Discussions of the relationship between London and the rest of the UK (as in John Harris’ Grauniad article this morning) always take me back to my doctoral research. A couple of years into the project – good grief, have twenty years passed since then? – it slowly dawned on me how far far my study of the impact of ancient Rome on the rest of Italy was clearly being shaped by the experience of growing up in a small town in the shadow of London, having most of the life sucked out of it by the metropolis. The thesis eventually offered a slightly more subtle and nuanced account of the different facets of the impact of Rome on its hinterland (or, as I would be inclined to put it today, the ways in which the Italian countryside was transformed by the same processes of economic and social change that were driving the expansion of Rome), not least because the prevailing theoretical discourse of wonderfully dynamic and progressive Producer Cities versus nasty parasitical Consumer Cities was so absurdly simplistic – but underlying it all was still my basic loathing of Surrey and my sense that this was pretty well all bound up with the looming presence of London.Across most of Italy – once it had been incorporated into the Empire and left to its own devices – the primary driver of change was the demand for resources from the metropolis; mediated of course by transport costs (areas away from the coast and from major routes were far less touched) and by power (the wealthy responded with alacrity to new economic opportunities, peasant farmers were more reluctant and less able to change), this gradually transformed agriculture and trade, and hence urbanisation and social structure, across large areas of the peninsula. Economic, social, political and cultural networks focused on Rome, which dwarfed any other city in the western Mediterranean in every respect – but at the same time it was clear that many aspects of everyday life for most people out in the regions remained relatively untouched, if only because the market was less all-pervasive and all-encompassing than in later centuries.
The great exception was the suburbium, the area immediately surrounding Rome – up to twenty miles or so from the city, a day or so’s travel. Close enough to be affected in many different ways by the city’s presence and demands, and to be wholly shaped by it. On the one hand, a region of intensive production of specialised and perishable goods for the urban market: fruit, vegetables, flowers, honey, dormice etc. On the other hand, a region of conspicuous consumption and leisure for the urban elite, with elegant second homes as a refuge from the heat, dust and stress of the metropolis. A densely populated landscape of villas, orchards, parkland, market gardens, aqueducts, bathhouses and tombs, that had once been occupied by farms, little cities and rural shrines, and was now dominated by ferocious competition for the key resources – land, water and access – between rich and poor, city and countryside and production and consumption.
This was never proposed as a historically unique case; on the contrary, it was largely based on studies of the impact of London in the early modern period by E.A. Wrigley, with both the orientation of agriculture in many parts of England towards the London market and the development of market gardening in areas of Kent and the like. Either example offers a striking contrast with the present situation. On the one hand, there’s the steady expansion of the residential suburb, more or less in step with improvements in transport technology and infrastructure; on the other hand, there’s the steady decline of the productive elements of the suburbium, as fresh fruit and vegetables can be imported from the Netherlands or southern Spain or Kenya rather than having to be produced in the immediate vicinity of the market. Clearly the two are connected: the suburbs can expand, offering the ideal (illusion) of an escape from urban life for many urban workers rather than just the wealthy, in part because there is less competition for the land from productive enterprises, which now yield a lower return for the owner than residential uses. Even a hundred miles or more from the city, such as the bit of Somerset where I now live, it is metropolitan money in search of a secondary (or even primary) residence that really calls the shots; the fact that large areas of countryside remain in agricultural use, and that small towns and villages are expanding only slowly, is down to planning regulations rather than to any serious competition for land from productive enterprises.
Conflict in the countryside – and there’s no doubt about its existence – feels more and more as if it is mainly about different ideas of ‘rural life’ and access to it. It is social and cultural rather than economic; the ‘rural economy’ is something that has to be promoted and preserved, by protecting agricultural land from housing development or buying from farmers’ markets, in exactly the same way that the character of a village has to be preserved by restricting housing development or supporting the local post office – it can’t stand up for itself. This is to acknowledge that the indifference of the metropolitan elite to the rest of the country, lamented by Harris*, has some grounding in reality; they can regard the countryside solely in terms of its potential as a secondary residence because it really doesn’t have any other importance. Unlike in the Roman case, the suburbium is no longer also the source of vital resources (apart from water, but they take that without any compunction). The modern equivalents of Quintus Hortensius, who owned a vast game reserve just outside Rome stocked with deer, wild boar and other animals that would come to be fed from a platform at the sound of a horn, face no serious competition in their use of the country for their own pleasure. At least the Romans found such behaviour, to be morally questionable.
*Yes, I know he’s more focused on the fate of other cities than the countryside, but I suspect that the same argument – that globalisation allows London to behave as if it’s entirely independent of its immediate physical surroundings – would apply.