It’s a compromise
Nature vs culture
The question of nature vs culture comes up a lot in my job. Not because I’m prone to Francis Galton* mis-quotes, I’m on about the other sort of nature – trees and lakes and mountains and those sorts of things.
* – For those who didn’t graduate from Long Road’s Psychology class of 97; Sir Francis was a Victorian polymath who did experiments with twins and coined the phrase ‘nature vs nurture’. To make the joke super-relevant, he went to Trinity College, which is one of the big old buildings in the centre of town. You’ve probably been past it. Did you know that the bookshelves in the library were carved by a talented chap called Grinling Gibbons? This funny name adds to my theory that the whole of Cambridge University is based loosely on the Harry Potter series of books. I’m planning to cover this theory in detail in a future column. Stay tuned.
What I regularly find myself trying to understand from people in order to work out where they might like to live, is the balance they’re looking for between being around nature and being around culture. Cambridge is pretty good for culture. Not just because we have plenty of museums and that new grasshopper clock, but also because we have a diversity of people, a load of funny little pubs, parks to play football in, a liveliness and bustle that’s easy to see. I like going into town and meeting people from all over the world, then them taking me to some little place that I didn’t know existed despite having lived here for my whole life. But we’re less well off on the nature front. Friends of ours moved from here to the German Alps a few years back because they realised they were right at the nature end of the spectrum and that the chalky hill we have near Orwell didn’t really satisfy their desire for the big outdoors. Their village is amazing – mountains, lakes, meadows, utter peace and quiet. You’re not allowed to mow your lawn at lunch time or on a Sunday lest you disturb the silence. It’s bloody lovely. Sitting here typing this I’m fondly remembering the holidays we’ve had there – running for 4 hours up the wooded logging trails to the top of a mountain and only seeing one other human one sunny spring day was a particular highlight. The fact that the other human was selling beer out of a tiny hut called an Alm added to the wonder of the day, but what made it super special was that, because I had no money with me, he let me have a beer if I promised to come back and pay for it another day. I hope he’s not still there waiting. Sucker. But what do they do for culture? They have a few nice local bars and restaurants, maybe 6, but after that they have to drive an hour to Munich or Salzburg. It doesn’t bother them in the slightest, but it would plenty of people.
Cambridge isn’t the worst for getting to the countryside, compared to living in central London it’s a breeze. The byways and bridleways that surround the city may not be as dramatic as the Alps, but they are only a few minutes’ away from the edge of town and because they’re a bit boring they don’t attract the zillions of people you get walking up Snowden or in Ambleside, so it’s easier to find a bit of space. But then central London smashes us to bits when it comes to choices of vegan restaurants.
I listened to an interview with Brian Eno once and he said that you needed to have two houses to find the balance – one in West London and one by the sea – then alternate a few months at each until you get bored / claustrophobic. Which is a great solution if, like him, you’re Brian Eno, but less realistic if you have a 9-5 job and your bank balance isn’t showing the benefit of decades of great artistic achievement. For the rest of us who like a bit of nature and a bit of culture the usual answer is to live somewhere compromised – quite near a city and quite near some country. Like nature more than culture? Maybe move 15 miles out of town. Like culture more than nature? Consider the suburbs.
But compromises suck. You sell them to yourself as the best of both worlds, but in truth they’re mostly the worst of both worlds. When you live in the suburbs you can’t just walk 5 minutes into town, so you don’t go in as much as you would if you actually lived in the centre. And 15 miles out isn’t the countryside, it’s commuter belt.
As you can tell, I’ve been thinking about this a bit. I thought I’d had my Newton’s Apple (Trinity again) moment when I decided to move down Mill Road and buy a motorhome to schlep off to the country in, but it turns out it’s quite tough round there to find a parking space for a 7 metre camper. But I now think I have it: I’d like to introduce you to my latest crowd-funded internet start-up. House Sharing. The basic idea is that you hook up with another family / couple / person like you and you share two houses – one right in the middle of a town and one on top of a hill somewhere. It’s cost effective, because you’re only paying half the running costs, it will probably solve the housing crisis because people like Brian Eno won’t have one house that sits empty the whole time and you get to make new friends. There are a few minor pitfalls, so the plan needs some fine tuning, but with your help I think it’s a goer. Please send PayPal donations to the usual email.