The Bucks Peasants cartoons ran for ten years without missing a week. They occupied the top third of the Letters Page so they were free to join readers in commenting on current issues, or to wander off into their own rural hinterland to mutter at will. As far as I’m concerned, Peasantry is a philosophy; the most successful social order in history. If I call someone a peasant, it’s the highest compliment I can pay them. Here’s how I really feel about it:
I am a peasant. So are you. Scratch any one of us and you’ll find a peasant underneath. The most successful and enduring lifestyle in human history is so deep in our genes that nothing this side of Doomsday could eradicate it.
The peasant in us is the side of our nature that stretches back into pre-history. It’s at the root of our instinct for collective as well as individual survival. We can be chieftains, lords and kings but we all started on the land and deep down none of us ever forgets it.
Here’s the executive getting off the train in his suit. What’s his first instinct when the mobile and briefcase are stashed away? He gets out a fork and digs his patch. He’s a peasant. She’s a peasant. A small voice is calling from open land close to the soul’s horizon: ‘Get back to your roots.’ Sorry folks, that’s how it is.
We started as hunter-gatherers, tribes of us wandering the Earth in pursuit of anything edible. The tribes bred leaders and they said, ‘Hang on – why don’t we stop running and take hostages? The grass is good here so the cattle aren’t going anywhere, and by the way, I’ve just invented the fence.’
So we became farmers. The peasant was born and we felt a sense of territory for the first time. . ‘This is my patch,’ said the peasant. ‘I feel protective all of a sudden.’
This was a good thing and a bad thing. Peasant culture is not immune from contamination and in no time at all we were feuding. Some of us tried to steal a march by pretending to be something other than peasants – something more elevated, whatever that means.
But the truth is, nothing beats the peasant’s way of reasoning. Making the land support you is the most satisfying and humbling human endeavour – and this strange contradiction provides a unique balance which is the root of a peasant’s nature.
The definition of a peasant offered by the O. E. D. is brief: ‘One who lives in the country and works on the land.’ No judgement. No emotion. Whoever wrote that didn’t really believe in peasants, never expected to meet one and had no strong feelings about them one way or the other. They might as well have been describing fairies at the bottom of the garden.
Perhaps because peasants have been so fundamental to the fabric of society for so long, the nature of peasantry is easily misunderstood. But the peasant way of life is the most enduring of all. For sheer durability nothing has ever come close.
Peasants were around when Troy was at the planning stage. They watched the Pyramids rise from the desert and witnessed the arrival of Stonehenge. They endured invasions, plagues, droughts, floods, hangovers, recessions and elections without number. They listened unimpressed to generations of tub-thumping politicians, wandered off without comment and out-lasted them all.
We’re all peasants, ready and willing to get back to the land at the drop of a shapeless hat.
The Peasant cartoons are a celebration of the instinct to observe and react without letting the whole thing get too serious.