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You can't judge a journey by its starting point — or so I was telling myself as I loitered on the street corners of Sunningdale on a bright and blowsy autumn morning. Even before I'd set foot in this place I'd found its ersatz name disconcerting. Surely 'Sunningdale' was what you'd christen an old people's home in a spirit of unrealistic optimism? And now that I was actually here, on pavements between super-high walls and extra-dense hedges, it was more than just the name that was disconcerting; everything around me was more than lifesize, too. Either all the cars, houses, fences and gardens were twice as big as usual, or my early morning cup of coffee had shrunk me, as the potion had shrunk Alice before she entered Wonderland.
I would have liked to peer into a few living-rooms to see whether the sofas were more than lifesize too, but this real estate Wonderland had no intention of letting the likes of me get that close. Security has vastly increased since Alice first followed the white rabbit down the hole, and every other Sunningdale lamppost was the bearer of the digital equivalent of Cheshire Cats (CCTV) so trying to squeeze through the keyholes of garden gates was quite out of the question. I contented myself, as Alice had, with glimpses of what lay within.
Around me, between stands of beech and larch, well-oiled electric gates were purring apart to emit shiny, Wonderland-sized four wheel drives setting off on the school run, with tiny nannies peering dormouse-like over the wheel. In the back were Tweedles Dum and Dee, identical in blazers and school caps. The local MILTs — Mothers In Leather Trousers — in sleek little soft-tops were going hunter-gathering down to the neo-baronial Waitrose to replenish the household supply of tarts, pausing at their front doors to shout Off With Their Heads (or similar — it was hard to tell from that distance) over their shoulders. Staff were jumping to it, laundry was being shuffled into vans, wine racks replenished by the neighbourhood vintner, and somewhere in the distance a mower was busily laying candy stripes across an unseasonably green front lawn, no doubt for the playing of croquet, although probably not with flamingos.
In truth it was probably just a normal morning in a particularly upmarket suburbia, but it made a surreal starting point for a train journey to Baghdad.
Sunningdale is the sort of development which puts blisters on an estate agent's adjectives. A golfer's nirvana twenty miles west of London, it is as upscale and leafy as commuter towns can ever be, with virtually every generously proportioned house sitting within its own mini estate surrounded by lawns as soft as putting greens. The occasional opening of those gates, like the drawing apart of steel curtains, reveals gravel driveways up to some of the most expensively columned, marbled and mock-Tudored properties in England. Behind every pseudo-historical façade lurks the latest in underfloor heating, plasma screens and whirlpool baths. You need serious lucre and several housekeepers to live here - albeit for just five months and thirty days of every year, so as to avoid the scrutiny of tax inspectors.
It is not my kind of place, but then maybe that's the travel writers' fate — to feel happier anywhere other than on home turf. I am as British as they come, but among traditional-sounding residences called Hillside Lodge, Tanglewood and Bearsden Grange I felt like an outsider, and being a diminutive pedestrian downgraded my status by a country mile. In those super-expensive residential streets only the children of domestic staff travel on foot, so just wandering along the pavement was enough to make me appear suspicious, and I could feel, more than see, the Cheshire Cat TV scanning the back of my neck. I must have cut a rather incongruous figure, clearly prepared for an overseas getaway with my suit-carrier and battered, roll-along suitcase, and equally clearly showing an unhealthy interest in peering through hedges at the MILTs and the extra flourish on those mock-Doric porticos. An unemployed gigolo touting for work, perhaps.
Anyone bearing a suit-carrier on those pavements should by rights have been hailing a taxi for a boardroom breakfast in Basle or lawyery lunch in Lucerne, but I had time to kill before the 8.55, and I was loitering, plain loitering. Essentially, I wanted to get a good feel for the place where the inspiration of my imminent journey — my very own white rabbit — had also begun hers. So what would my story have been to the police, when they'd stopped me as the suspected knave of hearts behind the great Sunningdale pain au chocolat heist?
'Honestly, officer, I was on my way to Baghdad.'
'From Sunningdale station? With a dinner jacket? A likely story. What's it to be, then, a Mad Hatter's Tea Party with Saddam?'
'No, you don't understand, I'm following in the footsteps of Agatha Christie . . .'
'I see, sir. That nice Mr Poirot coming along too, is he?'
'Very clever, officer. And you're right, it is a sort of investigation. A literary one, if you want to look at it like that. I wanted to start here because this is where everything started to go wrong for Agatha . . .'
'It'll go wrong for you too if you don't get on that train and get out of town.'
And the squad car moves away. Its occupants disappointed. I sounded far too posh to be a burglar, and only a nutter would come up with all that guff about Agatha Christie.
In fact Agatha had lived in this idyll of suburbia for the last four years of her fourteen-year marriage to Archie Christie. It had been a torrid time in her life, and at one point she was reported as saying, 'If I do not leave Sunningdale, Sunningdale will be the end of me.'
I sympathized. To me, on the cusp of a long and uncertain journey emulating hers, Sunningdale felt artificial, parochial and insulated from the real world behind its long drives and high fences. You could become deeply unhappy here, as she had, and nobody would notice. The locations closest to the residential streets, where most normal neighbourhoods have essential services such as a newsagent, laundrette and chip shop — good and necessary places for good and necessary human interaction — were occupied by a huge BMW dealership, an accountancy firm with the blinds drawn down suggesting untold secrets offshore, and a traditional gentlemen's outfitters for those who didn't have the time to go all the way up to Savile Row for the sake of the inside leg.
There was no feeling of community; how could there be, with none of the normal meeting places? The only time you'd ever bump into your neighbour was if they happened to emerge from their electric gates at the same time as you. Of course you might see them at the celebrated golf clubs of Sunningdale or Wentworth, but it was those very golf clubs which had been the undoing of Agatha's marriage, as no doubt they have been for many other marriages since. Golf widowhood comes with the territory in these parts, although these days there are plenty of spas and health clubs where the niblickly-bereaved can meet each other for mutual support, massage, bottles of Bollinger and the attentions of a muscular personal trainer. It is not so tough being a golf widow as it used to be.
As for Sunningdale station, that was a real non-performer in the start-of-the-big-journey department. As I drew near, with all the enthusiasm of a reluctant boy hauled to school by the climbing long hand on the Waitrose clocktower, I could see no Victoriana, hanging baskets or weskited platform attendants with shiny watches. In their stead was a nondescript pair of platforms parked in a glistening sea of cars, their wing mirrors winking in the sun.
From the Trade Paperback edition.