The Pursuit of Country Life: Review of The Country Living Spring Fair

Having lived and grown up in rural Norfolk all my life I know both the glories and the adversities of living in the countryside. I'm sure we’re all familiar with the myth of the urban/rural social divide. City dwellers dream of a pastoral portrait dotted with darling little rural retreats, whilst miles away farmers contentedly tend their livestock and their wives prepare home baked apple pies back home.

This generalisation is out-dated though. There may well be people who cherish the thought that there are pockets of William Blake’s “green and pleasant land” nestled away like long lost Egyptian treasure, biding its time until one intrepid adventurer unearths buried riches. But I think it’s pretty well established now that the countryside is blighted by a range of social issues just like anywhere else in England. I know, for example, the realities of maintaining a livelihood in the countryside, having practically grown up helping my Mum in her country workshop, English Country Garden Dresses. The same jolly farmer that one may imagine ambling alongside his animals will in fact happily mow you down with his Massey Ferguson if one toe encroaches off the un-farmed field boundary onto his land. The roguish gamekeeper is scandalously doing the rounds hunting down the vixens in the village; not the usual foxy rendezvous you expect him to be undertaking.

It’s not just that I know the real countryside experience; the landscape, people or culture. I know the ins and outs of what it takes to successfully live and work in a rural area. But if I can hone in on one real discrepancy in how the country life is represented, it is within the shady sphere of commercialisation. It always amuses me to see the how consumers are sold the rather one dimensional manifestation of the country lifestyle. Just as in the manner of a beautiful fruitcake, from the heart of London to the depths of Norfolk, the delicacies and idiosyncrasies of fine country fare are masked by a thick layer of frosted icing.

In thoughtful, time-honoured, and eternally misjudged fashion, my latest parcel from Mum arrived with two tickets to the annual Spring Country Living Fair (one for my older sister-strike two). What could be more commercially palatable than a slice of this utopian country lifestyle jamboree?

Abandoning my self-imposed exile (and exam revision) and complimentary ticket in hand, I hopped on the Northern Line from Borough to Angel, where the Country Living Fair is hosted in Islington every year at The Business Design Centre. Being of rather mercurial temperament, and more importantly a student, I was actually really looking forward to a free day out perusing all that’s pink and pretty, regardless of the fair’s estrangement from my reality of the countryside.

Greeted by the striking scalloped glass façade of The Business Design Centre and crowds of shoppers I had no reason to be suspicious. But as I walked through the entrance the scene was at first a disorientating, kaleidoscopic mirage of pastels. Pink and blue bunting fluttered from every junction, chiffon drapes cobwebbed the majestic glass roof and fringes of frilly xanthous daffodils lined every staircase.  It was exactly what I had envisioned. Nevertheless, free goody bag in hand I waltzed cheerfully into the sea of be-jaegered ladies who lunch.

I have to admit I had a good time. It wasn’t the representation of country life that I knew, but I didn’t expect it to be. It was a carnival of kitsch and colour; I felt like I had stepped into a feel-good romanticised episode of ‘Escape to The Country’ where all the model homes sport a colony of distressed style metal kitchen containers and plush white carpet devoid of children’s muddy footprints carpets every floor. A considerable amount of the exhibitors’ work was hand produced; but the goods which were imported were so obvious they might just have well have boasted neon light bulbs, pyrotechnics and backing dancers; namely rails of Boden-style separates and imitation Cath Kidston patent handbags.

Nevertheless, two hours, a restored print of ratty and mole from The Wind in the Willows and a raffia beach bag later, I happily, albeit slightly intoxicated by the pervasive clouds of lavender, strayed  upstairs and miraculously happened upon a tea stall. The Design Centre is the sort of place where seating for weary shoppers truly is a figment of the imagination, and if, like me, you decide to perch on the bottom step of the stairs to regain your strength, a security guard will close in in no time, who moves you on while smiling apologetically at passers-by as if he is disciplining a naughty schoolchild. The girl manning the tea urn bossily charged me four pounds for a cup of tea and a biscuit, which I decided to write off as totally forgivable in light of my fatigue.

As I sat, rather awkwardly on a mercilessly hard wooden garden chair, I found myself giggling at a stall in my line of view devoted to bespoke fabric bra straps; pegged fastidiously along a mini washing line. Next door, expensive, and presumably, ‘authentic’ looking country tunics hung jauntily on shiny hangers. It was so not what I, or my family, or anyone I know back home for that matter would gaily deck themselves in for cleaning out the chicken pens. But it did crystallise the essence of the day.

If you are questing for an idealistic souvenir of country life, look no further than the cornucopia at hand at The Country Living Fair. You will be reminded afresh of why we are so perennially fascinated with pursuing a taste of rural life. It is an ingenious sensual seduction, an escape from the monochromatic palette of modern life; work, bills, chores. Just like the realm of the written word, it allows you to find solace, if only for a few hours in a physical manifestation of charm and colour. 

There were undeniably one or two stalls which really had captured what country life means; what true English craftsmanship is all about.Those were the people who you could read in their faces what it was to sustain a truly faithful vision of English country living. I could recognise what it meant to them to design, produce, market and sell your own creations, and how much work had gone into breathing life into their ideas; not only that but maintaining that pulse. Keeping a rural business going is tough; part of maintaining its survival is marketing it an appetizing way to those unfamiliar with the realities of rural life and work. But I feel saddened that the true representation of the countryside is compromised for its commercial potential.

The compelling simulation of country living brightened my day. But the sensation was short-lived. Just as the glow of materialist contentment fades when exiting the bright lights of the city, as the never-ending Angel escalators snailed down to the bowels of the underground I was left yearning for the corporality that exists in my country life; the scent of meadow grasses, the ravens cawing on the chimney pots, the verdant forest canopy and the boughs of the oak trees welcoming me back home.

“If I should die, think only this of me…that there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England”- Siegfried Sassoon.

Strange Things Happen At Bus Stops.

Strange things happen at bus stops. It only took a few minutes of musing in the drizzling rain the other day to realise what I’ve been missing from my life since I started university. I was standing on the Strand, watching a myriad of fashionistas materialize in time-honoured kaleidoscopically colourful style for London Fashion Week.
I was always a difficult child. I can vividly recall my beleaguered mother driving me an hour every day to nursery, whereupon arrival I would put up a spectacular display of histrionics. Once, I was sick all over some power-crazed supervisor’s lap after being forced to watch Pingu. Mum said she would never forget the day when the nursery teacher fatalistically predicted that I would “never ever settle in at school”.
In fact, all I really wanted was to sit at home watching my mum create her bespoke wedding dresses. I was her right-hand girl; and I used to smuggle little scraps of silk and cuttings from the liberty print bolts into my sewing box, so I could whip up my own designs later on.
Then I started school. Of course, good academic grades and school awards were just further embarrassing confirmation to my siblings of my eccentricity. I was playfully branded as the “black sheep” in the midst of an artistic family; not to say that I relinquished my arts subjects. I’ve always found that art perfectly counteracts essays.
By the time A-levels dawned upon me bearing their academic burden, I can categorically say that I owe my sanity to Product Design which allowed me proliferate my creativity. I felt like I was betraying Mum, and myself in a way when I decided not to pursue art. I remember in one university interview when the professor boorishly questioned the correlation between my A-levels. I replied simply that creativity is manifested in numerous ways. Recently, however I’d lost sight of pursuing those avenues.
I believe everyone has some degree of creativity. And those who staunchly deny it just haven’t discovered it yet. If we stop classifying our talents and start embracing new mediums of self-expression then it can only be a positive thing. I look at the “anything goes” fashion on the streets as a telling form of reinvention; and London is the ideal habitat to nurture that instinct.  As for me, I realised I didn’t have to give up art. In fact, nothing catalyses the desire to eschew books and channel the urge to deface your insipid, yellow bedroom wall with a wacky mural like embarking on an English degree.

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