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Shadows over the rural idyll

The dream of a life in the country is turning into a nightmare for those who are struggling to find

Photograph by local photographer James Swan, who is based in Rookhope. For more examples of his work visit

Rookhope sits some 20 miles west of Durham. High up, it has its own freezing microclimate, and snow covers the ground. Tumbledown cottages in overgrown fields sit next to privately renovated houses. Fragments of the mineral that used to be mined here - fluorspar - lie on windowsills, the pieces scattered by residents as emblems of a time when the population was ten times the 250 or so it is today. There is now just one shop and it's open for three hours a day. The local primary school has 14 pupils. The nearest jobcentre is 15 miles away.

Around the back of the main street, a man sits on a doorstep with his hood up and a dog by his side. Known as Beardy Karl to local people and suffering from severe back problems, he is on jobseeker's allowance of £65 a week. On winter mornings, Karl tells me, he thinks of only one thing: "Fuel is my main concern. I wake up, I have a few cigs and see if I'm fit enough to go and collect sticks. I took the dog this morning for a couple of hours and I've got three loads, but they're soaking wet and they'll have to stand. Luckily I'm able to do it at the moment, but if I have a bad turn I won't be able to."

In rural areas, poverty comes with a premium. According to new research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), it costs between 10 and 20 per cent more to have a basic standard of living in rural areas than it does in urban areas, largely because of the extra energy and transport costs. With almost 40 per cent of village households in the north-east living in fuel poverty (spending over 10 per cent of their income on fuel), Karl and his neighbours are some of the worst affected in the country.

According to the JRF, this poverty premium increases the more sparsely populated an area becomes. It costs £30,000 a year to raise a family with four children in an urban area, £38,000 in a rural area. In a remote village such as Rook­hope, the figure rockets to £42,000. National research indicates that a quarter of all people living in areas of low population live below the poverty line.

“These are not frivolous costs," says Chris Goulden, policy and research manager at the JRF. "We're looking at the basic costs people need to meet to participate in society - going to school, buying food, accessing services. All these things add up because of the isolation."

Old king coal

There are many reasons why costs are higher in rural areas. Half of remote areas don't have access to mains gas supplies - the cheapest form of energy in most urban areas - so families have to rely on coal or electricity. On top of that, rural areas tend to be colder, the wages tend to be lower and their older houses are harder to insulate. In Rookhope, coal costs £11.50 a bag and it takes three bags a week to heat a small house. For Karl, that's over half of his weekly benefits.

Public transport is also problematic. Outside the school term, the first bus out of the village is 11am, and the last one back is 4pm; before and after these hours, it's lockdown. Karl has been told that, to continue withdrawing his benefits, he needs to complete compulsory work experience in the next town. These shifts won't just cost him money in travel; they will also cost him precious time he needs to collect firewood.

“They seem determined to make things more difficult for us," Karl says. "In this particular village there is none [no work], or what's there's already taken. There's a garage over there, but they have a few boys already, then there's the pub and they've already got people. There's a few others - but I ask them if they want help and they say no."

Not everyone in the village is in the same position as Karl. Walk inside the Rookhope Inn and you get a sense of the range of the place. There are the Rookhopians - drystone wallers and former workers at the cement factory until it closed down in 2002; and the "incomers" - new people who have moved to the village and commute or work from home. A man known as Ra-Ra James, a photographer who lives in a five-bedroomed house and likes to talk about his skiing trips, sits next to a young couple who moved here a few years ago to run their own internet start-up. The variety can create tension. Older villagers who have lived in Rookhope for generations don't think there's enough room for "plants": social housing tenants moved into the village by the council.

“There are two big stereotypes about rural areas that we need to dispose of," says Sarah McAdam, chief executive of the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC). "The first is that rural areas are all chocolate-box villages where everyone has expensive homes and pleasant lives. Of course there are some very affluent homes, but they mask the smaller families that live in poverty next door.

“The second misconception is that the rural economy is all farming, forestry and tourism. Contrary to the stereotypes, there's a high level of entrepreneurship, microbusinesses and home-working."

Spot checks

Whatever their income level, all villagers in Rookhope are affected by poor communications infrastructure. According to the CRC, just 12 per cent of households in the village and the surrounding area have broadband, compared to 64 per cent of households on average in England, and the coverage that is available is often poor. "Not-spots" - areas where there is little or no mobile-phone coverage and broadband access - almost always occur in such sparsely populated areas, deterring incomers who might otherwise bring in new hi-tech industries and further isolating those who cannot afford to move elsewhere.

This isolation is likely to get worse with government spending cuts. In a swift cull by the coalition, the CRC has already been shut and swallowed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. McAdam is afraid that other rural providers will follow suit. "There is a concern that services will become even more centralised in the drive for efficiency," she says. "A lot of services are moving online instead, but for many rural communities that's just not possible. Poor transport links mean that sick or elderly patients can spend most of the day getting to and from a half-hour appointment."

Can't local volunteers step in - the "big society" in action? "There is generally a high level of volunteering in rural areas, which are providing some strong examples of how communities can pull together with the help of an inspiring voluntary sector," McAdam says, "but the problem is that these communities rely on these services already. There's a concern about how much more they can do."

At the Rookhope Inn, the locals seem more confident. Crink is a stonemason and builder born and bred in the Dales. "You've got to remember where you came from," he tells me, putting down his drink. "When you needed your guttering done, I did it. When you need your plumbing done, I'll do it for you. If I need some extra wood, you'll give me some offcuts from the job. It doesn't matter who's in government - we've survived many times over, and we'll do it again."

Research for this article was conducted with the help of Local Futures, which provides holistic data and intelligence on local areas. For more info visit:

A shifting population

The latest report from the soon-to-be-scrapped Commission for Rural Communities, State of the Countryside 2010, shows a heat map of England indicating which areas 18-to-25-year-olds are migrating from and to. Rural areas in the north are haemorrhaging young people.

Young people make up a fifth of urban populations, but roughly one-tenth of those in rural areas. To compound this, the number of old people living in rural areas increased by half a million between 2001 and 2008. Despite the youth exodus, the net trend is away from cities and towards the countryside. From 2007 to 2008, net internal migration to rural areas was 64,000.

Internal migration is still the biggest mover of people in England, but immigration grabs the headlines. Rural communities enjoy a higher proportion of immigrants from EU accession countries - such as Poland and the Baltic states - than the rest of England. The stereotype that rural areas are hostile to immigration does not hold up, however. Eighty per cent of people from rural areas agreed that people from different backgrounds get on well, against 75 per cent in metropolitan areas.

And overall, countryside-dwellers are more content: 87 per cent of those living in rural locales declared themselves satisfied with their area, but just 75 per cent of city-dwellers agreed.

Duncan Robinson

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood