5 March 1999

SO WHAT

DID THE

98 MARCH

ACHIEVE?

A YEAR ago almost to the day, Janet George picked up the early editions of the Sunday newspapers from a late night kiosk at Londons Victoria station.

The front pages said it all: "Country uprising arrives in town," bellowed the Sunday Times. "They have come from hamlets and market towns to save the country. The British lion has awoken, they proclaim, and its roar will shake the capital from the Embankment to Hyde Park – and possibly even to parliament."

That night George managed only two hours sleep. The next morning, 280,000 rural folk marched through London in the biggest mass protest the capital city had seen for more than a decade. George found herself giving interviews almost non-stop to journalists from all over the world.

"I was just running on adrenalin," she says now. "When I sat down afterwards and tried to think of what had happened I could not remember anything. I was on autopilot. I could not have told you what interviews I had done, what programmes I had done. I was just churning them out like there was no tomorrow."

Afterwards, she went to the pub for a well earned drink. People were chatting to total strangers, she says. City folk and country folk talking together like there was no such thing as a town-country divide. The day – and the march – had been a resounding success. And as chief press officer for the Countryside Alliance, George had made it happen.

Sacked

Within months, she was out of a job. A bitter and public feud with Edward Duke, the alliances newly-appointed chief executive, meant her position had become untenable. George had openly criticised Dukes £200,000-a-year salary and the alliance board of directors, claiming they were all "obsessed with money".

By the end of July, Duke had resigned, too. The Yorkshire-born businessman with interests in the cement industry eventually conceded that the alliance needed a campaigner at its helm, rather than a businessman.

Six months later, when we meet at Rules, her favourite London eatery, George is wearing a conservatively cut emerald green suit. It makes her look serious rather than sexy, but her slightly late arrival – even at a traditional restaurant like Rules – makes her fashionable. She smokes Lambert and Butler cigarettes, carries her own ashtray, and has an acid line in wit.

"I do hope hes well hung," she shouts towards the kitchen after ordering a traditional Aberdeen Angus steak from the meat and game menu.

The daughter of an Australian doctor, George "always was interested in horses and drama". She left home and school at 16 to work in musical PR during the sixties. Two years later she left that too. "I decided it was just a bit too sleazy," she says, describing how her then flatmate once got her Siamese cat stoned.

The years that followed laid the foundations for the future. She worked more and more with horses, helped popularise Riding for the Disabled in the Australian state of Victoria, and became involved in political lobbying. By the end of the seventies, George was in Britain to take the British Horse Societys riding instructor exams. She ended up staying after meeting Robert, the man who became her husband.

"I loved England, I had always wanted to come here." she says. And then she is joking again: "But I can give a number of reasons for getting married. One is that I had a bad name and my visa was running out, the other is that he is the only man I ever met who makes me feel intellectually inferior."

The newly married couple settled in Shropshire where George started keeping pedigree Charollais sheep. "I learned all there is to know about sheep and found out that the one thing they like doing more than anything else is dying after you have spent a lot of money on them."

Rural army

Eventually she was lured back to work by the job of Press officer for what was then the British Field Sports Society. When that became the Countryside Alliance, she found herself mobilising a disgruntled rural army. So did the march achieve anything?

"Not as much as it could have," she says. "I think the sad thing was that there was no real follow though. The march was the countryside leaping up and down in a big way and then after that there was a deathly silence. That was partly bad luck and partly bad management."

These days, the alliance has a new chief executive. Richard Burge, once director general of the Zoological Society of London, took up the reins this month, promising he would "rise to the many challenges that will be faced by our rural communities in the run-up to and throughout the new millennium".

George, meanwhile, is spin-doctoring for the British Horse Society. Just weeks ago she was telling the Today programme on Radio 4 that thousands of jobs will be lost if riding stables have to pay employees the minimum wage. She has written a book, A Rural Uprising, which details the background to the Countryside March.

"The British are very stoic," she says. "They have to be very seriously under threat before they will do anything. Yes, it was a rural uprising. There was a desperation to it."

And as for the Countryside Alliance? "It was a job I loved, I was just deeply immersed in it. I have had calls since from PR companies who thought they could get some cheap publicity by hiring me and then burying me in a back room doing cornflakes or something. But I am terribly lucky doing something that I enjoy now."

She organised one of

the biggest peace-

time demonstrations

London has ever

seen. Now, one year

after the Countryside

March, Janet George

takes stock.

By Johann Tasker

Yes, it was a rural up- rising, says Janet George.