represented a bigger house and a better, vaguely aristocratic lifestyle for the harassed London professional, but now the dream is tainted, and I look at the countryside, and at Country Life, with a more sceptical eye. In fact, while holidaying in Suffolk last week, I found myself differentiating between sights that could be classified as Country Life and sights that could not.
The grizzled boatman who ferried me every day across the creek was definitely Country Life. But his mobile phone and the
text messages he tended to receive while I was meditating upon the tranquillity of the waters were not. The old pub in the next village, with its thatched roof, was Country Life. But the clientele was not, because I always found drinkers clustered around the TV, wearing England shirts and cheering on couples rowing in Coronation Street.
Most things, I realised, were Country Life if viewed from sufficiently far away. One of the village shops looked the part from outside: dark, low, buckled. But inside, Virgin Radio was playing. The house next door was Country Life, until you spotted the satellite dish; the farmer on his tractor was Country Life until you noticed that he had highlights in his hair. The small, shack-like, sun-dazed cafe on the other side of the estuary was Country Life, but not the woman serving inside it, because, when my wife asked her if she had any idea whether it was going to rain that afternoon, she replied: "How would I know that, love?" This was especially disturbing; after all, doesn't the weather in some way start from the countryside? The little seaside shop selling retro-looking clocks was Country Life until it turned out that they were all battery-powered.
The four tousled urchins who messed about in the little park in the nearby village were also Country Life, at first sight. They might almost have been William Brown and his cronies. But they ceased to be Country Life the following day when they all turned up with BMX bikes. You sensed that, far from plotting an afternoon fishing with bent pins or collecting tadpoles in a jar, they would rather be in Brixton. Every time I drove past them, one of the four would run alongside the car making a thumbs-up gesture that was somehow very frightening.
As the countryside is no longer cheap, it had better concentrate on being attractive, or there's going to be trouble. A brief glimpse at the pages of Country Life will point the way. It's not so much a question of what is in the magazine as what is persistently omitted: sliced bread, mobile phones, tabloid newspapers, trainers, beer in cans, baseball caps, CCTV cameras, Goths, MP3 players, petrol stations, cars with tinted windows, minicabs. (Actually, scrub that last one. There are none of those in the country as it is.)