Tuesday, February 08, 2005

A patchwork country

Rumour has it that the world would be a different place if it wasn't for the fact that the oldest sons of Britain inherited everything. Rumour has it that all those second, third and so on sons would not have been wandering the world as soldiers, entrepreneurs and, basically, colonists.

Now this is a challenging area to think about, but one of the aspects that strikes me about this whole idea, is the pattern of land ownership. And this is where a comparison between France and Britain can be helpful. Britain is plastered with large blocks of land, owned by small numbers of people. Another rumour has it that over 80% of the land in Britain is owned by less than 20% of the population. It's not quite like that in France.

Here, virtually all property has been divided up at the death of each generation. Multiply that up, even since the revolution, and you get quite a patchy picture. To the extent that, as I look out of my room here, I can see a small building not even worthy of the name 'barn' or even 'outbuilding' that is owned by two different families. It is so small that you'd be hard pushed to say it has two rooms. It is, effectively, a stone shed. Divided up at some time. Half and half just about. But top and bottom, not side by side. So that the bottom has a door through to an adjacent building. The ceiling of the shed forms the floor of the property above. Which is isolated from, but part of a handsome collection of buildings. So when the shed ceiling/floor, which has a large hole in it, needs repairing, who pays? What if there is a little problem in getting agreement over access, even if only one party wants to make the repair and pay for it. Believe me, the opportunities for conflict and lawyers' fees is huge.

And yet, taking a wider view, the countryside round here is just as subdivided. Fields owned by one family completely surrounded by other fields, and dependent on other families for access. Patches of woods a couple of acres in size all huddleed together on hillsides with layer upon layer of ownership history and access rights. It's not exactly efficient in terms of economic return, but it's certainly been an effective element in protecting the diversity of the landscape from the kind of blanket afforestation thankfully now being consigned to the history books in Britain.

There's a constant opportunity for conflict here. But this messy patchwork also ensures that neighbours, whether they have been here for generations or have just arrived from the city or another country, have a virtually unavoidable opportunity to talk to each other. And whether this establishes a certain protocol of ongoing conversation, (like getting your half dozen cows into and out of your field) or a clean decision, (like repairing the floor/ceiling) such conversations are part of the social dynamics here.

And despite the culture shock of having to talk to someone else about my home, my land, and so on; despite the feeling that somehow life would be simpler if it were all cut and dried; actually, this is a good thing. It establishes social contact on a day to day basis as a necessity, and when you accept something as a necessity, it becomes a lot more relaxing.

Paraphrasing somewhat...

'The courage to change what I can, the peace to accept what I can't, and the wisdom to know the difference.'

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