Every road was a back road. Someone, somewhere must have taken a decision at some point that some back roads were more back roads than others, because the road on which we drove had right of way over those with which it met. To the left there was a bungalow with a tarmac forecourt, at the centre of which was a square of concrete, once the base of a petrol pump.
“It’s amazing to think that there was once a petrol station in such a place”.
“It wasn’t just a petrol station; it was the post office as well. Dad used to bring Pups up here for a walk when he needed stamps. Pearl would give Pups a Snowball (marshmallow covered in coconut)”.
Remembering Pups, I thought the Snowball probably disappeared in one large black Labrador’s bite.
We drove on in silence. Occasionally there would be a house or farm where someone remembered had lived, but the countryside seemed dotted with anonymous suburban houses. The school had gone; the post office had gone; the community had lost its soul.
But we didn’t suddenly lose our soul; we chose to do so.
We chose the supermarket over the village shop. We chose driving five miles to save a few pence a litre on our petrol. We chose to send our children to schools with better “facilities”, instead of the simple country schools. We chose to commute distances for better pay, leaving us away from home for longer and longer hours.
We chose a world where Pearl’s petrol pump disappeared; where her sub-post office was closed; where there would no longer be treats for a black dog on his afternoon walks with his country parson master.
The countryside didn’t die suddenly, it died gradually as person after person was lured by Mephistopheles in the guise of Tesco and Sainsbury and all the other big stores; with goods sold at cost price; and filling stations that give discount to those who have used the store; and loyalty card schemes that track every item you buy; and advertising budgets to encourage the waverers.
Faust does not lose his soul because he made a consciously bad choice; he loses his soul because he is tempted into thinking that he is making a good choice. And, at least he exchanges his soul in the pursuit of knowledge; we have exchanged our soul in exchange for cash in our pocket.
Goethe’s telling of the legend of Faust has a redemptive twist at the end of the tale. The Devil comes to claim Faust’s soul, in completion of the bargain that Faust made, but the Lord intervenes to save Faust.
Could there still be redemption for Ireland? Can we recover a sense of community? A sense of the value of something other than raw cash? Or have we sunk so far into the clasp of darkness that our countryside will for evermore remain deserted and desolate?
Will there never be another moment when a country clergyman takes his old dog to the post office to buy stamps on a fine, dry afternoon?