Sunday, 31 May 2009

How To Bestride The Urban & The Pastoral With Only A Dog & Some Aftershave

Because my children are weekly borders, I very seldom get out to the countryside. Every weekend, all they want to do is come home and flop. Even though London is at its loveliest with people strolling around as brown as apple pips in this beautiful weather, I still yearn to be out of sight of any concrete; to be deep within the restful green of the country.

The last time I was there was weeks ago. I had driven to a leafy corner of Sussex to see an ancient friend called Wing Commander Kit Young and his wife, Judy. Their house has remained unchanged since my childhood, with willow-pattern china, faded damask curtains, parquet floors and a carriage clock toiling huskily in the hall. Unlike most other houses, where sitting room furniture is arranged around the television, here the sofa has its back to the room and sits inches from a large bay window. Kit and Judy are avid sunset recorders.

Each evening, they mark the windowpane at the point where the sun vanishes behind the Downs and thus calibrate its incremental shift across the horizon from north to south and back again through the seasons. Theirs cannot be described as an exact science – not least because however close they sit, they have marginally different lines of sight. The final position of the mark has been the cause [or possibly the excuse] for almost nightly fights for the past three decades.
This year, in an effort to promote harmony, the sofa has two car headrests bolted to the back of it and they have taped the marker pen to a raspberry cane so they can reach the window without getting up from their seats.

Supper at the Young's starts the moment the clock wheezes out six chimes and we begin another long held tradition: chasing miniscule cubes of vegetables around our soup bowls with outsize spoons. It was all proceeding quite quietly until - as though by some secret signal – the arrival of the cat, or the distant music of the shipping forecast, they both turned on me.
‘Why must you insist on living in London dearie?’
‘Such a filthy place. Everyone there is so certain it’s the centre of the universe. It is a sinkhole.’
‘You’re all so arrogant about the countryside, is if it's just there for you to slouch around in for a couple of days.’
‘You’d burst into tears if you really had to fend for yourself in the countryside.'
'Have you ever plucked a chicken?'
'Gutted a trout?'
'In our day we just got on with things. No one wears hats any more, or gloves. Slovenly.'
'There wouldn't be this Swine 'Flu panic if people simply dressed properly.'
On & on it went as we chased miniscule cubes of fruit in thin custard with tiny teaspoons. In desperation, I said, 'Isn't it sunset?' It worked. Mid-harangue, they downed spoons and rushed from the room. I found my coat and popped my head round the door. 'Off now.' I called.
'Lovely to see you dearie.  Won't you stay till we're done?'
'No, no I'd like to be back in time to see moonrise over the gasometers'
I said, but they weren't listening.
Driving home through straggling suburbs, I knew they had a point.
 Even though I grew up in the country I have over the years developed a slight phobia, call it hedge horror. I fear long term immersion they will drive me mad. Like city living hasn't.
However I am quite capable of living off the land.  I lived on a desert island for a couple of years, so I'm not the totally helpless townie the Young's like to paint me.
If anyone can straddle both the rugged & the urban, c'est moi.  
In fact, such are my credentials, in March I was invited to contribute to a chic fete champetre manual.
I had been dawdling over the writing, waiting to be propelled by deadline panic, but stung by Kit and Judy and determined to compose a written counter blow, I began that night.

Excitingly, my effort was to be 'Lighting a Fire Without Matches.'
Here's what to do in an easy 5 point plan:
1. Forage in the back of your car for rubbish, until you have gathered an armful of sweet wrappers, empty cartons, crisp packets, lost pages from the road map book, single flip flop, scratched CDs etc.
2. Depending on your shopping habits, soak in either aftershave or nail varnish remover. Be generous.
3. Pluck some twigs from the landscape and cover the sodden rubbish in time-honoured wigwam shape - near, but not too near the car. [see left]
4. Put car in neutral and rev hard for a minute.
5. Call your dog to the car [most breeds will do; labrador is optimum, bulldogs a close 2nd].
Grabbing the dog firmly by the tail, thrust the tip into the lighter point. When sufficiently ablaze, feed it between the wigwam staves. 
Woomph, et voila!