Town Mouse & Country Mouse

The four- letter word emblazoned first line of Phillip Larkin’s poem “This Be the Verse” paints a picture of pessimistic inevitability to how parents influence their children. While the negativity maybe disputed, that there is an influence cannot be. We are all very individualised products of so many factors genetic or otherwise. Chief amongst these with respect to Phillip Larkin must be where we live or where we were brought up. The “Town Mouse and the Country Mouse” Aesop fable has become an English idiom that recognises the effect on our character of where we come from, and to use another idiom how as a result we may sometimes feel like a fish out of water. An observation is an assumption based on personal experience and as such will be disputed, this is even more so when the country mouse is the finer character and claimant to the moral high ground.

Is the countryside friendlier than the town? Both town and country allow you to withdraw, but ironically it is in the countryside that you are more visible. There is an unavoidable obligation to speak to someone when there are only two of you approaching each other slowly across a field, and as individuals in a space you are more likely to speak to someone whether you know them or not. It is much more difficult to pass by as an individual to individual and not speak, than move through a crowd and remain silent. In some rural environments you are there because you must live there or nearby, and so a greeting or overture of friendliness is based on this assumption. A great moment in Crocodile DundeePage_15_title_from_The_Fables_of_Æsop_(Jacobs) sees Mike Dundee trying to say hello to everyone on a busy New York sidewalk. It is one of the contradictions of city life that you live so much within others personal space, but are not expected or required to exchange greetings or comment.

Perhaps rural friendliness is just a manifestation of the mutual recognition of a need for reliance on each other in less accessible areas. Instinct driven rather than good manners maybe? The smaller the community the easier it is to interact. In towns and cities, it is a street or maybe a tower block that is described as a community; a smaller subdivision rather than the whole. An overture of friendship can also be a safety mechanism; clarifying purpose or intention in a rural area where strangers are more noticeable. In a much more extreme form this manifests itself in towns with gangs that dominate small areas defined by postcodes, and where members cite protection and security as their motives for joining.

While so few people maybe friendly, it could also be seen as not so diverse or as welcoming of change which is the heartbeat of a town or city. In the urban environment friendliness is not always the best tool, faced with so many people your silence passes unnoticed, and is used as a coping mechanism for the constant proximity of city life. It is only when the worlds meet just like in Aesop’s fable that these issues arise, and we interpret them through our own experiences. In the town or city, you are more anonymous but that does not make it less friendly; not right or wrong just different.

The countryside is synonymous with peace and tranquillity, but ironically the opposite is often the case because of the loudness of the people who live there. This noise is not the strimmers, lawnmowers or loud music that torture country and town folk alike, but the actual voices of the rural inhabitees. Again, open space and the acreage of land needed for rural enterprise spreads people out, and without the need to consider the ears of those around you why take the time to walk over when you can shout? Milking cows are called from the top of a field or herded by shouts from a quad bike, and sheepdogs work at distance guided by commands and whistles. Before mobile phones and the much- needed controls on lone working, one shout or many across field or through buildings was the only way to communicate. As a child I lent over an orchard fence and shouted my Father for meals, and then waited after many attempts for the acknowledgement that would float back from somewhere.

Does this mean loudness is a necessity? Maybe it is our response to the space; a natural right to fill it? Visitors to the countryside often see it as an opportunity to enjoy space and that includes with their voices. In more built up areas where people live closer together behaviour must be modified to ensure peace and harmony. A visit to the countryside is an opportunity to throw off these controls and enjoy the space without restriction on movement or noise. In one of life’s many strange contradictions people see the countryside both as a place of tranquillity and as a playground to be filled with unrestrained voices and behaviour. This is seen in a town park to a degree where behaviour alters to reflect the open space. Contrast also amplifies sound in the countryside, giving the impression that voices are louder. One voice in an empty space is not lost amongst many, and hits fewer surfaces where it can be absorbed. Voices can travel unhindered and conversations from across fields are inadvertently eavesdropped upon.

Although Aesop finds the morale for his fable in the thoughts and behaviour of the country mouse to the detriment of his relative in town, hopefully being wise he would acknowledgement that while simplicity is an effective teaching tool it is also easily undermined by argument. There are always apparent exceptions to rules, but if we can agree that just a short holiday can change our behaviour a lifetime somewhere must have an impact. What that impact is, and whether it is for better or worse, will be the individual opinion of a person created by their genetics and environment bringing us right back to the start.

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