Magazine article The Spectator

Is John Bull the Fascist Heading for the Dustbin of History?

Magazine article The Spectator

Is John Bull the Fascist Heading for the Dustbin of History?

Article excerpt

On Saturday morning I went, as I often do, to the Farmers' Market, which operates at the back of Kensington Place in Notting Hill. It was bitterly cold, and I wondered yet again at their courage and tenacity. These men and women drive up from Dorset and Lincolnshire, from Kent and the Midlands, and all points, to sell fresh produce direct. They are notable for two things: their politeness and their fun, neither easy to keep up during the long purgatory through which they are passing. They bring with them superb vegetables and fruit - a dozen different kinds of apple, for instance, of which they will offer you slices to taste - fresh fish from the rivers and fish farms, amazing varieties of mushroom, cheeses to make the mouth water, butter and pates, pies and tarts, the finest eggs, succulent smoked salmon, chickens and ducks ready for roasting, anything indeed which an ingenious farmer now produces, and all at bargain prices. The latest catastrophe has knocked out the red meat, but ranks were filled by other goods. There was a lady selling honey, not just to eat but in the form of different cosmetics and polishes. A man offered mouthwatering oyster-mushroom sandwiches. Another operated a cider stall serving steaming hot grog. There is about this market a delightful air of improvisation and invention, of easy familiarity and good talk, of jokes and earthy friendliness. It fits incongruously well into the Notting Hill atmosphere of pop millionairesses and razorsharp politicians, of writers and television monsters, of professional wits and rogue journalists.

People say that English farming is finished, but that is nonsense. There have been worse times in the past. It is evident even from the Domesday Book that English farmers were shrewd and resilient. In the 18th century they invented modern agriculture, the work not just of rich men such as Coke of Norfolk but of many a yeoman farmer of limited means but imagination and energy. It was the golden age of English wheat, beautifully recorded in the watercolours of Peter de Wint, who had a passion for painting cornfields at harvest time. The repeal of the Corn Laws did not immediately affect our farms. But nemesis came in the late 1870s, when the new American railroads made it possible to ship grain from the vast new farms of the Midwest to our market at prices with which English farmers could not compete. But they recovered and enjoyed good days in the early years of the 20th century.

Then in 1920 came the between-the-wars slump, when, it was said, more land changed hands in a single year than at any time since the Norman Conquest. By the early 1930s the price of land was so low that Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, was able to buy 1,000 acres of prime land in East Anglia for less than the asking price of 1,000. The uplifting saga of how he turned this near-derelict patch, over eight years, into a fully productive estate can be read in his book, The Story of a Norfolk Farm (1941). He was one of a number of farmers who fought against the trend of discouragement and despair in the 1930s. I remember as a boy studying the cartoons of Strube in the Daily Express, which featured a long, skeletal character leaning hopelessly on his rake and labelled `Idle Acres'. Then, suddenly, came wartime `Dig for Victory' policies and all-out production at top prices.

The decision of the postwar Labour government to continue wartime support policies kept the farms busy and innovative. That was another golden age. The National Farmers' Union, with its proud headquarters in Knightsbridge, was a power in the land. …

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