TOM UTLEY: The nastier some country folk are to me (and they have been!) the more delighted I’ll be
Nothing quite prepared me for the barrage of abuse I walked into when I reported a few months ago that Mrs U was agitating to move from London to the countryside.
In normal circumstances, as I’ve admitted before, I choose not to read the comments people append to my articles on the internet.
Some, I know, are very kind about my efforts to entertain or make a point, and I’m most grateful to readers who post them. Others have taken issue with opinions I’ve expressed, explaining their points of disagreement politely. I have no beef with them.
But as I’ve learned from bitter experience, many who air their comments on newspaper websites or social media regard the exercise as a competition to see who can come up with the rudest, most sneering and hurtful remark they can get past the censors.
I ought not to mind, of course. I know that if I were to meet these people in real life, they’d probably be perfectly civil to me. Indeed, on the rare occasions when strangers have recognised me in the street from my picture byline, they’ve almost always said nice things to me, whether they’ve meant them or not.
I was interested to learn readers’ personal experiences of the pros and cons of rural life in 2020. It seemed to me that this was such an uncontroversial subject for discussion that it was unlikely to prompt any death threats or other vitriolic abuse. More fool me. Little did I reckon on the deep hostility felt by many countryfolk — by no means all, I hasten to say — towards townies who feel drawn to the shires. (File image)
None has ever bowled up to me and said: ‘You’re Tom Utley, aren’t you? You’re a boring, moronic scumbag and I hope you and your wife and children die agonising deaths.’
Yet for reasons entirely obscure to me, the idea seems to have caught on that it’s acceptable to say this sort of thing behind the mask of a pseudonym on the internet. Pathetically thin-skinned as I am, I’ve made it my rule to resist reading internet comments, lest they plunge me into gloom on a Friday morning.
I made an exception, however, when I wrote in June about Mrs U’s hankering to move to the country — an ambition she has shared since the lockdown with huge numbers of city dwellers, yearning for wide-open spaces and awakened to the possibilities of working from home.
More from Tom Utley for the Daily Mail…
For one thing, I was interested to learn readers’ personal experiences of the pros and cons of rural life in 2020.
But it also seemed to me that this was such an uncontroversial subject for discussion that it was unlikely to prompt any death threats or other vitriolic abuse.
More fool me. Little did I reckon on the deep hostility felt by many countryfolk — by no means all, I hasten to say — towards townies who feel drawn to the shires.
Here’s just a sample of the more printable comments my article provoked.
‘We don’t want you city types coming down here ruining it for everyone else,’ spluttered ‘Puddleduck1’ from Truro, Cornwall. ‘Stay in your ghastly London bubble.’
On the East Coast, ‘Dave’ from Lowestoft in Suffolk agreed. ‘Do us all a favour and stay in London,’ he wrote, while ‘dustyboots’ dismissed all Londoners as ‘generally obnoxious’.
Meanwhile from Colne, Lancashire, ‘Eyeball1’ informed me: ‘The country is for the little people, we don’t want the elite of London coming to spoil it. Please keep away.’
Another was posted by someone claiming to come from ‘Wuhan, UK’, who fulminated: ‘Stay in your concrete jungle. The country neither wants or needs you… Add in the fact that even when you do escape to the country, you have to expand and modify your property so that it resembles the c**p hole you left behind.’
Seemingly unaware of the irony, my critic from ‘Wuhan’ added the parting shot: ‘Finally, you are the most unfriendly people on the planet. Stay in the city.’
Hmmm, I wondered. Who’s being unfriendly now?
What was so strange was that these people were on my side of the argument. As I’d written in my column, I’m against my wife’s plan for us to move to the country, preferring the conveniences of town — particularly now that I’m in my late 60s, and likely to become less mobile. I dread to think what their comments would have been if I’d agreed with Mrs U.
I’ve long thought it something of a myth that country people are friendlier than city dwellers, as many of them like to boast. If anything (although obviously there are huge numbers of exceptions) I’ve found urbanites quite as willing to be kind and helpful — and, in general, much more tolerant of strangers. (File image)
But then I suppose I should not have been so surprised. Though born in London, where I’ve lived for most of my adult life, I spent much of my early childhood living in rural Berkshire (which was then much more rural than now).
In the course of my career, I’ve also lived in Somerset, Suffolk and Devon, where holidaymakers from big cities were contemptuously dismissed as ‘grockles’ and ‘emmets’.
So I write from experience when I say I’ve long thought it something of a myth that country people are friendlier than city dwellers, as many of them like to boast. If anything (although obviously there are huge numbers of exceptions) I’ve found urbanites quite as willing to be kind and helpful — and, in general, much more tolerant of strangers.
After all, you won’t find many Londoners, Liverpudlians or Mancunians telling newcomers from the countryside: ‘Stay away! We don’t want your sort here!’ Yet country people can be nakedly hostile.
Indeed, I vividly recall once walking into a pub in North Wales, where a sudden silence fell as soon as I crossed the threshold. A dozen faces turned and scowled at this thirsty stranger. When at last conversation began to resume, everyone switched from speaking English to Welsh. Hardly the way to make an outsider feel welcome.
I was therefore delighted to read this week’s study from University College London, which adds academic weight to the impression I’ve formed over the years.
In one of the largest studies of its kind, scientists carried out nearly 1,400 ingenious experiments in 12 cities and 12 country towns, which on average were 35 times smaller. In one, envelopes with hand-written addresses were left in the street to see if passers-by would post them.
In another, researchers would drop items on the ground and monitor whether strangers helped to retrieve them. Others tried to cross the road and recorded when motorists stopped for them.
To the astonishment of UCL’s Professor Nichola Raihani, who had expected that city dwellers would prove much less friendly, the study found that overall there was no difference at all.
In cities and country towns alike, people helped strangers 47 per cent of the time, the only main difference being that those who lived in wealthier postal districts were about twice as likely to lend a hand. Though London was excluded from the study (too ‘global’, it was thought), Nottingham and Newcastle turned out to be particularly friendly.
Yes, I grant you that we Londoners tend to mind our own business, and are perhaps less free with the ‘good mornings’ and ‘good afternoons’ than country dwellers who know most of the people they meet.
But the real test of friendliness, I reckon, is not how we treat our acquaintances, but the way we behave towards strangers. If my postbag is anything to judge by, many countryfolk have little to be proud of there.
Of course, I understand their reservations. Urban newcomers often push house prices beyond the reach of locals. Witness the report in yesterday’s paper, recording the fastest surge in rural prices for four years.
Meanwhile, second-home owners tend to suck the life out of village communities by visiting too seldom — and all too often, arriving in Volvos and Range Rovers loaded with supplies bought in their home cities.
There’s also the obvious risk that if townies decamp en masse to the country, the extra buildings they’ll need may destroy the idyll. But let’s hear less about the friendliness of countryfolk — and, instead, try to be a little nicer to each other on social media, wherever we may live.
I’ll make one exception, however. Country dwellers can be as rude as they like about this week’s musings. Mrs U still needs convincing that we’ll be happier if we stay in town.