It’s time we tackled people’s ignorance about rural life

How much more mature and sensible our culture would be if primary school children were taught about the countryside, preferably with regular nature walks in the company of a well-informed teacher. It may sound-old fashioned, even Blytonesque, but, if children were occasionally taken outside the bubble of our cosseted, urbanised culture, the results in later life would be significant: less ignorance about the environment, more understanding of the realities of food, less sentimentality and cruelty towards animals.

A mind-boggling blindness to the natural world has been much in evidence this week. In the Andrew Marr interview, Tony Blair admitted with a bashful smile that he had never really understood the issues surrounding fox-hunting. In fact, the whole ban thing might have been a bit of a mistake, he seemed to be implying. When Marr suggested that his government had never really understood the countryside, Blair cheerfully agreed. His ignorance did not matter much then, he seemed to be saying, and was of even less importance now.

Away from politics, a survey has revealed an alarming gormlessness in public attitudes towards wild animals. Following press accounts of an attack on two children by a fox this summer, a third of the 1,000 city-dwellers interviewed for the London Wildcare Trust said they had changed their minds about wildlife. What they had once seen as “harmless creatures”, they now perceived as “dangerous animals”. A fifth were afraid of wildlife in the garden. Some were even wary of feeding birds.

Come back, nature teachers. The country – or, rather, the city – needs you.


Hague has merely prolonged the agony

It has taken a non-scandal to reveal the extent to which gossip and cruelty now influence our politics. Normally when a story breaks about the private life of a politician – Prescott and the secretary, Oaten and the rent-boy, Laws and the tenant – there is a spasm of public excitement, followed by some sort of resolution.

The great William Hague imbroglio has prompted a strange game of pass-the-parcel when it comes to apportioning blame, but nothing has been resolved. The politicians have pointed the finger at the media. The mainstream press has blamed the internet. Bloggers, those unlikely front-line warriors in the new politics, have fought like like ferrets in a sack about whether spreading gossip is an act of morality or sleaze.

It has rarely been mentioned that what now lies behind this non-scandal is a cruel public mood. The nation has become used to punishing politicians, to seeing them flailed in public for some act of financial or sexual indiscretion. In this case, William Hague, normally one of our most sure-footed of politicians, has allowed himself to be drawn into the soap opera by unwisely issuing a statement about his marriage which was unnecessarily revealing.

 Until then, every participant in his story had behaved predictably. The blogger Guido Fawkes, pandering shamelessly to the mood of the moment, niggled away querulously in the time-honoured manner of village gossips. Who was this aide of Hague’s? Rather young, wasn’t he? Good-looking lad, eh? Strange that they shared the same hotel room. In a matter of seconds, spoors of rumour and speculation spread in that most fertile of habitats, the internet.

When the traditional press became involved, it was in a manner which made the bloggers look like straight-forward dealers in truth. A photograph of the two men, looking happy in each other’s company, was run in a Sunday paper with a jokey story about Hague wearing a baseball cap. Then, with bogus concern, questions were asked as to whether the young aide should be paid by public money. Finally, and of course with great reluctance, the press reported on speculation on the internet as to the relationship of the two men.

In a saner, kinder age, the response of a married politician with nothing to hide beyond, arguably, a lapse of judgement would have been a curt dismissal of silly gossip. Instead, Hague seems to have decided he should give the media a mini-Diana moment by issuing a statement which took over-sharing to a new level of embarrassment. What was the point of revealing his wife’s “multiple miscarriages”? To win sympathy and closure? To underscore, without having to spell it out, his marital virility?

Either way, it was a terrible misjudgement. What has propelled this story is not merely a sheet-sniffing blogger and a hypocritical press. The public is hungry for a story. When a dignified man shows vulnerability, people become more interested, not less. They want to know how the story ends.


I don’t see the appeal of a scarlet gentleman

That reliable source of information about the murky byways of human behaviour, the Journal of Experimental Psychology, has some useful advice for men out on the pull this autumn. Wear red. It has been known for some time that in certain species – baboons, mandrills and the like – the colour red indicates the power and dominance of an alpha male in his mighty prime. Now, according to a recent experiment, it can work its magic on human females, too.

Shown a series of photographs of men, female undergraduates were asked to grade each of them in terms of their sexual attractiveness. The men whose shirts were digitally coloured red were widely perceived be to be more powerful, attractive and desirable (but not, significantly, nicer or kinder).

“When women see red, it triggers something deep and probably biologically ingrained,” says Professor Andrew Elliott, who ran the experiment. “We found that women view men in red as higher in status, more likely to make money and more likely to climb the social ladder. And it’s this high-status judgment that leads to the attraction.”

It all sounds logical enough until one imagines a man wearing a bright red shirt at a party. Does he really emanate power and desirability to the women around him, or simply, as most men would think, a dodgy dress sense? How mysterious female biology can be.

Independent, Friday, 3 September 2010