Town mice think they’re brighter than country mice, but I know better, says Tom Hodgkinson
One morning recently, I broke the silence at breakfast by reading out a snippet from the Times to Mrs Mouse.
‘I see that living in the city may make urban mice cleverer than their rural counterparts,’ I said.
‘It’s true. According to this story, researchers found the townies performed considerably better than the country mice in problem-solving tasks. They solved 77 per cent of their tasks compared with just 52 per cent solved by the rural mice.’
The research was carried out by some German academics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön. Fifteen field mice were pitted against 15 Berlin-born mice in a Krypton-Factor-style competition. The tasks given to the mice included opening the windowpanes of Lego houses and the lids of Petri dishes, and retrieving a wad of paper wedged inside a plastic tube.
The Berlin mice did slightly better than their dozy rural cousins. The prof leading the research declared, ‘Our results are consistent with the idea that living in human-altered environments might favour increased problem-solving performance.’
I’m afraid this isn’t the case with me. Since we moved back to the radically human-altered environment of Shepherd’s Bush from the wilds of Exmoor five years ago, my problem-solving performance has, if anything, diminished.
In the country, while I was never particularly successful at jobs round the house, growing vegetables or looking after animals, I did at least make an effort to wield a hammer, saw and mattock.
Now I’ve become one of those enfeebled modern men – the sort of fop who pays other, more accomplished men to carry out simple tasks like putting up a picture, while I spend all day on a computer screen, withering away.
I feel like one of the citizens in E M Forster’s The Machine Stops, his brilliant 1909 dystopian story, in which everyone lives alone in underground cells and communicates via a form of Zoom.
If you take intelligence to mean something like ‘book learning’, then this town mouse cannot report much improvement on that score, either. When living in the sticks, I read three or four books a week. I devoured medieval history and modern sociology. Now I spend my evenings numbing my brain by watching episodes of The Crown.
In the seventies, they used to say, ‘TV kills your brain cells, man!’ I think this may be true. When reading books, I could talk to my family about the economic effects of the Protestant Reformation. Now I just discuss how far the patterns on Anya Taylor-Joy’s frocks in The Queen’s Gambit were influenced by the chessboard.
What is true is that urban living can lead you to believe you are more intelligent than slow-talking country mice. I went to a London school for fops and dandies called Westminster. It left me with a terrible intellectual snobbery, because it was then and still is, I think, the best school in the country. It is regularly number one in the league tables. We looked down on Etonians, whose school is located in suburban Windsor, as being a bit dim, boring and conventional, as well as totally uncool.
The great autodidact William Cobbett loathed the products of both Westminster and Eton, and called Oxford and Cambridge, the next stage in the fops’ journey, ‘dens of dunces’.
Real wit and intelligence, he reckoned, were to be found in the sturdy folk who could both grow cabbages and read political magazines.
I suppose what the noble scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology are saying is that life is tougher for town mice, and that they therefore reach a higher level of aptitude.
The country mice, by contrast, have had an easier time of it, and so have been able to survive quite happily with a lower level of ingenuity.
Well, it’s the other way round with humans. The city mice are pampered and given easy, high-paying jobs in corporations. Feeling slightly guilty about their good fortune and comfortable lives, they become liberals and read the Guardian.
I was worrying about becoming a useless, urban Mekon – an overinflated ego hovering on a flimsy disc of nothingness.
So I’ve resolved to bring a bit of country living to our terraced house in west London. The first step was to order large loads of logs. These logs are deposited on a pallet out in the street. They then have to be carried through the house and stacked in the yard, an activity that makes me feel I am not entirely without purpose.
The pallet then has to be broken into individual planks, each of which needs to be sawn up into useful bits of kindling. Unloading and reloading the logs took my son and me a good hour of sweating and puffing. It felt good.
As for the marmalade – well, it was a triumph. Since returning to London, I’ve been slightly guiltily buying it from Waitrose. So making ten jars of it at home and finding it to be the best marmalade ever made me feel, erm, quite clever.