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Our nostalgia for a Britain we’ve lost

A path in Buckinghamshire: don’t be fooled. Getty

Britain sees itself as a rural nation at heart, says James Marriott in The Times. When you think of the US, it’s all bustling metropolises, with “their songs, their novels, their place in a national mythology of dynamism and the American dream”. Think of Britain, and it’s churches, rolling fields and hillsides. Even the most metropolitan among us fall into this “rural nostalgia”: Philip Larkin sentimentalised “the meadows, the lanes / The guildhalls, the carved choirs”. But in reality, the British are urban creatures. More than 80% of us live in cities, a higher proportion than in the US. London can go “toe-to-toe with almost any city in the world”. So what’s behind our “ancient need to believe in Britain as a pastoral land”?

It’s surely linked to the “trauma” of industrialisation in the early 19th century, when our cities exploded and the landscape was “eaten alive by factories and slums”. It’s easy to forget the momentousness of this – as one historian put it, “The first urban revolution began in Mesopotamia, the second began in Britain”. And we’ve been mourning the “original sin of desecration” ever since. It’s why we have the “most yearningly nostalgic tradition of nature poetry in the world”; why our town planners gave us “garden cities” rather than continental-style apartment blocks. But it’s surely unsustainable, this “cod-pastoral pose”. If Britain is ever to “feel at ease with itself in the modern world”, we need to accept that we are an urban people. “The world’s first, in fact. It might even be a point of patriotic pride.”