Read an Excerpt
ALL IN ONE BASKET (Chapter 1)
The first sentence of a diary given to a nine-year-old child at Christmas, written on New Year’s Day and kept faithfully till at least 10 January, was ‘got up, dressed, had breakfast’. The first sentence of a book is a different matter and very difficult indeed. I have been pondering over this for some time. I asked my sister Jessica what to do. She tells me that in America, if you pay some money, you can get advice as to how to begin and then go on to be a famous author. They say put down ‘the’ on a bit of paper, add some words, keep on adding and Bob’s your uncle (or the American equivalent), you’re off and the rest will follow. It doesn’t seem to work. Just try. So, hopelessly stuck and faced with the empty page, see how other people manage. Lately we have been reminded of ‘I had a farm in Africa…’ ‘I had a farm in Derbyshire’ somehow doesn’t sound as good and anyway it would be a lie because in England things like farms seldom belong to women. Having failed with ‘the’, try ‘and’. ‘And it came to pass’, too affected and you can’t go on in that biblical style. When you open books to see how it is done it seems so easy, set down there in the same type as the rest as if it was no trouble at all, the second sentence flowing out of the first one like one o’clock. Believe me, the writer has suffered over those words. As 50,000 books are published every year the first sentences must add hugely to the level of anxiety in an already anxious race.
I looked at the television programme about Uncle Harold, 2 called !Reputations How strange it is to see his and Aunt Dorothy’s private life trotted out like a story in a film. He would have considered the fashion for such entertainment unspeakably vulgar. And so do I. The point about Dorothy Macmillan was her charm, energy and earthiness; there were no frills. She was one of the few people I have met who was exactly the same with whoever she was talking to, oblivious of their class – something which people keep on about now almost as much as they do about sex. She gave her whole attention, laughed easily, was unread and not smart, and was a tireless constituency worker. I was always told that it was she who won the elections at Stockton-on Tees. Her time in Downing Street was famous for children’s parties, and the branches, more than flowers, which she dragged up from the garden at Birch Grove in the back of her car. When Uncle Harold was Housing Minister, Andrew, my husband, was president of the Building Societies’ Association. It seemed to be indicated that Andrew should ask his aunt to the annual dinner as guest of honour. She asked, ‘Shall I wear my best dress or the other one?’ The thought of the other one made us wonder.
Harold was an intellectual and a politician all right, no doubt about that; but the mistake so often made of putting people into categories left him there, and did not allow for his interest in the family publishing business and many different aspects of life, including his devotion to field sports. The press called that the grouse moor image. After he married, his father-in-law expected him to go out shooting, even though he had never before fired a shotgun. Reg Roose, a Chatsworth gamekeeper and a delightful man, was detailed to be his tutor. Uncle Harold was a quick learner. Years later Reg and I watched his performance when large quantities of pheasants flew high across a valley with the wind behind them. ‘Doesn’t the Prime Minister shoot well?’ I said. ‘Yes,’ answered Reg, proudly. ‘I taught him and he’s fit to go anywhere now.’
When Uncle Harold was ninety he stayed with us for three months. I will always remember his perfect manners. He dined alone with me often, and I am sure he would have welcomed other company. But he talked as if I were his intellectual equal – ha, ha – or another ex-prime minister, and I almost began to think I was. For much of the day he sat in an armchair in his bedroom and listened to tapes of Trollope. (It made me nervous when he dropped off, lest his smouldering cigar should fall into the wicker wastepaper basket by his side.) He once told me of a mistake made by the suppliers of the tapes. ‘I think there is something wrong. They have sent a curious book called Lucky Jim, by a feller called Amis. Have you ever heard of him? I don’t like it much. Must be a very peculiar man.’ He was frail and shuffled down the long corridors at his own speed. He couldn’t find the door to the hall and I heard him mutter, ‘The trouble with this house is you have to throw double sixes to get out.’
His relationship with President Kennedy was worth watching. The President had never seen anything like him, and you could say the same for Uncle Harold. They struck up an unlikely friendship and were more surprised and more amused by one another at every meeting. They talked endlessly on the telephone – usually in the middle of the night. I used to hear of these conversations from both participants. It was the time when initials of organisations began to be used as a sort of shorthand. One night, after speaking of Castro, they went on to discuss Seato and Nato. Uncle Harold was stumped for a moment when the President said, ‘And how’s Debo?’ When Mrs Thatcher was new to the job he had had for years, she went to see him. ‘Oh good,’ I said, ‘and did you talk?’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘she did.’
Uncle Harold’s good manners were often tested when he stayed with us. I am not good at place à table, and one night I saw he was sitting at dinner between my son and his friend, both in their first year at Eton. There was the usual political crisis on and the PM was preoccupied with his own thoughts, while the boys anxiously cast round for a suitable subject of conversation. After a long silence I heard Sto say, ‘Uncle Harold, Old Moore’s Almanack says you’ll fall in October.’ To his eternal credit, after a suitable pause, he answered, ‘Yes, I should think that’s about right.’
It is strange to see your family enacted on television from an old book about them, written half a century ago. I suppose the royal family and politicians such as Bush and Mandy, 3 whose ancestors played a part in public life, do so continually. But for ordinary folk it is indeed an odd experience. It was also odd to read the reviews. Mr Paul Hoggart in Reputations He disapproves in a governessy way of the idea of my father hunting my sisters with his bloodhounds Reputations What else would he have done it for? (Alas, I was considered too young to be hunted and, by the time I was of huntable age, the bloodhounds had gone.) I know that some misguided people, for reasons best known to themselves, are against hunting foxes, but surely children are fair game? He complains, too, about a mother’s reaction to the hideous appearance of her newborn baby. I wonder if, in his sheltered life, the reviewer has ever seen a newborn baby. Referring to Nancy, he goes on to say that ‘she presents her cast as freaks’. Another reviewer states we were the ‘lunatic fringe’. Oh dear, freaks and lunatics. Well, never mind. My sister Nancy’s letters have been published, 4 or some of them I should say, as we have got thousands here. They are kept in cardboard boxes with holes for them to breathe through. Whenever I pass by a pile of these boxes, containing papers of every description accumulated since the 1950s, I always hope they are a consignment of day-old chicks, which used to travel by train in the guard’s van in just such boxes. They provide what Americans call Optimum Archival Conditions. I don’t know about their conditions, but Nancy’s are certainly of Optimum Archival Amusement. She had neat handwriting and the talent of filling the last page exactly, so ‘love from’ is always at the bottom: difficult to achieve if the letter is to make sense – and hers do. I am not the only one to think she was the supreme entertainer, both in real life (she and my father together were better than any turn on the stage) and on paper. Her letters are just as funny as her books. What would psychiatrists make of her teases? She called me Nine because she said that was my mental age. About right, I expect, but disconcerting when she introduced me to her smart French friends as ‘my little sister aged nine’ long after I was married.
The correspondence between Nancy and Evelyn Waugh has been ably read on the wireless by Timothy West and Prunella Scales, and listening, I was reminded of Evelyn’s generosity when he was in Paris just after the liberation. (Why was he there? Perhaps he was a liberator; I can’t remember.) He bought me a hat which he tried on himself in the shop to make sure. He didn’t tell me what the vendeuse thought about that, but French people are keen when it comes to business and a sale is a sale whatever for or why, so no doubt she was delighted and probably thought all English soldiers wore women’s hats when off duty. It was made of white felt with a blue straw brim on which perched two small white stuffed birds. Luckily the Animal Rights people were still in utero or Evelyn would have been lynched for buying it and I for wearing it. Sadly it has gone the way of old hats. Fifty years on it might be revered as a bit of heritage or a historic document, like a Dinky toy or a 1945 bus ticket. Who knows, it could even have found a home in the V & A with the rest of their jumble.
Nancy’s letters often describe clothes. When Dior invented the New Look in 1947, my mother-in-law, ‘Moucher’ Devonshire and her friend, the Duchess of Rutland, who were in Paris for a less frivolous reason, wanted to see the collection. They arrived at Avenue Montaigne in their tweed overcoats, which had done years of war service, and ditto shoes. They weren’t allowed in. Of humble nature, the two duchesses were disappointed, but not at all surprised. They sat on a bench eating their sandwiches to pass the time till they could decently return to the embassy where they were staying.
Diana Cooper has died. I admired her beauty and her guts. I was never an intimate friend of hers but we had many mutual friends, among them Evelyn Waugh and Antony Head. Both were tickled, for some reasons best known to themselves, because I call my sister Diana ‘Honks’. As Cooper was also Diana they started calling her ‘Honks’ too. So the archivists who busy themselves with other people’s letters have slipped up several times already and think Evelyn was referring to Diana Mosley (my sister) when it was another old beauty he was on about. Not that it matters much except it would be hard to find two more different people.
I have reached the stage in life when I wake up earlier and earlier in the mornings. The wait till breakfast time has forced me to put a kettle and toaster in my room, so I can help myself to their merciful productions whenever I like. I advise all early wakers who have fallen for this plan to buy a clock with a minute and second hand of immediately recognisable lengths, or you may have my disappointing experience of last week. Waking at 6 a.m., I made and ate my breakfast, only to discover that the clock’s similar-looking hands had played a trick on me, and it was in fact only 12.30 a.m. Too early even for me, but too late to pretend I hadn’t had breakfast.
A beautiful new television has been installed. Well, not beautiful, but a big dark object which is dead when turned off and spends a lot of time describing death when turned on.
But it isn’t the programmes I’m complaining about, it is the difficulty of making it work. The last one was so nice and simple, you just pushed a sort of matchbox-shaped bit to turn it on and then 1, 2, 3 according to your whim.
It never failed to do as it was told. Now I have had to engage a tutor to coach me in Television A-levels. I have failed the exam.
There are so many tiny rubbery squares to press on two (why two?) hand-held, nameless objects that unless you have got long pointed nails (which I have not) and are dead accurate in your aim, you end up with a picture of a rowdy midnight hail storm instead of racing at Kempton Park or Jon Snow setting about his victim.
My tutor tells me to pay attention and explains that only four little bits of rubber need be pressed, two on each of the objects, which I clutch in both hands like castanets.
With this vital information ringing in my ears, I go to Bakewell and buy a lot of sticking plasters to cover the unwanted buttons. By this time I’ve forgotten which the right ones are and my tutor has gone home.
I shall never know what the other forty are for, and I wish to goodness that the manufacturer would resist putting them there in the first place. Oh, for a telly of yesteryear, just On/Off and Channels 1, 2, 3 and 4.
I buy most of my clothes at agricultural shows, and good stout things they are. Much better than the strange-looking garments in desperate colours at £1,000 each in the Knightsbridge shops. In the unlikely event of falling for one of those, you will find that all the buttons come off the first time you wear it, which is disappointing. After agricultural shows, Marks & Spencer is the place to go shopping, and then Paris. Nothing in between seems to be much good. I have learnt to pluck up the courage to go through the doors of the grand shops in Paris. They look at you as if you were something the dog brought home, but once inside the magic of French talent with clothes takes over and happiness sets in, until the agonising decision has to be made about what not to buy when you long for everything. At four score years plus, properly made clothes should last to the end – or that is my excuse. So forgotten French works of art come out of the back of the cupboard (mixed with Barbours and Derri Boots), still beautiful and always comfortable, which is my idea of what clothes ought to be.
We all know about old women being knocked down and having their bags snatched. It has become so ordinary that the newspapers no longer mention it unless the snatchee is famous and badly hurt, when there are a few lines at the bottom of the home news page. In London it happens in places like Cadogan Square and South Audley Street where I suppose the bag-owners are thought by the snatchers to be rich. I wonder how the victims are chosen. The older the woman, the larger and heavier the bag, but I’m not sure it is always weighed down with diamond necklaces and ruby rings. The contents seem to be stones or coal – or that’s what it feels like if you offer to hold it while the owner rearranges her sticks. The snatcher may think he’s got a decent reward for his courage in bashing the old soul to the ground, but he must feel let down when he finds only huge bottles of medicines with unpronounceable names. I pity the thief when it’s my turn. My bag is positively septic inside, so if he’s got any sense he will wear one of those things that dustmen and dentists cover their noses with when delving into unpleasantness. He will find handfuls of tiresome credit cards sliding about in their meaningless way, heaps of copper coins which don’t even buy a newspaper, unanswered letters of top priority, combs in variety, scissors, rubber bands, stamps, an Old Age Pensioner’s railway card and biros without tops, which all help to make it filthy. If he gets my basket as well, he will rue the day he decided to go in for stealing. It is loaded with iron rations in case of getting stuck on the M1, rockhard bits of toast meant for the chickens, some Bonham’s catalogues, a book I never read but is another insurance against the mysterious habits of the motorway, the Jacob Sheep Society’s (very difficult) quiz in triplicate, plus the minutes of many a tedious meeting. He will be bitterly disappointed with his haul and I will be the reason for at least one thief who decides to go straight.
While I am on about old women and the awful things that happen to us, there is the ever-present trap of talking to yourself in a loud voice without being aware of it. You are apt to address whatever you are doing, or just speak your thoughts while mechanically getting on with something different, like knitting or making marmalade. A dog can save the day when someone comes round the corner unexpectedly because it is easy to pretend you were saying something important to Bracken or Nobby. But there are occasions when you have no props and any attempt at explanation would be pointless and would land you deeper in the mire. Last summer I was walking along a stream in a remote part of our garden. It was at the time of the evening when the people who come to see round have usually long since gone home. There is a small, but deep, concrete section of the stream about two feet square, something to do with water from the hill draining into it, I suppose, as the rest of the stream has natural banks and is very shallow. I saw a frog under the water in the concreted bit, unable to get out of the sheer sides. Thinking it would drown I plunged my hand into the cold water and picked it out. I thought I’d done a good deed and would get a lifesaving medal from the Frog Preservation Society when, in the unpredictable way of its kind, it jumped back in. ‘Oh, you fool of a frog,’ I said very loud, ‘I’ve never seen such a stupid frog as you. You don’t deserve to be saved.’ I turned round and there were two complete strangers who stared at me, obviously thinking that I should not have been let out.
We live in a National Park, and very pleasant it is too. Planning restrictions are, rightly, fairly rigid and the planners’ deliberations over relatively simple jobs like farm buildings are slow. This is as it should be and any small irritation is far outweighed by the benefits. Debate over the age-old local industry of quarrying is on at the moment. The winning of minerals from under the ground has gone on in these parts from time immemorial, from the lead mines of yesteryear to the valuable and versatile barytes, fluorspar and stone quarries of today. The grey and green landscape of the lonely limestone High Peak uplands is netted by drystone walls making tiny enclosures of crazy shapes. Every so often there are sudden deep clefts in the rocky soil which form the Derbyshire Dales, admired and enjoyed by all who know them. The scenery is more dramatic where the man-made cliffs of the huge quarries outdo the natural one and just as beautiful in its own stark way. The rules to do with reinstating worked-out quarries are strict, and nature sees to it that they soon begin to look like their natural rocky neighbours as the native flora spreads itself to clothe the stone faces. Quarrying is now described by the familiar single-issue brigade of protesters as ‘a threat to the National Park’. Last week a television documentary hired a comedian to tell us it ought to be stopped. He wasn’t at all funny and, anyway, it is a serious subject. He said, ‘Allowing more quarrying in the Peak Park is like grinding up York Minster for motorway hardcore.’ I wonder what material he thinks York Minster is built of and where it came from. No quarry, no Minster. He went on, ‘The Peak District is a far cry from the paradise envisaged by the people who set up the parks.’ I suppose he thinks that putting people out of work makes a paradise. Now schoolchildren are being indoctrinated against the industry. A friend of mine, who is a county councillor in another part of the country, received letters from a class of ten-year-olds with an identical message obviously dictated by their teacher. They complained of birds and bees being frightened away by work in a local quarry. My friend wrote back, ‘Are you driven to school along a road? Do you live in a house? Has it occurred to you that roads and houses are made of stone and that stone comes out of quarries?’ If the television comedian and the teacher have their way we shall soon be importing aggregate for roads and stone for building in spite of sitting on millions of tons of the stuff. Can you imagine anything madder?
The complainers complain about everything. They don’t like foxhounds, crowing cockerels or quarrying, and now they say car-boot sales must be stopped. I suppose we are to be denied the chance of buying a Constable in a muddy field and taking it to the Antiques Roadshow so Henry Wyndham 5 can tell us we have bought a fortune for £2. Oh dear. Long live banned work and play.
Most people in this country must have whirled along roads and past fields enclosed by stone walls. Few stop to think how (or when) they were built or to consider the skill of the people who built them.
This week the annual competition held by the Derbyshire branch of the Dry Stone Walling Association was held on a windy hill high up in the Peak District.
I took the chairman of one of the most respected antique shops in London to see how the experts do it. Not surprisingly he had never seen such a thing before.
‘To be a good waller,’ the Master Craftsman told us, ‘you must have eyes and hands which act together: an eye for a stone of the right size and shape for its place and hands which feel the balance instinctively as soon as you pick it up. You can only teach so much, the rest is in you. You’ve either got it or you haven’t.’
The construction of a wall is a building lesson in miniature, from the placing of the big foundation stones to the ‘battered’ – or tapered – sides and the coping stones laid along the top. There is no mortar or other binding agent to hold them together.
They depend on the ‘throughs’, stones long enough to reach right through the wall holding the sides together and acting as ties to prevent bulging. As the sides are built up, small stones, or fillings, are packed in the middle to prevent them from collapsing inwards. A well-built wall stands for many years, containing the farmstock and providing shelter from gales, rain and snow for outwintered ewes and lambs.
The membership of the DSWA is made up of full-time professional wallers and an increasing number of men and women who earn their living in totally different ways, from insurance broking to dentistry. These people go walling for the satisfaction of mastering another difficult skill in contrast to their usual work. ‘It is a wonderful relaxation. I get completely lost in it,’ a doctor said.
Late in the afternoon we looked at the finished lengths of what seemed impeccable work to my amateur eye, apparently identical in excellence. The expert on eighteenth-century furniture studied the twentieth-century walling and made his own judgement. ‘First, second, third,’ he said to me, pointing to his choices. When the real judge added up the points and announced the winners his placings were in the same order.
The point of this saga is that if your eye is experienced in recognising quality in one form of art it is often able to do so in another. And surely dry stone walling is an art.
Two foods which are prime examples of the capricious ways of Mother Nature are wild mushrooms, which taste so different from the tame kind, and grouse, which don’t have a tame kind. They are both a conjuring trick – now you see them, now you don’t. You can’t make plans for them because they make their own rules. In one season, there can be plenty of grouse on one moor and pitifully few on another a few miles away, where the conditions in winter and spring – often blamed for a poor hatching and rearing time – have been identical. It is the same with mushrooms. We are told if fertiliser is put on a grass field, or if it is ploughed and re-seeded, there will be no mushrooms. Neither is true, but a mushroom field which is good one year and receives no different treatment the next can be barren. Why? We want rain for mushrooms, they say. The rain comes but the mushrooms don’t. Then when they do appear they are so full of maggots they are inedible. But when everything goes right they are food for the gods.
The unexplained ups and downs of the grouse population are part of their fascination for anyone who is interested in what is now called ‘Wild Life’. Salmon used to have the same mystique, but now they are ‘farmed’ and found in every restaurant in the country – cheaper than cod, they have lost the mystery of Williamson’s Reputations But grouse are still truly wild and no attempt to ‘farm’ them has been successful. Even the gamekeepers, whose lives are spent on the moors, cannot always explain the swing in the numbers of grouse: from feast to famine and back to feast. The graph looks like a cardiogram of a desperately ill heart patient. After a record year, when too many birds are left on the ground, disease strikes and few survive. Such is their power of recovery that they can increase in number again in next to no time. I am glad that the ways of grouse and mushrooms remain unexplained. There are lots of books on mushrooms (but few on grouse) and the vast number of fungi we used to lump together and call toadstools. Experts arrange forays which you can join to learn about which kinds are edible and which will do you in immediately. Look out – the differences are not always as obvious as you might think.
A new treat for us is puffballs – the bigger the better – super-delicious when sliced and fried. Luckily, few English people fancy them. In the same way that our fishermen throw away pike, puffballs are kicked to bits by disappointed mushroomers – to the dismay of any Frenchman for whom both are a delicacy. When you are tired of blackberrying and get bolder in the search for free food, try ‘Chicken of the Woods’. They are those whitish growths on the bole of an oak which look like enormous plates. You will have to carry a heavy and offensive weapon to dislodge them from their host, but it is worth the trouble when they are cooked and you discover not only a new taste but a new consistency.
Our kitchen is being repainted and retiled, so a great clearing of decks is going on. Behind a wall of receipt books in the back of a cupboard we found a box of menu cards dating from 1893 to 1939. They are printed or handwritten on stiff white card with gilt edges. Buckingham Palace, Derby House, Seaford House, Londonderry House, Devonshire House, The King’s Guard St James’s Palace, the Foreign Office and the Astors at 4 St James’s Square evidently fed their guests very well. Some cards are tantalisingly anonymous, giving only the address. Who lived at 66 Brook Street in 1939? She gave a lavish ball supper there on 25 June. And the unknown occupier of 38 Bryanston Square 6 did even better a month earlier. We know the vast number of courses people ate at grand dinners in Edwardian times, but it is surprising to find such feasts were still going strong till the last war. If you had been invited to Mr Baldwin’s farewell dinner at 10 Downing Street on 25 May 1937 you would have eaten Consommé à la Sévigné, Filets de Sole Impériale, Noisettes d’Agneau Châtelaine, Petits Pois, Pommes nouvelles, Cailles sous la Cendre, Salade de Laitues, Asperges vertes, Sauce Mousseline, Mousse glacé aux Fraises, Frivolités, Dessert and Café, plus five superb wines ending with Grands Fins Bois 1820. The indiscretions induced by so many fine wines would make any prime minister shudder now. And I don’t think they would dare offer Frivolités today. The humble grapefruit was a luxury then. Several dinners started with them; the only English words on the menus except eggs and bacon, for which there is no satisfactory translation into French. They were fried up for breakfast at 1.45 a.m. at every ball.
At an afternoon reception given by His Majesty’s Government In The United Kingdom Of Great Britain And Northern Ireland for Commanding General Sir Kaiser Shumshere Jung Bahadur Rana KBE of Nepal, in 1937, the selection of teatime food is a child’s dream, or a grown-up’s for that matter. The guests were offered ices, cakes, éclairs, five kinds of sandwiches including foie gras, lobster and caviar, petits pains fourrés, wine cup and every soft drink imaginable, including Thé. I would love to know if Sir Kaiser went on to face a seven-course dinner at 8.30 followed by an immense supper at midnight.
A surprisingly extravagant entertainment was a souper de bal given by the Framework Knitters’ Company at Goldsmiths’ Hall in 1937. That night you could choose from twenty dishes, including consommé, chicken, cutlets, salmon, lobster, foie gras, quail, duck, chaud froid of more chicken, ham, tongue, asparagus, salad, compote of fruit, crème brûlée, chocolate mousse and meringues. This was supper. You had already eaten dinner. Lastly comes a refreshing reminder of Evelyn Duchess of Devonshire’s careful ways. The menu for luncheon after the wedding of her son Charlie Cavendish and Adele Astaire (Fred’s sister) at Chatsworth in 1932 lists several dishes, including French Pastries and two more puddings, crossed out. ‘Need not have these’ is in her handwriting. The Framework Knitters were not so economical.
The roof is forever being mended, 1½ acres of it. Last week, the men found a copy of the Manchester Guardian dated 29 May 1877 under the old lead. The names of all who had worked on the roof then were recorded in the margin in thick pencil. Interesting, but not unusual here. And the headline on the 116-year-old newspaper seemed familiar: AUSTRIA & THE BOSNIAN INSURGENTS. SERBIA PREPARING FOR WAR. SPECIAL TELEGRAM FROM OUR RAGUSA CORRESPONDENT. There followed a description of atrocities…
Windows. We have got to have them to keep out weather and burglars. As they are part of the architectural scheme of things, like walls and doors, their make and shape has changed over the centuries with fashion.
In the nineteenth century newly invented plate glass was greeted with joy but it made the houses look pitifully blind from the outside. Now we have something worse; plate glass with a narrow slit above, the only part which opens. Any chance of pleasing proportion goes west and the afflicted house is like one partially sighted, with a frightful wink.
The next door neighbour goes in for a thin brown lattice. How, or if, this kind of window opens and shuts I don’t know, but I do know that these disfigurements have spread like a contagious disease through our towns and villages and are more than a minor tragedy.
They are everywhere, degrading the appearance of perfectly good buildings, whether built of stone or brick. There is no regard for the vernacular because they are just shoved in, new and uniform, from Glasgow to Glastonbury.
Now here’s your chance, Mr Minister of Education. In your next curriculum do beg your teachers to add decent fenestration lessons to the indecent sex lessons so popular with the children. Not as exciting, I suppose, but windows last longer than sex whatever way you look at it.
If you fail we must all go out and live in the Sultan’s palace in Zanzibar where there isn’t any glass to vex the eye and the birds, bats and bees fly in and out of the rooms on the balmy air of the island of cloves.
I am fascinated by watching and listening to keen gardeners going round other people’s gardens. Something strange seems to seize otherwise normal folk and, although they have probably travelled miles for their treat, they show themselves to be only really interested in what they have left at home. People who haven’t got gardens of their own can stand back and delight in the big picture of someone else’s work, but the real gardener fastens on some small plant, pleased if it doesn’t look too well and triumphant if it is dead. They relate the plants to their own. ‘Oh we’ve got that but ours is much bigger. I think this one is planted on the wrong wall, it can’t stand east, well, wouldn’t you think they’d know that?’ When the boot is on the other foot and you are taken by the owner on a two-hour tour in foul weather it can be difficult to keep a continuous flow of admiration. Sometimes, before setting out, you are sized up by the hostess to see if you are worth it, and it is rather wonderful when she decides you aren’t. That is why it is such a luxury to be able to go round so many gardens in your own time by paying at the door. You can dwell over what you love and hurry by the kidney-shaped beds with raised concrete edges full of orange rhododendrons. My father-in-law (who understood plants) said people go through five stages of gardening. They begin by liking flowers, progress to flowering shrubs, then autumn foliage and berries, next they go for leaves and finally the underneaths of leaves. Alpines ought to come in somewhere. They can become an addiction, and they get smaller and smaller relative to their importance. In the Wisley collection there is a weeny blob of grey leaves in small stones of the same colour. In the spring a label with an arrow says ‘Please Notice Flower’. Charles de Noailles, a celebrated French gardener, ended by preferring labels to flowers, foliage or even alpines. I think the attendants of the stalls of the magic displays at the Horticultural Society’s shows in the Vincent Square halls are the most patient of beings. Just listen to some old trout describing to her trapped victim what has happened to her Desfontania spinosa hookeri and you will realise that the stall holder is taking the place of a psychiatrist for a free consultation while all is unburdened and the Desfontania lady gets rid of her feelings.
Gardening is almost too difficult to contemplate, but arranging flowers is impossible. I wonder if the arrangers get cross because their work doesn’t last. My mother’s explanation for the uncertain tempers of cooks was the inevitable destruction of their art thrice daily being enough to unhinge their minds. If the flower people don’t get cross they must be sad when the products of hours of work end in the dustbin. It has all become too complicated. There are rules, and criticism is fierce. I marvel at the skill which goes into the feats you find in hotels, at wedding receptions and flower festivals in churches, but I do not wish to see them in my own house. Everything is too contrived and clever, the flowers spring out of squashy green stuff instead of a good old vase or pot. Since the invention of plastic flower pots it is a joy to see one made of proper earthenware but I expect it would lose points in a Floral Art competition. The whole subject needs simplifying and straightening as well. Those sideways stalks are worrying and against nature: but then, nature hasn’t got much to do with it. I think the Americans are miles ahead in the art. In a long life in which I have had the luck to be surrounded by beauty I have never seen anything better than the flowers on the tables at the grand dinner given for the lenders to the ‘Treasure Houses of Great Britain’ exhibition in Washington. About two hundred diners sat at round tables of eight in a vast hall which goes up the whole height of the National Gallery. Some genius put tall narrow vases on plinths with equally tall flowers high above the heads of the diners so they could see the people opposite without interference. The result was stunning. Had I done them I should have had no better idea than a dreary plate with a few heads floating about in it.
I wish gardening wasn’t so difficult. It is almost impossible to look with pleasure or interest at the lists of wallflower seeds to be planted now for next year when this year’s are beginning to go over and look as depressing as only dying flowers can. You must steel yourself to do it if you want wallflowers next year.
Another problem is the bewildering choice. Open the catalogue at delphiniums, for instance, and you find page after page of descriptions so glamorous you want them all and need the concentration of Einstein to reduce the list to something reasonable.
Then you must wait till the year after next to see the fruits of your labour. As likely as not the supplier has sent the very ones you didn’t choose, but you will long since have lost the carefully marked catalogue, so there is nothing to be done.
It is the same with roses. They all sound irresistible and you must pinch yourself in midwinter, when they are dormant, to remember how monstrously ugly the man-made orange ones are, retina irritants to a rose.
I prefer vegetables, but still there is the difficulty of choice. Pin down the best pea or bean, remember to plant a few every fortnight to avoid feast or famine, and you are indeed a real gardener.
Someone has had a jolly time thinking up names. Even the professors who have so kindly written to me to tell me what a quantum leap is may be stumped by Howard’s Lancer, Black Velvet, Captivator, Leveller and Whinham’s Industry – gooseberries all.
The National Rhubarb Collection, believe it or not, contains more than a hundred varieties. I won’t weary you with all their names, but you might fancy Grooveless Crimson. I don’t think Early White Stone is an advertising man’s dream description of a turnip, but whoever christened the parsnip Tender and True was a poet of the kitchen garden.
The oddest of all is the radish called French Breakfast. I have never seen a Frenchman tucking into radishes for his petit déjeuner, but that is what they would have you believe.
The prettiest flowers I have ever seen in a small dining room were in a New York flat; lilies of the valley bolt upright in twos and threes in a bed of moss all down the middle of the table. The best at a dance were white foxgloves, one at a time in proper flower pots, round the floor of a sitting-out room. Trying to do as well myself, I bought some china vases made like old Crown Derby crocus pots with holes in the lids to stick the flowers in. Delighted to have found something which forced the stalks to stand up straight I showed them to a Floral Art friend who said, ‘What, ten little soldiers?’ Yes, ten little soldiers are just the thing. One Easter at our Devonshire Arms Hotel at Bolton Abbey I had what I thought was a good idea; birds’ nests on the restaurant tables with marzipan eggs. So I asked the dried flower ladies if they could make birds’ nests and along came some good tries. They looked really nice till the customers ate the eggs. As a robbed nest is the saddest sight going and looks like a cowpat with a rim, the manager soon banished them.
Moss is the thing. I have been given (by Americans needless to say) a moss tree, extremely pretty and more or less everlasting I’m told, unless you put it in the sun when it will fade. I pulled it to bits to see how it was made. It is a ball of moss about eighteen inches in diameter mounted on chicken wire and stuck into place with huge hair pins. It is supported by a stem of birch held in a basket filled with plaster – the base of the ‘tree’ is covered in moss of a different kind, to hide it. The Librarian at Chatsworth happens to know all about moss; he is no less than the treasurer of the British Bryological Society. Seeing this beauty he said without hesitation, ‘Oh, that’s Leucobrym glaucum, it only grows in the south of England.’ So I see myself taking a van to some distant damp spot like West Sussex to get the precious raw material. I expect moss gathering is against the law, like picking primroses, and I shall have my head cut off; but if any of us here can succeed in making such a decorative object it will be worth it.
At this time of year I am struck by the racist ways of that mild section of our fellow countrymen – people who feed the birds. They go to great lengths to ensure that only the charming little birds, preferably prettily coloured and able to sing later on, get the delicacies provided. The ‘country’ magazines carry advertisements of complicated arrangements which keep out the big, ugly, floppy ones, or any species the bird-table owner doesn’t fancy. Yet these same people are mad on raptors of all kinds, even the murderous magpie, but at conveniently far remove. It would be interesting to see their reactions if a sparrow-hawk or a merlin chose to swoop while they happened to be watching and the loved tits, robins and chaffinches were reduced to a flurry of feathers in a split second. If they saw a pair of magpies hunting a hedge for eggs and nestlings in the spring they would surely be sickened by the sight of the desperate attempts of the parent birds to distract their attention. But people don’t see the balance of nature acted out beak and claw, so they follow the fashion, which is to preserve all birds of prey whatever the cost to the rest. Unless there is a change of heart soon, the bird-tables will no longer provide the pleasure that once they did.
Last week I went into the garden to look at something the hot weather has brought out. While I was staring at it and thinking of nothing in particular, there was a rush of wings and a murderous sparrow-hawk dived from nowhere and caught a blue tit which let out a small bird’s version of a scream. The hawk, usually so precise in its fatal sweep, somehow entangled itself between a rose hedge and a yew hedge where my ancient spaniel was happily mousing. His reaction was to grab the hawk, thinking, I suppose, that it was that bird of very little brain, a pheasant. I nearly got to them, but, alas, the old dog realised his mistake after a vicious nip from the hooked beak, and the hawk extricated itself. It flew away to catch and pluck while still alive its daily ration of three songbirds plus a racing pigeon or two, so precious to their owners. Parliament has decreed that these hateful creatures are ‘protected’. If the spaniel had hung on would he have been sent to prison for killing it? I must ask our policeman. It never ceases to surprise me that the same people who enjoy watching the violent and often revolting wild life films of birds and animals disembowelling one another on the telly are against fox hunting and for hawks and the other disembowellers. The Great British Public is very contrary. So are our legislators.
The pullets arrived early this year. The old hens were moved into one house to make room for the young ones, so smart and neat to look at. All were shut in for two days to make sure they went back to the proper house at night. In spite of this time-honoured way of explaining to chickens where home is, several of the old girls went back to their original houses, only to find the pullets installed. They were not pleased. They looked as puzzled as you and I would be if we returned to our bedroom to find it crammed full of strange teenagers. Some of these teenagers have started laying very small eggs of superb quality, which are not appreciated by housewives as they are a far cry from the big eggs we are told we must eat. To explain their lack of size, we put a notice in the Farm Shop saying: ‘Pullets’ eggs, half price’, but this means nothing because few know what a pullet is. Oh dear!
If second childhood means going back to first loves in old age then I am deep in it. As children, my sisters and I kept poultry and sold the eggs for pocket money. Now I have pens of Light Sussex and Welsummers in the garden at Chatsworth, and the pleasure I get from them is enormous.
In middle age, when looking after my own chickens was too complicated, I gathered together pottery and china hens and ducks. They are less trouble than the live kind and are ever-present in my bedroom and sitting room. My favourites are a Belgian faïence pair of life-sized speckled hens with heads turned back and beaks buried in their feathers, in that expression of poultry contentment hens wear after a dust bath on a spring day. One has a brood of chicks poking out from her breast, the other an egg. They are dishes – the top halves lids, heads and necks the handles.
I bought them from one of those expensive antiques shops that catered for rich tourists in Park Lane, long since replaced by a travel agency. I remember stopping and staring at them with a great longing. The price seemed wild at the time and it certainly was. A recent valuation put the dishes at less than I paid twenty years ago, but the price is not the point when grabbed by such a longing. They have given, and continue to give, great pleasure.
A pottery nest with chicks hatching and hatched from jagged broken eggshells is also well loved. I have never seen another such group and would love to know where it was made. One chick has only its head out of the egg, another has a bit of shell stuck on its behind and the third is fully hatched, wearing the surprised look of a chick that’s found itself hatched, dry and facing an uncertain world.
I have fallen for paintings of hens too. An enormous canvas of double-combed Derbyshire Redcaps by T. Benson hangs in my bedroom in our house at Bolton Abbey. William Huggins, taking time off from painting lions, is the artist responsible for another group of poultry, in which the iridescent green and black tail feathers of the cock are brilliantly painted. In Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s lithograph of a cock and two hens (called a trio in the trade, the eternal triangle in this case) you can see from their expressions that he is portraying a prosperous gentleman, his dowdy wife in black feathers and his flighty mistress – all on one perch.
The behaviour of poultry is like human behaviour and it is just as predictable. They fight, they resent newcomers, they hate wind and rain. Some are bold and forage far from home and some hardly bother to go out of doors. They practise a bit of racial argy-bargy and their purposeful walk when hurrying into the house to lay is like that of determined women heading for the sales. They queue to use the same nesting-box (why, when there is a row of identical boxes?), and when they haven’t got time to queue they climb on top of the first comer, to her intense annoyance. Some are neat in appearance and habit, but the Hi-Sex are sloppy and have no idea of chic. They seem to be permanently losing a feather or two, instead of having a good moult, getting it over and then looking smart again, bright of eye and comb. These feckless females drop their eggs anywhere on the floor of their house or on the ground outside. Our long-suffering guests are subjected to collecting the eggs, the high spot of my day. They pretend to enjoy it, but I notice a careful examination of the soles of London shoes when we get home.
I can’t remember laughing out loud at anything I have read in The Times for years till a piece from the Washington correspondent about American nannies appeared. I thought the point of Americans was that they don’t have nannies, that women are judges and all sorts of other things while the children bring themselves up. A notable example of the system, I thought, was Mark Thatcher’s half-American baby, whose legs, still at the pipe-cleaner stage, were shoved into navy-blue dungarees at a month old, obviously expected to go out to work pronto. Just to complicate the issue, a woman called Ms Ireland, who is leader of a women’s organisation called the National Organisation of Women, is on the prowl to discredit men who have important jobs in Clinton’s administration. These despicable fellows may have employed women to look after their children. What I’d like to ask Ms Ireland is, how did these men get their children in the first place? Could it be that yet another woman was involved? Not Ms Ireland, of course. Perish the thought that she could have been in close enough contact with a man to result in a baby, who might even demand some years of luxury in the lap of an illegal nanny. Excitement mounts daily. Now we find that Ms Ireland might have bitten off more than even she can chew. Arising out of pretty Judge Kimba Wood’s five-day training course as a Bunny Girl, Ms Ireland is to discover how many men in the administration read Playboy magazine, or, horror of horrors, went to a Playboy Club. At the tribunals, dear, sweet Ms Ireland will stump on to a rostrum and force the poor little men with important jobs to bow their heads and plead guilty to these crimes as well as getting the housework done for them while they live it up in the law courts. I trust she won’t come here. She would find things which would make her hair stand on end.
I have been in America and enjoyed myself enormously, but I find the language is getting difficult. An advertisement in the Wall Street Journal reads: ‘Need a hand when figuring out where to open a Roth IRA?’ I certainly would, and I bet you would too. Advertising an expensive raffle: ‘See Jackie O’s necklace in person at the following locations…’ President Clinton’s little local difficulty had just hit the press and produced some memorable stuff: ‘Miss Lewinsky lied and lied again and thought her credibility was being questioned.’ Ms Goldberg, Linda Tripp’s literary agent, was quoted as saying: ‘I told her to sleep on it. This is not something that ladies do, to tape each other.’ I agree with Ms Goldberg, but I know I’m old-fashioned.
The purpose of my visit was to give some talks. I boldly spoke on Hardwick Hall 7 to a delightful audience in Los Angeles, who politely listened to the story of that extra ordinary house. Afterwards I met some of the audience to answer their questions. One asked if there are facilities at Hardwick Hall. Not sure what she meant, I said ‘No’, in case she arrived in the summer hoping for massage, pools and hairdresser. Many were keen students of books written by my sisters Nancy and Jessica and wished to know more about the Hons Cupboard. A sad-looking lady asked me if I had been denied education. Afraid so, I said. ‘And your father, Lord Rubenstein…’
No one told me how pretty the country is around Los Angeles. The steep valleys and immaculate gardens are very attractive but you never see anyone about. I wondered about the right to roam and if one could go for a walk through the prickly scrub on the hillsides. No one knew. Perhaps no one has tried. I was dumbfounded by the 200-acre garden at the Huntington Library. Closely planted cactuses from the desert are within shouting distance of a valley thick with camellias as shiny-leaved as those which grow in the mists of Ireland. How is that done? In Pasadena there is an English tea-room run by expatriates, called Rose Tree Cottage. So popular is it that you must book for the twice-daily teas, where you sit surrounded by Derby china, Marmite, marmalade and pictures of Windsor Castle. What impressed me most about the new Getty Museum was not so much the building, its situation or the wonders to be seen there, but the unforgettable sight of John Walsh, the director, holding open a swinging door for ages while a torrent of people of all shapes, sizes and colours poured through, ignorant of his identity. He must be the reason for the wonderful atmosphere which hits you as soon as you enter the tram to go up the mountain. It is all the more surprising for a brand-new building. Other museum directors, please note.
Beware the difference in pronunciation of English and American. It changes the meaning of words which are spelt the same, so you have to pay attention when listening to someone from the New World and translate as you go. I met a Texan woman the other day who spoke at length about one Korda. I thought she must be too young to have known Sir Alexander of that ilk, then I suddenly twigged it was President Carter she was on about. Gonna meaning going to and wanna for wanting to are easy, but watch out for riders when they are talking about writers and be prepared for a waiter to turn into a wader without warning. So writers ride and waiters wade, which isn’t surprising when a dot is a dart and a pot is a part. It happens here too. Last night I heard someone describe the predicament of buttered wives.
The two best days of entertainment of the year took place here last weekend: the fifteenth Country Fair. It was enjoyed by 50,000 people, watching or taking part in every conceivable country sport, skill or pastime, from clay shooting, fly casting, catapults, falconry, archery, stunt aeroplanes – too frightening to watch – terrier racing and gun dog displays. Jemima Parry-Jones brought her birds of prey. On a still day, one of her peregrines rose higher and higher till it was a speck in the sky. Jemima swung a lure of raw meat on a string round and round and the bird made a spectacular swoop, its wings folded so that it dived like an arrow at 100 miles an hour. The stars of the show were the King’s Troop, which bring a lump to the throat when they gallop into the ring pulling their heavy gun carriages and making the earth tremble. They perform an intricate dance, harnesses jangling and wheels missing each other by inches, at a furious pace, till they thunder out of the ring still at the gallop. Mr Blobby marches with any band he can latch onto, followed like the Pied Piper by a crowd of children. The rows of shops here are nearer home than Bond Street, the assistants are much more pleasant and a wardrobe against the Derbyshire winter was bought in no time. The music of the pipe bands goes through the head for days after the event. Desert Orchid 8 was cheered and the ferret racing drew its own crowd of fans. The best notice was a sign saying: ‘Lurchers’ car park’. I don’t know how many lurchers can read, let alone drive, but it looked pretty full and the occupants piled out of their cars and raced against each other all day.
It may be the silly season in London but it is a serious time of year in Derbyshire. The opera festival in Buxton has been in full swing, the bed and breakfasts are bunged up with people enjoying the evenings in the beautifully restored Matcham Opera House of 1903 and the days wandering in the town buying picnics at Mr Pugson’s cheese and delicatessen shop.
I hope they are shocked by the state of Carr of York’s magnificent crescent of the 1780s, now boarded up and desolate, awaiting rescue by the local government. They can see the source of Buxton water bubbling up, surprisingly, in a room off the Tourist Information Centre.
They will be delighted by the dome of the Devonshire Royal Hospital, bigger than that of St Peter’s in Rome. This extraordinary building was the stables for the horses belonging to visitors taking the waters, and the old covered ride for exercising them in bad weather is now the place for practising wheelchairs.
The High Sheriff’s cocktail party, with its reassuring parade of mayors and their shiny cars, is over. So is Bakewell Show. This annual ritual draws a big crowd even in a temperature of 57° F, this year’s scorcher.
The summer national dress of English country women – cotton skirts, anorak and gumboots – was the rule as the wind whipped us into the tents.
Poultry and rabbits, with their devoted followers in as much variety as the exhibits, was a good place to escape the weather. I thought I knew poultry but I was stumped by the breed name of one class – Furnace, Polecat and Salmon Blue. I bet you don’t know they are types of Old English game birds.
Most of the egg classes were won by a Reverend and his son. I like to think of those two in their vicarage garden looking after pens of Marans, Welsummers and other layers of mahogany brown eggs which produced the perfectly matched winning entries.
The Floral Art exhibitors must be devils for punishment and have a strong streak of masochism to be able to bear the judges’ biting criticism. However hard they try there is something wrong with the strange edifices of whichever material is ordained by the show schedule, topped by a flower and a leaf or two.
I would give up after spending hours trying to shove a lily and a fern into yards of velvet, bits of glass or a straw teddy bear, only to find the judge’s note saying: ‘A good attempt but you should try to be flatter in front’, or ‘a pity there is a crease in your base’. Difficult for some lady competitors to obey the first directive and impossible for anyone to comply with the second.
Earlier this week I drove through the higher reaches of beautiful Wharfedale to give a talk to a Women’s Institute. I was reminded (not that I needed reminding as I live among such people, thank God) of the quality of the silent majority who live out their lives without bothering the headlines and are the backbone of our country.
The WI allows no nonsense like letting men in. It is the female reply to White’s, and the other London clubs which stand firm against admitting women members. So that’s good.
But I hear there is a move to get away from the ‘Jam and Jerusalem’ image. If so they make a great mistake and will miss the nostalgia bus which gathers speed daily. The home-made food stall at any money-raising event is cleaned out in a few minutes.
It is what people love, so why should the WI wish to get away from that at which they excel? Jam is the thing and long may it remain so. As for ‘Jerusalem’ we sing it almost without thinking about the words. The idea of WI members being brought a bow of burning gold, a spear and a chariot of fire and their swords not sleeping in their hands fills me with terror. Even Genghis Khan would retreat in the face of this lot.
Our nearest big town is Chesterfield, and a very good place it is. A few years ago the sign announcing that you had arrived there read ‘Chesterfield – Centre of Industrial England’. It has been changed to ‘Chesterfield – Historic Market Town’. Why? I suppose industry is out of fashion.
We have just come back from the Republic of Ireland, staying at Lismore Castle, a house we know well, this being the forty-seventh year we have spent part of April there.
Of course, there have been vast changes after so long, but some things are reassuringly the same and happen to time, as they did half a century ago.
The great-great-great and more grand chick of the 1947 heron arrives to fish at the same spot at the same time on the river bank under the sitting room.
A familiar draught comes through the same gap where the door has never shut properly, the cow parsley and chestnut trees come into flower on the usual date whatever the weather, the wood anemone come up blue under the oaks and there are still red squirrels in the tallest yews I know.
The slow coming of the Irish spring is as pleasant as ever, starting earlier and going on longer than that of its neighbouring island to the east. The temperate climate keeps winter and summer pretty well alike.
Touring friends coming from the west coast report huge improvements to hotels and restaurants. Kenmare, in County Kerry, till lately a bit of a desert for anything more ambitious than a ham sandwich, now has two restaurants with a Michelin star. You can stay in Bantry House with the descendants of the family who built it in the 1720s and gaze at the stunning view over Bantry Bay to Whiddy Island. It must be the only bed and breakfast where the drawing-room furniture and tapestries belonged to Marie Antoinette.
Dinner at the Butler Arms in Waterville was praised more than the star of Kenmare because of the shellfish straight out of the sea, now appreciated for what it is – the best of its kind. Ballymaloe House near Cork deserves its reputation for impeccable food and comfort, and the Shanagarry Pottery next door produces the only wares of that kind I ever want to buy.
The land of a Hundred Thousand Welcomes may not have sun or snow (not enough to slide down anyway) and the sea is too cold to play in, but the beauty of the country, stuffed with history and mystery, plus the rising standards of the hotels delights people who feel compelled, as we do, to return year after year.
The beauty and the atmosphere of the place stay with me every year long after I have left Ireland. There, the local newspapers are a continual source of pleasure. Their pictures and headlines are a running commentary on current affairs which I greatly prefer to their dull English counterparts. The Cork Examiner can be relied on for eye-catching stuff like ‘Mouse in Bottle of Stout’ and ‘Kerry Lady Dead in Drain’, neither of which needs much enlargement underneath for the reader to take in what has happened. But ‘Wives May Get Dental Benefit’ from the Irish Times conjures up lucky husbands grinning to show off their smart new snappers while their new wives dare not smile (even if they felt like it) because of the nasty sights which would be on show. The Kerryman sums up the work of a hospital committee with ‘Nothing Has Been Decided’ while the Dungarvan Leader’s ‘“Am I Here At All?” Asks Waterford County Councillor’ poses a basic question which we must all have asked ourselves at some time or another. Even Horse & Hound, the trade mag of the Sloane Rangers, has got the drift when its Irish correspondent heads his column ‘How to Get Farmers Back into Breeding’.
My sister Nancy loved the road signs, specially the ones on the mountain roads which have desperate twists and turns over the streams. The worst are announced in wasp black and yellow: ‘DANGEROUS HAIRPIN’. More surprising is a big notice on a quiet stretch of road which says ‘ATTENTION/ACHTUNG. DRIVE ON LEFT. CONDUIRE A GAUCHE. LINKS FAHREN.’ The spot where it is planted is many miles from any port or airport, so the Franco-German driver must have got the hang of how to do it or he would have met his fate long before he arrived on this remote moorland road far from the nearest village. There is a fine new dual carriageway which lets out most of Cork city on the road to the airport. ‘NO PEDESTRIANS’ it says, but in the middle of the road is a boy selling evening papers.
Spring and autumn are the seasons of annual general meetings. The older I get the harder I find it is to sit through them. The words which go with committees like ‘minutes’ and ‘agenda’ don’t exactly send the adrenalin racing, and impatience with a ponderous chairman sometimes makes the affair nearly unbearable. The items on the ‘agenda’ are slowly ticked off and you pray no one will take up the chairman’s suggestion of bringing up something arising out of the minutes. The obligatory thanks to the officers still come as a surprise after all these years. It is such an unsuitable collective word for a group of kindly women who spend much time and energy in raising money for whichever charity the meeting is about. My idea of an officer is anything from a second lieutenant to the Colonel of the Coldstream Guards – a far cry from the good ladies present in the church hall, who aren’t the type to bark out orders on Horse Guards Parade and would look out of place in bearskins. When it comes to finding a seconder for the vote of thanks to the auditor, desperation sets in and I long to go out in the rain. ‘Any Other Business’ can be risky and it is a great relief when it passes quietly by. Then comes the speaker, who is, I suppose, meant to instruct or entertain and very often does neither but spins out the time till the blessed cup of tea looms and freedom is in sight. If you happen to be the speaker, of course, things are different and you are in an all-powerful position. Disappointingly soon you spot people crossing and uncrossing their legs, shifting in their chairs and searching in the depths of a bag for the key of the car. All of which makes for a general feeling of unease and means that the audience is thankful you forgot the second half of what you were going to say. If it is a talk with slides, the audience is in the dark, so you can’t see signs of restlessness. Snoring is their only weapon, but they are your victims, imprisoned in rows till the last click of the projector. Their patience is an example to us all.
After the annual meeting comes the annual report. These arrive in our house by the ton, sent by every known organisation from Barnardo’s to Bloodstock via the Water Board and the National Gallery. I suppose their production gives work for growers of trees, manufacturers of paper, photographers, designers, the people who write them and the Post Office. That’s good, but 99 per cent of the wretched things represent a huge waste of time and money, written as they are in unreadable official language and printed on reams of shiny, expensive paper. Annual reports published for their shareholders by public companies vie with one another in richness of appearance and sheer weight. I guess the shareholders would prefer a Churchillian single sheet with the glad or sad news of the company’s results so the money saved could go towards higher dividends. But it is a question of keeping up with the Joneses, so no respectable company would agree to such lack of pomp. I have discovered one exception. It is the annual report of the National Heritage Memorial Fund. If you have had enough of heritage – English, Living, Built, Landscape, World, Gardens and the Department of National – do swallow your objection to the overworked word and have a look. The beauty of it is its clarity; never an extra word, everything is straight to the point. Instead of the usual rigmarole about financial resources or funding, even the taboo word ‘money’ is used every now and again. The organisation itself must be unique in that it has more trustees than staff, who, believe it or not, number seven. When you have taken in that amazing fact, start reading and you will see what I mean. The descriptions of jewels, woods, paintings, manuscripts, a shingle beach, a fairground king’s living wagon, a bit of the Brecon Beacons, a tractor, a colliery, drawings by Gainsborough, Raphael and Co., Somerset cornfields, several church interiors, a trades union banner, a smashing portrait by Lawrence, a croft in Caithness, garden tools and an organ which have received grants are a delight. The accompanying photographs of such disparate beneficiaries make one pleased to be a taxpayer. No government department, no waste, no messing about; the grants they can give go straight to these diverse and needy places and things. And now their money is to be reduced from £12 million to £7 million. Remind yourself, please, that the fund was established as a memorial to those who have died for this country. Their number has not diminished. Roll on the National Lottery and may the NHMF get a whopping share of whatever is going. Meanwhile, congratulations to Lord Rothschild, chairman, and Georgina Naylor, director, for the work they do for us.
As a regular listener to the early morning programme on Radio 4 called Reputations I except politicians because woolly answers are their style, but lots of people are quizzed on every subject under the sun and they all hover about uncertainly. The last few mornings, I have written down the replies which mean yes but are more complicated. Here are some of the most often repeated: ‘certainly’, or, to spin it out a bit, ‘most certainly’; ‘I agree’; ‘exactly’; ‘indeed’, or, playing for time while they are pondering what they might be asked next, ‘indeed that is so’; ‘absolutely’ (‘absolutely’ is rather new, but is getting more common); ‘you’re right’ – ‘that’s right’ – ‘that’s perfectly right’ – or just the fashionable ‘right’; ‘true’ or ‘very true’; ‘definitely’; ‘of course’; ‘very much so’; ‘precisely’; and ‘I hope so’ with a little laugh and the emphasis on hope. How I long for someone to say yes, if that is what is meant. It would have the advantage of surprising the cruel questioner so much he would be silenced. The radio abhors a vacuum – so does an interviewer. I shall keep listening and perhaps one morning someone will manage it. But the ultimate joy would be to hear the answer ‘I don’t know’.
The world of consultants, which has appeared out of nowhere in the last few years, is a thriving off-shoot of whichever trade or industry it professes to know all about. Not so long ago professionals were trained in their profession and it would have been an insult to suggest that an outsider probe into the affairs of a company.
Not so now that consultants have arrived. Investing in a new enterprise, or upgrading an old one, be it a restaurant to feed visitors at Chatsworth or arrangements to ease the flow of customers round our Farm Shop, is extremely expensive, so it is thought prudent to consult a consultant before plunging into the unknown. Woman’s Intuition is not to be trusted. The consultant is the one to go by.
He arrives from London, first class on the train, with a couple of acolytes, consultants in the making. Most probably he has never been this far north, so the geography and the ways of the locals have to be explained, all taking his valuable time. After a suitable pause of a few weeks (he is very busy being consulted) a beautiful book arrives, telling you what you spent the day telling him. It is written on paper about which he has consulted a consultant. The paper consultant has consulted a design consultant, and someone deep in an office has drawn a logo, without which no self-respecting consultant can practise his consultancy.
The result is a ream of paper the size of a tennis court, logo to the fore, and the address (which you might conceivably want) flanked by telephone, telex and fax number in fairy writing at the bottom.
You and your colleagues spend some time translating the book into plain English. You meet to discuss it and decide to do what you thought of doing before going to the consultant.
Almost at once a huge bill arrives topped up by first-class travel expenses and more meals than you can imagine three men could possibly eat in a day. It has all added considerably to the cost but you pay with the comfortable feeling that you have consulted the best consultant in the business.
The word luxury seems to be bandied about in a curious way these days. People’s ideas of what it means vary enormously. I’m never quite sure what a ‘luxury flat’ is, though I believe it should have running water and a radiator or two. Better than not having them, I admit, but what is real luxury?
For me, a winter weekend sticks in the memory. I was staying with an artist and his wife in Dorset. I can’t remember if there was central heating, but I do remember my hostess coming into my room before breakfast, her head tied in a duster like Miss Moppet, laying and lighting a coal fire for her guest to dress by. If you’ve never dressed in front of a coal fire you don’t know what luxury is. They also had half a cow – the farmer had the other half – which meant they had not only proper cream but real butter, a rare commodity indeed.
I can’t help comparing that house with many bigger, richer, electric fired households, some of which are the centre of hundreds of acres of their own farms, milking big herds of cows. But no one can be bothered to skim and churn, and thereby profit from what they own by producing what is described in old-fashioned cookery books as ‘best butter’. My Dorset friends win the luxury stakes hands down. A coal fire, half an acre and half a cow, that’s the thing.
A new word which is used to describe anything from houses to holidays is ‘affordable’. Surely what Lord Lloyd-Webber and an unemployed miner can afford are not the same, yet it is trotted out as equally applicable to all. I imagine it means cheap, so why not say so?
The other day I went to Harrods to look for a coat for a friend who can’t go shopping. After all these years I still miss the bank on the ground floor, and the green leather seats where my sisters and I used to meet and sit and talk and laugh so loudly that the other customers got annoyed. Now there is a slippery marble floor and fierce young ladies sell all the same make-up things under different names. You can’t talk and you certainly don’t feel like laughing. But it was what happened outside that struck me as so odd. It was pelting with rain and a gale was blowing, people’s umbrellas turning inside out like Flying Robert’s in Reputations A smart car with a chauffeur drew up and an old, cross, rich couple got out. The woman had a mink coat slung over her shoulders, which fell into the road and the dirty water. The commissionaire dashed to pick it up, shook it and hung it on her again. He opened the door for her and her beastly husband, who didn’t lift a finger to help. She walked straight through without looking round. ‘Didn’t that woman say thank you?’ I asked the commissionaire. ‘Oh no,’ he answered, ‘they never do.’
Packaging has gone too far and the simplest things have become impossible to open. If you buy a toothbrush or a pen or tweezers you need a strong and sharp pair of scissors to cut through the armour plating of plastic which encases them. No house has enough scissors so you go out and buy some. But they are similarly encapsulated in a thick shiny film, which human hands and nails are not designed to penetrate. You pull, drag, stamp and bite but to no avail. You can see your longed for object in its close-fitting jacket, shining and clean, which makes it all the more desirable, but there is no hope of getting at it. You buy another pair of scissors and another, till they are ranged alongside the things they are meant to open. If there is a Scissor Package Opener lurking among the terrifying objects in John Bell & Croyden you may be sure it will be aseptically sealed so only a scalpel will do the job.
Buying water in bottles to drink at home must be one of the oddest crazes of the last few years. All right, I know London water tastes horrible and Nanny would say don’t touch it, darling, you don’t know where it’s been (sometimes they tell us where it’s been, which proves Nanny to be right), but most water tastes the same as the bottled kind and is perfectly good just as it comes out of the tap. Beautiful pictures on the labels and names which conjure up moorland streams, most likely to be stuffed with liver fluke, appeal to the gullible shoppers. Once bought, the heavy bottles have to be lugged back to the car as there is not much pleasure in a guilty gulp of water in the shop. The choice seems endless. Bottles of all shapes and sizes and even colours (the blue one is very pretty) fill the shelves of grocers’ shops already given over as much to dog, cat and bird food as that for humans. I suppose people will soon be buying water for pets or they will be accused of discriminating against them. Think of the number of lorries carrying this extraordinary cargo all over the country, getting in the way of things that matter, like you and me going for a spin. But the astonishing thing is the price. Please note that milk costs 43p a litre (it averages 23p to the farmer, by the way), petrol is a little over 50p a litre, and still water, would you believe it, costs up to 79p for the same quantity. As a shopkeeper, I must think up some other pointless commodities with which to fuddle the good old public.
We have heard a lot lately about two men sharing a bed in a French hotel and the usual speculation as to what may have happened in it. 9 You only have to go a little way back to discover that travellers often had to share a bed whether they chose to or not. In the 1750s, Henry Cavendish, the famous scientist, and his brother Frederick journeyed to Paris together. When they arrived in Calais they stopped at an inn and had to sleep in a room where someone was already in bed. It was a corpse laid out for burial. (The Cavendish family were famed for silence until a timely injection of Cecil blood in the last generation set them talking more than most.) Lord Brougham wrote of Henry, ‘He probably uttered fewer words in the course of his life than any man who lived to fourscore years and ten, not excepting the monks of La Trappe.’ Nothing was said by the laconic pair till they were well on the road next morning. Eventually Frederick said, ‘Brother, did you see?’ ‘Yes, I did, brother,’ Henry answered. Just think what would happen now. First the hotel manager would be sent for and given a dressing-down, as he often is by spoilt travellers who don’t like finding a dead person in their room. Then the rich headlines would follow: ‘Duke’s nephews practise necrophilia in French hotel’. And there is the question of incest…
The other day I was on my way to London airport, ridiculously early for the plane as usual. I stopped to fortify myself for the journey by looking round Chiswick House. It never disappoints or fails to inspire and fill the observer with wonder. It was a horrible day and the only other people were a party of Americans, the most knowledgeable acting as guide. One asked, ‘Which is the portrait of Pope?’ The woman said, ‘There he is. You can always tell Alexander Pope. He’s kinda skinny.’
Journalists and even ordinary people have a strange new habit of leaving out the Christian name when writing about women. It immediately turns the subject into a different person. I cannot recognise my sisters Nancy and Diana as Mitford and Mosley, or another sister when she becomes Treuhaft (though she is sometimes Mitford too, and then confusion reigns). And something unnatural happens to that most feminine of human beings, the American Ambassador to France, when she is referred to so baldly as Harriman. I think it started a few years ago with criminals. Somehow it is all right for Hindley and other murderesses as they hardly deserve a Christian name anyway, but it is extremely muddling when applied to normal women. I don’t mind about Thatcher, Bottomley and Beckett. Having chosen the dotty career of politics, which turns them into Aunt Sallys from the day they were elected, they can stand up for themselves. Must we now drop the Aunt? If so, Sally is no good alone and anyway we’re back to a Christian name. What a conundrum. I can’t see why the reporters do it. It surely isn’t to save space – just look at the acres of paper they have to cover with something: acres which become hectares on Sundays. Perhaps it is to do with them not liking the idea of women being proper women. The female journalists are very quaint and contrary, so we can expect something outlandish from them. I suppose it doesn’t matter much, but when Hillary is in the news and she turns into Clinton, it does make one blink a bit.
Can we do away with: women who want to join men’s clubs, Cupressus Leylandii, bits of paper that fall out of magazines and, lately, bits of paper which fall out of those bits of paper, people who say (and write) ‘talking with’ when they mean ‘to’, flowers in fireplaces, magpies, writing paper with the address at the bottom or, worse, the American trick of putting the address on the back of the envelope which you throw away and then have to retrieve, female weather forecasters, drivers who slow down to go over cattle grids, hotel coat-hangers, Canada geese, ‘partners’, liquid soap machines where the thing you press to get the stuff out is invisible, sparrow-hawks, audience participation, punning newspaper headlines and locked gates? And can we bring back: scythes, sharps and middlings, Invalid Bovril, brogues, mourning, silence, housewives, telegrams, spring cleaning, snow in January instead of at lambing time, nurses in uniform, muffins, the 1662 Prayer Book, pinafores for little boys, fish shops, Bud Flanagan, Ethel Merman and Elvis Presley?
The television and the radio delight in feeding a morbid interest in illness and accidents with an ever-increasing number of programmes showing frightful things happening to people. Green-clad surgeons getting their heads and hands together over some bit of body, stretchers bringing a harvest of victims of horrifying accidents, and a difficult birth or two vie with each other to delight us. Turning on the radio, hoping for a cheery tune, I heard, ‘Yes, blood blisters on the roof of the mouth can be very unpleasant.’ I should jolly well think they could, but blood blisters are the least of the horrors on offer. If you happen to be even vaguely well you feel guilty because you aren’t suffering like these unfortunates. Switch the thing off, you say. Well, of course, that’s right. But lots of people must enjoy such ghoulish entertainment or it wouldn’t be broadcast.
I notice the heavy (literally) newspapers have their individual ways with obituaries. The Times usually writes at length about a black American jazz musician who may, or may not, have played in a band with Fats Waller (of blessed memory). They sometimes throw in a grey-faced scientist from Eastern Europe who knew all about some abstruse speciality, a closed book to lesser mortals.
The Daily Telegraph describes the deeds of war heroes, illustrated with photos of these handsome men when in their twenties, smart as paint in uniform, with straight partings in their thick hair. The descriptions of their gallantry in winning DSOs, MCs and DFCs with a bar or two, read like thrillers and make one marvel that they survived into their eighties.
The Guardian recalls many a dreary politician and their boring, worthy lives, and sometimes one of the judges who make headlines by a surprising judgement or the classic questions only judges dare ask, like what is a Land Rover.
The Independent goes steadily about its business and can be relied on for accuracy and funniness, usually lacking in others. Few can resist a fashionable dig at the deceased. The smallest peccadillo is dragged up and enlarged upon in an otherwise blameless life devoted to public service.
The tabloids shout out about everyone, however obscure, in show business or sport. They reserve space to report some particularly grisly kind of death met by these unfortunate people. Perhaps they don’t count as an obituary, but are just the usual reporting of the daily horror stories.
The specialist magazines are the most rewarding. The Poultry World and the Goat Society’s Monthly Journal sometimes produce a winner but my favourite appeared in Horse & Hound in the days when fox hunting was perfectly all right.
It began: ‘So Beatrice has galloped over and taken the last fence into the great unknown’, and went on to describe the life of an indomitable country woman wedded to field sports, that special breed which only exists in these islands. It ended: ‘Gallop on blithe spirit, and may you find your heaven in a good grass country.’
I hope she did and I hope there is still no plough in heaven.
There is something mysterious about bread. I don’t mean pale, floppy loaves steamed to death by ‘bakers’, but the homemade sort, mixed, kneaded and cooked by human hand in a real oven.
Bread is uncertain, in that the same recipe followed by different people produces very different versions of the ‘staff of life’. Perhaps it is something to do with the yeast, alive and almost kicking. Perhaps this magic agent reacts to the mood of the breadmaker or the oven. Whatever the reason the variations are very much part of the charm.
Children who have never tried homemade bread are apt to fall upon it and devour slice after slice, ending with a deeply satisfied sigh and ‘I can’t eat another thing. I’m full’.
Fancy recipes with different tastes, from herbs and bananas to tomatoes and olives, are easy to surprise people with, but are no good for everyday. For the best treat, you should wait till August to beg some wheat straight off the combine, put it through the coffee grinder and see if the resulting bread is not a revelation.
To be in the swim you must change your name. Steel has turned into Corus, which makes you think vaguely of singing, but I bet the steelworkers don’t feel much like singing just now; Woolworth suddenly became Kingfisher, a flash of blue on a quiet river and not exactly the image of the old sixpenny high-street stores. Now the post office is to be called something so odd – not a real name but a concoction of letters, like the name of a film star’s baby – that I’ve already forgotten what it is. I suppose stamps and postmen will go the same way. The Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts is to drop the Royal (of course) and twist itself round till it becomes the Historical Manuscripts Commission. I wonder if that is sharp enough for 2001. Why not call it the Pony Club or the Delphinium Commission? Then it might make an impact. They say that the V & A is threatening to follow this extraordinary fashion because it used to get confused with the clothes shop C & A. I can hardly believe this. If true, what will Victoria & Albert turn into? Maskelyne & Devant? No, that is out of date. Morecambe & Wise more likely. And I’m longing to know what the National Gallery will choose, and Waterloo station, the Royal Observatory, Madame Tussaud’s and the rest of the institutions we were brought up with. I fervently hope that John Lewis and Peter Jones won’t turn into the Two Ronnies. I love all four too much to contemplate it. Chatsworth has been lumbered with the same name for 450 years, which is far too long. It is time for a change. Suggestions on a postcard, please.
There are some rare treats to come. Elvis is back with a bang and can be seen in all the big cities in a tour beginning in Newcastle. This incredible show is a deeply moving experience – I know because it came to this country last year. There he is on a vast screen in a vast arena, thousands of fans gazing at his beautiful face and inspired by his extraordinary voice. As if this wasn’t enough, his real old band surrounds the screen, playing live – the inimitable pianist, the guitarist, the wild drummer and the rest. The Sweet Inspirations, the singers who accompanied him, take clothes a few sizes bigger than in the olden days, but they still make everyone feel happy. It is the man himself who dominates, as he always did, and the adoring fans drink it in, knowing every word and every gesture, unable to sit still in their seats till the whole arena erupts in clapping and shouting to celebrate the greatest entertainer ever to walk on a stage. ELVIS LIVES. He is often seen in supermarkets. I wish he would call at our London Farm Shop in Elizabeth Street.
Last week I had lunch with three friends, two of whom live abroad and come to London about once a year. The talk ranged over all kinds of subjects and it is refreshing to discover how untouched they are by the pounding of the media. They have never heard of Jeffrey Archer (‘Is he one of the Archers?’); think a microwave is something to do with hairdressing; mix up Laura Ashley with sex-change April of that ilk; and ask if Cecil Parkinson is a photographer (vague memories of Norman and Beaton no doubt). Hoping for even more surprising gaps in their general knowledge test, my London-dwelling friend and I cast another fly, but this time with no success. They have heard of Mr Blair.
I wonder if it is computers which think up such strange names and addresses for the customers of the firms for which they work. Or is it specially dotty secretaries whose minds are on other things while they write? I should love to know. Some are wildly imaginative and endow the customer with a different character, or even another nationality, from the steady old English people they really are. One mail order company thinks I am called ‘Mr/Ms Hess Of’, the subject of an undiscovered poem by Edward Lear perhaps, or a German ex-royalty. (They have kindly sent me an ‘Exceptional Customer Award suitable for framing and displaying in the Hess Of Home’.) A friend is the Viscountess Mrrrrrrrrrr. She finds it difficult to pronounce and thinks it sounds as if she is getting into a cold bath. Another friend, who is an architect, has become Mr Jebb Ariba, which suggests he was born in Ghana or Nigeria. Liberty’s (no upstart mail order company here, but an old-established firm who you might think would get it right) sent a proper letter on beautiful paper. Below the date is written ‘Duchess D.E.V., Chatsworth, Chatsworth, Chatsworth, Bakewell, Derbyshire.’ It begins ‘Dear Sir’ and goes on to describe a dress of ‘Tana lawn in a floral print of particularly feminine style and two colourways’. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that a Sir might prefer trousers. And I know Chatsworth is big but it really isn’t necessary to repeat it three times as it is quite easy to find if mentioned just once. I look forward with interest to more and better names and addresses on the brightly coloured pamphlets which announce that you’ve won £25,000. Look closer and you find that, alas, you are the only person on the list who has not. Odd.
I know the Turner Prize is stale buns now, as it happened months ago, but I missed it at the time and have since become fascinated by how it is decided. Someone at the Tate kindly sent the bits of paper about it, written in a special language which is not easy to understand. The photos of the prize-winning works of art don’t help much either. It seems that the prize is given to a ‘British artist under fifty for an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work in the twelve months preceding 30 June’. It is awarded by a jury consisting of four, or sometimes five, good men and true, and a foreman (sorry, chairman). The jurors have a wonderful opportunity to find the artist guilty and sentence him to a term of no work and generally keeping quiet for however many years his art deserves. Amazingly, instead of doing this they give him £20,000. I’m all for people giving each other £20,000 as often as possible, but the reason in this case seems so very strange. According to the press release, last year’s winner is said to ‘play an interesting game with the relationship between art and reality’ and has a ‘refined sensibility in the handling of materials which range from hardboard and crushed steel to asphalt’. Very nice. In one of his exhibits, according to the foreword of the brochure, ‘lurks the gap left by a shifted saucepan lid’. Good. A runner-up showed a glass case called ‘A Thousand Years’. Inside was a box of house flies, a piece of rotting meat (I think) and what looks like an electric fly-killer. As the proprietor of a butcher’s shop, I am pleased to see the meat, but – oh well. Another runner-up says, ‘I access people’s worst fears.’ A third competitor uses dogs’ messes. Dogs’ messes are my worst fears and too often accessed in this house. There will be lots of fine artist’s material when I get a new puppy, so I hope he’ll come and give me a hand to our mutual advantage. And so it goes on – but why drag poor old Turner into it? Channel 4 gives the money for the prize. I like Jon Snow, his ties and his news, but I think I shall have to give him up for a bit.
Could some clever reader tell me what a quantum leap is and where I can see one performed? Who the chattering classes are and where I can listen to them? And what a learning curve is and how I can climb on to one?
Copyright © 2001, 2009, 2011 by Deborah Devonshire