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Can Sir Max take on the Government townies?
Friday, 01 November, 2002

Country columnist John Sheard takes a wry look at the new President of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the journalist and author Sir Max Hastings.

IN THE PAST, I have been distinctly underwhelmed by the regular appointment of leading media figures, mostly from television, to figure head posts in some of our oldest, and once highly respected, charities devoted to protecting rural life in Britain.

    Council for the Protection of Rural England Logo

The reasons for this is quite simple: most of them live and making their living amongst the chattering classes of North London, going to the same restaurants, the same receptions, even the same holiday destinations, with a hot house mix of politicians, civil servants, high-flying lawyers and more media people. The only normal person they ever meet is likely to be a taxi driver.

But most of them also have a weekend cottage, preferably in the Cotswolds, which they feel gives them an understanding of the countryside and the way its people live.

This is a bit like letting a common-or-garden electrician carry out brain surgery because the brain works by passing tiny electrical currents from cell to cell. It has routinely led to confrontation between real country folk, who understand how this complex environment works, and those who are thought to represent their interests.

Yet this week, the much-respected Council for the Protection of Rural England issued a profile of its new President, the journalist and author Sir Max Hastings, and this left me in a bit of a quandary. I have followed his glittering career with respect and not a little envy, as a much less successful journalist and author, but what are his credentials as a countryman?

The very first quote from him I spotted in the CPRE journal, Countryside Voice, augured well: "This is a Government of towns and cities that just doesn't understand the countryside."

Wham. It's not just a matter of saying "I could have written that myself." I have written that myself, time and time again, and it is very reassuring that someone so influential shares your views.

Although he agrees with some of the Government's policies - like switching agricultural support towards conservation rather than the over-production of food - he admits that this will be a long and painful process.

Well, we in the countryside know that only too well. But can he make it understood by a Government "of pavements, towns and cities" to use his own choice description.

But it gets even better. He lives with his wife, Penny, and their dogs in a rambling old farmhouse near Hungerford in Berkshire and goes fishing (lucky so and so) on the nearby River Kennet, one of England's finest chalk streams - but one which demands great skills with a dry fly for the big trout there are as cunning as they come.

Sir Max, knighted only a few weeks ago, is a former editor the Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard, which he gave up so that he could live in the countryside to freelance as a journalist and write books. That shows a real dedication to country life.

But the quote I like the very best is: "I still get up to London about once a week - but I wouldn't care if I never saw the place again."

Arise, Sir Max Hastings, who walked into Port Stanley at the end of the Falklands War before the British Army got there. We need that sort of spirit in the countryside very much indeed at present. If anyone can make this "Government of pavements" listen, it ought to be you.

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