Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives

Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives by Carolyn Steel Read Free Book Online

Book: Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives by Carolyn Steel Read Free Book Online
Authors: Carolyn Steel
form the basis of the social contract at the heart of liberal democratic thought; and they were about to be put to the test in America, where, theoretically at least, there should have been enough land to go round. As it turned out, there wasn’t. The invidious treatment by European settlers of the Native Americans (who, thanks to their hunter-gatherer lifestyles, had never felt the need to lay claim to their land by planting hedges around it) soon put paid to any notion that the New World might deal with the land question any more equably than the old one had.
    Part of the problem, of course, was that Locke’s ideas were formulated from a farming perspective, not that of a hunter-gatherer. While Locke’s concept of liberty was eventually bound into the American Constitution through Thomas Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration of Independence, Native Americans forfeited their right to land because they lived
it, not off it. They trod too lightly to put down markers that Europeans might have recognised or understood. As it was, the concept of common land was as doomed in the vastness of North America as it was in the tiny island nation that sought to colonise it.
War of the Wens
    While Native Americans were being robbed of their land in the New World, the peasant dream of a plot of one’s own was fast disappearing in the old one. The process of enclosure in England accelerated rapidly during the eighteenth century, resulting in the annexing of some million hectares by the century’s end. 49 Yet progress was still too slowfor the nation’s greatest champion of agricultural reform, Arthur Young. Surveying the country in 1773, Young declared the amount of land that remained uncultivated ‘a disgrace’, announcing his intention to bring ‘the wastelands of the Kingdom into culture’ and ‘cover them with turnips, corn and clover’. 50 Although not raised a farmer, Young acquired an Essex farm in 1767, where he conducted a series of technical experiments, publishing the results in his
Annals of Agriculture
, which were so well received they ran to 45 volumes, and even enjoyed the occasional anonymous contribution from King George III. As his fame spread, Young took to travelling, preaching agricultural reform throughout Britain, France and Italy, lecturing to rapt audiences wherever he went.
    For Young and his followers, the growth of cities represented a fabulous opportunity for farmers to modernise; to develop what Young called ‘agriculture animated by a great demand’. 51 But his enthusiasm was not universally shared. To William Cobbett, gentleman farmer, political essayist and tireless campaigner on behalf of the rural poor, cities were ‘wens’: parasitical boils that consumed everything in their path. Those who lived in them were little better: they were the undeserving and ungrateful beneficiaries of others’ sweat and toil. ‘We who are at anything else,’ he wrote, ‘are deserters from the plough.’ 52 Cobbett, unlike Young, was the son of a Surrey smallholder, and he identified personally with the agricultural labourers he considered ‘the very best and most virtuous of all mankind’. 53 He dedicated himself to their cause, publishing a stream of invective in his paper, the
Political Register
, against the systems and policies that were destroying rural life. Cobbett’s disgust for London was such that he could barely bring himself to mention it by name, dubbing it instead ‘the Great Wen’. Yet since his political life forced him to spend a considerable amount of time there, he put it to good use, going on a series of exploratory journeys to see the effects of urbanisation for himself. His subsequent account, published as
Rural Rides
in 1830, emerged as a bitter diatribe against cities:
Have I not, for twenty years, been regretting the existence of these unnatural embossments; these white-swellings, these odious wens, produced by Corruption and engendering crime and misery and slavery? But,

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