We are suddenly all expected to know that county lines are to do with the selling of illegal drugs in rural Britain. There is, I think, a confusion built into the term, though language is capable of accommodating such inconsistencies.
Most of the stuff in the papers and on television on the subject derives from County Lines, Violence, Exploitation & Drug Supply, a report published last year by the National Crime Agency. It says that the phrase county lines refers to the supply of Class A drugs ‘from an urban hub into rural towns or county locations’. It adds: ‘A key feature of county lines drug supply is the use of a branded mobile phone line.’ Just tap the number stored on your phone and the drugs come along like a pizza or Uber. The NCA notes that, increasingly, the phone is held not at an urban location but closer to the rural marketplace.
It is a minor irony that mobile phones are still said to have dedicated lines, when land lines are exactly what they replace. It was different in 1968 when Glen Campbell sang that song by Jimmy Webb Wichita Lineman, which begins: ‘I am a lineman for the county’. His lonely job was monitoring lines supported by stout wooden poles.
In the druggy sense, county lines also connote supply lines. But the major influence is the American meaning of county line. This is a border. County lines seem to have greater importance in law and order in America than in Britain. The phrase has been in use since 1776, the very year of independence.
In a hit song, ‘Keep the Customer Satisfied’, from their album Bridge over Troubled Water (1970), Simon and Garfunkel sang: ‘And I’m one step ahead of the shoe shine,/ Two steps away from the county line.’ County lines figure frequently in American songs, partly for the rhyme. A country song (by Sugarland, from 2006) goes: ‘There’s a place I like to go/ (Cherry bombs and cherry wine)/ Just past the Texaco/ Down on the county line.’ To me this has the authentic flavour of traditional folk lyrics.
In Britain, county lines entail ugly violence and intimidation, the antithesis of old-fashioned county society.