How could he say that? How could he think that? Perhaps the most shocking moment of last week’s Archers was one of Rob’s outbursts when he declared that he didn’t ‘want to live in bloody Ambridge’. It was, of course, of a piece with the rest of his simply appalling behaviour and the hyperbole of a man who is struggling with a mixture of fear, guilt, and indecision. But the idea that he did not wish to live in the idyllic community that is Ambridge would be stunning to the many followers of the programme. How could he?
Of course, those who have lived in a village like Ambridge will be all too aware that the suburbanite can create a picture of Elysium that bears little relation to reality. Would I really want to face the inquisition of Susan when I went to buy my paper? Or to risk being late for appointments as I drove slowly behind one of Shula’s horses or David’s tractors? Or to be bullied by Lynda into donning tights to take part in her panto? It is to state the obvious to say that there are disadvantages as well as benefits to living in a small community and that the appeal of village life is greater to some than to others. It is also obvious that a community like Ambridge is not for everyone an easy community of which to feel a part. Many who have made their home in a small village will know what Rob’s wife is experiencing. Jess feels that she has to try (and maybe is trying too hard) to be accepted.
But Rob’s petulant utterance was not about the drawbacks of living in a village like Ambridge; he would be quite happy to reside in another small community provided that it was not the one in which his (former?) inamorata also lived. That is a reason that he needs to keep hidden, so he avers that there are other motives for moving – to reduce Jess’ commuting time or to put some distance between himself and his work. They are all ideas which suggest some dislocation between the different parts of his life and point us to the real issue at the heart of his unfortunate statement.
Christianity (as is most apparent in this week) is a religion of Incarnation. The carols and readings of Christmas are about God becoming human in a particular time and place. That he did so gives that time and place particular significance. So (as far as the security situation will allow) pilgrims will gather in Manger Square tonight to celebrate that here Christ was born. That does not detract at all from the universality of the Christian message. On the contrary, it affirms that just as one place was blessed by divine presence so any place can be blessed by divine presence. And that one place was and is not perfect: the Bethlehem in which Christ was born was under the shadow of violence, with a people who were oppressed, and a population who lived in fear. The Bethlehem of today may not be very different.
So our imperfect places – our towns, villages, neighbourhoods – are the places where we are. They have particular significance because of the particular (if ordinary) circumstance of our being there. And they are the places that we often love. Those who live in rural communities are sometimes inordinately proud of the place of their birth or their current abode because it is the place where they belong. It has a preciousness that it does not have for others and other places do not have for them. That is part of what it means to be human – to belong somewhere.
Another part of what it means to be human is to feel a sense of alienation at times – a sense of not belonging somewhere (perhaps of not belonging anywhere). There is a spiritual aspect to that which Christian writers since the time of the Fathers have interpreted as a consequence of sin; Adam and Eve were exiled as a consequence of their disobedience. Christian converts will often talk about their experience as an homecoming. So the sense of belonging somewhere, of loving the place where one is, can also have a profound spiritual dimension to it for the Christian when one says that this is the place where God has called me to be, physically and spiritually.
What Rob’s lamentable outburst reveals is a profound sense of dislocation in all sorts of ways. The Christian who loves Ambridge has to feel deeply sorry for someone who has brought that on himself.