Our new columnist Daisy Dunn muses on a lockdown spent in the countryside – and contemplates a return to the city
‘I will be a Country Mouse,’ I promised myself at the start of lockdown. ‘I will stuff my cheeks with homegrown veg, healthy oats, and wholesome scraps.’
Aesop’s tale of the two mice was on my desk when I escaped to the Surrey Hills in February. Having grown up in London, and used the city as my base for work for more than a decade, it took a while to acclimatise to the idea of hunkering down in the countryside and living out of my larder, like the frugal mouse of the fable.
After the initial panic had subsided, it was fine. I stocked up on food and library books – enough to see me through to summer. I moved my desk outside and finished writing a new book in the garden. But then I realised what a gargantuan effort it would take to leave. After months of bucolic isolation, London became a terrifying and far-off place, a danger zone, a zoo.
I began to contemplate it curiously, like the Country Mouse, then retreat at the first sound of a predator – not a bark but a human breath. My experience is far from extraordinary. The great springtime exodus from the cities is showing every sign of solidifying into something more permanent.
Estate agents report an increase in demand for rural and coastal properties. Some of my friends have already made the move, desperate to be out of the capital, where 21 per cent of the Covid deaths in England and Wales occurred in the months up to May. I can see the sense in staying put, but having weighed up the options I now find that, as often, I am running against the tide.
While eager to maintain the roots I have planted here, I am looking, in spite of myself, to move back into town at the earliest opportunity. It was reading the Latin poets that decided it. In about 30 BC, Horace wrote of his love for his simple rustic farm and his frustration at having to leave it to push his way through the chattering crowds of Rome to see his patron.
He retold Aesop’s fable as part of his poem, his sympathies clearly with the Country Mouse as it scurried home, frightened, from the city. As Horace realised, it is bliss to write in the countryside, but very difficult to remain there indefinitely.
There are times when we writers must brave the metropolis for meetings with agents, publishers, editors, not to mention libraries, galleries, friends. I recently wrote a book on the two Plinys, who were forever to-ing and fro-ing between negotium (business) in Rome and otium (leisure) at their villas outside it. The problem is not really the city, as Horace defined it, but the horrors of travelling into it.
In an ideal world we would tunnel between our rural idylls and the great smoke, one by one, two by two, and sample the best of both. Short of doing that – or being carried around, as Pliny the Elder was, on a sedan chair – the most practical solution seems to be to cut out the commute, move closer to friends, and take a leisurely break in the countryside once a season.
I hope then to see the country as Virgil did in its glory years. In his Eclogues, he described shepherds and herdsmen piping and singing and snoozing in Arcadia.
They make love to pretty maidens and offerings to sylvan gods. As a visitor, I might avoid the harsh realities – goats delivering stillborn kids, contagion threatening healthy flocks, ewes being over-milked, cheeses being pressed ‘for the ungrateful cities’ – Virgil also described.
In the poet’s time, veteran soldiers of the Battle of Philippi – the decisive conflict in which Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus, and Mark Antony defeated the killers of Julius Caesar – were resettled in the Italian countryside. Virgil’s shepherds positively quake at the arrival of outsiders.
As today’s urbanites make their way to the coasts and villages, country dwellers may be filled with a similar sense of dread, but they needn’t worry.
Like Aesop’s mice, most will dip their claws in, nibble the fruits, and tiptoe back to whence they came once the troubles of Arcadia become apparent. As for those in it for the long term? It’s time to start tunnelling to the city.
Daisy Dunn is the author of In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny
Image: Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich by Camille Pisarro ( 1871)