“Our galleries are a mud-free zone,” proclaimed the sign at the entrance of the The Museum of English Rural Life. “Please remove or clean muddy boots before looking around.” A pinch of embarrassment came over me as I looked down at my boots, and didn’t find a speck of mud. I felt as if I’d failed a test, as though I were some dainty city girl out to enjoy the country charm in her pristine footwear.
I’d traveled out from London for the day to visit the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), because Brexit was making me sick after nearly three years of watching the farce unfold. The uncertainty has been leaving people sleepless, anxious and miserable, unable to look away from the horror, and I’d hoped the MERL would be something nice and refreshing — the exact opposite of Brexit. I wanted to take a walk during the cherry blossom season and try and remember why I love springtime on this damp, lush island.
I took the train from London to the MERL’s hometown of Reading on April 5, one week after the day when Britain was supposed to have left the European Union. The new Brexit date was exactly one week away and Parliament was gridlocked. Without a deal, imports could pile up at the border and just-in-time supply chains mean the effects would be felt within days. Never mind the economic decline and loss of freedom of movement: we could be left without access to medicine and food.
The MERL was established by the UK Department of Agriculture in 1951 with the mission to preserve the lives and skills of farmers, and to communicate how they’ve shaped the world. I learned about it the same way most people did: when, a year ago, the museum’s social media genius Adam Koszary tweeted a photo of a chunky ram with curled horns with the comment: “Look at this absolute unit.”
look at this absolute unit. pic.twitter.com/LzcQ4x0q38— The Museum of English Rural Life (@TheMERL) April 9, 2018
The MERL went unexpectedly viral that day, and rose to international prominence in January when it solicited duck pics. To the thrill of seemingly everyone, it received glorious specimens from the likes of the British Museum, the Met in New York, the Louvre in Paris, and the Getty in L.A. “Whatever else 2018 has been, it's been a pretty good year for going from a fairly obscure museum in south east England to a global thicc boi distributor,” the MERL tweeted in December.
On the train out of London Waterloo I moved my news app to a different screen on my phone to stop myself from looking at it, like a nervous tick. Brexit has become a national trauma, as so many of us are stuck in a state of disbelief about the state we’re in. I wanted a day off from it all, or I was going to lose it. So much is at stake, but those with the power to influence the outcome seem to be feeling as helpless as the rest of us, who can do nothing but watch.
The MERL is about a 20-minute walk from the train station, located in an elegant redbrick building. The only hint of its internet fame is a framed picture for sale in the gift shop: the “absolute unit.” The MERL may be famous for being a fantastically wholesome meme generator, but offline it really is what it says on the tin, as we say in Britain: a museum about farming and crafts, full of old spades, horse shoes, crockery, and milk pails..
As I stepped into the first section of the exhibition, called “Shaping the land,” I was immediately carried away as the sound of rain started to play in a dimly lit room. “The wind blows across the hills, the rain falls on English oaks, the seasons turn,” read a placard on the wall, next to a photo of two beautiful workhorses surrounded by trees. “To step into the wind and rain, to turn the vast wild landscape into fields and pasture — is this the greatest achievement of our ancestors?” It slipped right past my crankiness, this declaration of our place in nature.
Brexit cuts to the heart for a lot of people, including me: I’ve been living in the UK for 19 years on an EU passport, meaning my rights to stay here have been up in the air for more than 1,000 days. That’s a very long time to wonder if you can live in the country you thought was your home. I was going to visit my mother in Norway in April, but the uncertainty around the Brexit date means I haven’t been able to plan; I don’t want to leave the country and risk facing an overzealous border agent informing me I can’t come home because I don’t have the right papers. I feel paranoid for thinking this, but also, if you’re not paranoid right now, you haven’t been paying attention.
But there are fat sheep, cattle, oxen and pigs at the MERL, and they do not disappoint. I stood in front of a wall of cow paintings, lovingly rendered in profile as squares with heads and stumpy legs. A sign explained how this aesthetic emerged in the mid-18th century when farmers experimented with breeding, ending up with these odd-shaped creatures in an effort to get the flesh to gather on the edible parts of the body.
Livestock portraiture briefly came into vogue as an expression of passion for rural life, but the painters often exaggerated the girth — the most desirable feature. The MERL is big on setting the record straight. “The countryside is often seen as a healthy place, the antidote to pollution and overcrowding,” read another sign, explaining that the reality for rural people was often far less charming, with plenty of health problems due to “poor housing, healthcare that was hard to access, polluted water and poverty.”
Things we take for granted now, like food that doesn’t immediately spoil or milk that’s safe to drink, is the result of decades of hard work. City folk tend to romanticize the country as passively idyllic: “The countryside is often portrayed as old-fashioned and the city as modern,” the sign read, adding that rural objects often become iconic in cities. To bring the point home, there was a mannequin wearing a waxed Barbour jacket, a fantastically weatherproof coat brand designed for farmers (that I was also wearing that day).
In fairness, I already knew that there was nothing particularly innocent about the countryside. I was born and raised in the country, and I’ve eaten newly laid eggs and drank milk fresh from the teet and all that jazz. My boots have been plenty muddy. But the MERL is the opposite of my everyday world in London. I walked the length of “Wagon Walk” that displays wagons from all over the country, all slightly different because what may suit one region is impractical in another. I watched the first few minutes of a 1970s film called The Good Seed of the Land, where a man in a tweed jacket stands in the middle of a field talking about grain. I studied a mug depicting five overly cheerful potatoes declaring “We want to be Smiths crisps”.
I didn’t look at the news all day, but still, somehow everything reminded me of Brexit. The reason we’re in this mess is complicated, but Brexit is a symptom of a problem that has very little to do with Europe, and everything to do with what Britain considers itself to be. Just like the MERL’s display of bountiful apple harvests is contrasted by reminders of the harshness of rural life, Brexiters’ idea of this country as an island of self-sufficient people dancing around the village green quicky clashes against the fact that immigrants have been vital for Britain’s prosperity.
The MERL is delightful, but trying not to think about something doesn’t work. Toward the end of my visit, I gave in and looked at the news: the day’s political negotiations had resulted in a proposed “flextension,” which could see Brexit delayed for an entire year. Five days later, during midnight negotiations between the UK and the EU within hours of the deadline, Brexit would be postponed to October 31, unless a mutually accepted agreement can be reached before then. That means Brexit can happen... whenever? At the brink of the no-deal cliff, the news felt like physical relief, but everything is still just as uncertain as before. Securing a delay to a self-inflicted disaster is nothing to brag about. We’re already exhausted, and now there’s at least six more months of this farce ahead of us.
I still don’t know how we’re going to make it through six more months of endless Brexit ruminations, but that night something wonderful happened. Before I left the MERL, I’d picked up a postcard depicting purple and orange balls of yarn and the phrase “Knit one, MERL one.” Without really thinking, I picked up the sewing kit I haven’t touched in a year, and started in on my mending pile, fixing holes and dropped hems and lost buttons. I didn’t understand that the MERL’s powers were so stealthy, but it wasn’t until the next morning I realized I hadn’t thought about Brexit all night.