Notes from Town and Country
From Hazel, Highbury, 22 December 2020
The first wave of Christmas cards has started to arrive: ‘Hope you’re staying safe’; ‘All quiet here – only one case in the village’. News of weddings postponed, of holidays cancelled, but also of new babies, of violin exams passed with distinction, of Zoom book groups and lockdown exercise sessions. The end of the kitchen table is piled with packs of Christmas cards still waiting to be sent, but this year there’s a terrible hitch. We can’t find our address book, which has our whole lives in it.
I was astonished in the summer when our daughter called to ask me for the phone number of one of her friends. For her generation nothing needs to be remembered, nothing is written down, and she’d lost her mobile with all her numbers in it. That’s what the address book is to us. If it doesn’t turn up we’ll probably be able to reconstitute it after a fashion, but all that vital information accumulated over the years like layers of loam in a garden will be lost – the names and ages of children and grandchildren pencilled in the margins, the crossed-out addresses indicating house moves and job changes, and the sadder deletions where a spouse or partner has dropped out altogether. These aren’t the friends we’re in close touch with, but those more distant yet also important people whose doings, communicated maybe only once a year, remind us of our history and are the background music to our lives.
It’s some time now since conversations in our house began to take a slightly surreal turn. According to my husband’s nice new audiologist it tends to be about ten years before people are willing to acknowledge that they’re getting deaf, usually blaming the problem on their spouse’s tendency to mumble, or the sound of the dishwasher. I’m reminded of an entry, taken from a letter in the Sunday Times, in A Country Doctor’s Commonplace Book, which we published in 2018 (succeeded this year by another, Roger Hudson’s equally diverting An Englishman’s Commonplace Book):
Thinking my wife’s hearing was failing, I asked my doctor’s advice.
‘Stand far away from the kitchen and call out “What’s for dinner?”’ he suggested.
I started from the hall. No response. Tried from the sitting-room. Still no response. No response when I tried from the kitchen door, so I went in, tapped my wife on the shoulder and asked again.
‘Are you deaf? I’ve told you three times,’ she said.
A lesson for me there perhaps. Since my husband has graduated to new hearing aids which apparently have the ability to think for themselves, as well as being Bluetoothed directly into his mobile, his computer and the TV, he’s the one who’s asking me to turn down the sound.
As darkness fell one evening in the recent brief break from lockdown, we made our way, suitably masked, to a house at the top of the street for a Christmas celebration organized by the local WhatsApp group, formed as a support group for the street almost a year ago and still going strong. Tasteful fairy lights decorated the exteriors of some of the houses, mince pies and mulled wine in paper cups were being served from a table at the front gate, and behind the fence a small choir of parents and children in woolly hats and gloves soon struck up with ‘Away in a Manger’.
Gradually people from some of the nearby streets heard the singing and filtered in to join us. A woman I had never seen before told me she had in fact been living on our street for forty-seven years. Young families introduced themselves, and around me I overheard talk of primary schools and Waitrose delivery slots. It was easy to imagine Posy Simmonds – whose evergreen cartoons of the 1980s and ’90s (remember Mrs Weber’s Diary?) sent up so wickedly yet affectionately the doings and preoccupations of the North London middle classes – hovering on the edge of the group, taking notes. Yet the feeling of warmth and friendliness and community was real. As the choir moved off down the middle of road to sing outside the houses of house-bound neighbours, and the tear-jerking notes of ‘Oh Little Town of Bethlehem’ rose on the night air, bringing people to their windows, it did feel as if something genuinely good had come out of this shattering year and all the limitations of lockdown.
From Gail, Manaton, 22 December 2020
Last week we splished and sploshed our way through the mud and rain up Slinkers’ Lane, heading for the Parish Hall. Every Friday, at lunchtime, a cheerful postmaster from the nearby village of Liverton sets up a travelling post office in the hall’s committee room. He’s happy to take parcels and letters and postcards, provide cash, sell stamps and, I expect (though I haven’t tried), perform all the other services that a more permanent post office offers. The post office in our nearest town is right at the back of a Spar supermarket, and to reach the counter you have to queue in an aisle lined with shelves of cheap alcohol, two-litre bottles of fluorescent fizzy drinks and super-sized bags of dayglo sweets. The staff behind the counter are friendly and helpful, but I find the sound of Spar Radio (advertising special offers and ‘deals of the week’) and the sight of all those sugar-laden shelves difficult to take. It’s much nicer to be able to pass the time of day with the gentle man from Liverton as you buy your stamps and post a parcel of proofs in the calm of the hall’s committee room.
This is used for the purposes its name suggests of course, but I’ve also been given a flu jab there each winter, and I’ve sat through a lot of meetings of our local Commoners’ Association in that room. Many of the houses in the villages around the edge of Dartmoor have moorland grazing rights attached to them, dating back to the days when many smallholders and hill farmers would graze a few cattle or sheep or ponies on the nearby high land. Our own house comes with the right to graze one pony or four sheep on Black Hill. Nowadays the rights are pooled, so in our association two farmers graze their animals on our behalf under a horribly complicated stewardship scheme. The meetings do tend to go on a bit, and the paperwork that the association generates is inches thick, but I always enjoy hearing what is happening up on the moor.
Proofs safely posted, we made our way back down Slinkers’ Lane. It was still raining, and the lane, overhung with dripping branches and trails of ivy, had almost become a stream. Would there, we wondered, be a white Christmas this year? It seems unlikely, but then we fell to recalling the last real white Christmas up here.
On 25 December 2010 we woke to a sparkling landscape of white fields, clear blue sky and crisp air, in which tiny particles of spindrift sparkled like diamonds. We usually drive through the village to St Winifred’s church for the Christmas morning service, but that year we decided to walk up Slinkers’ Lane. The little stream that runs along one side of the lane was partly frozen, its bordering hart’s-tongue ferns trapped in icicles, and the bare branches of oak, willow, ash and alder were covered in hoar frost. Further up, as we neared the church, bullocks stood by a hay-filled cattle feeder, their breath steaming in the cold air, and around them lay virgin snow. It seemed a fitting introduction to the carols we sang in church that morning: ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ and ‘Good King Wenceslas’ and, at the end, ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’.
On Boxing Day, we dug out the toboggan from a shelf in the garage and headed up to Owl Wood on the other side of the bridlepath. At the bottom of the steepest slope my husband created a small ramp, and our grown-up children, reverting to childhood in a flash, competed to see who could go fastest down the hill and take off on the ramp, before landing in a snowy heap at the bottom. Chudleigh wasn’t very keen on being taken for a toboggan ride, but he was very happy chasing it amid a great deal of barking.
The Slightly Foxed office is now closed for Christmas. Hazel and I have not seen the girls for months but we both know what the run-up to Christmas in the office is like – a sort of controlled hysteria as the postbags mount up, the phones keep ringing, and the website orders pour in. But we also know that they will have coped brilliantly and managed to remain cheerful too. Tomorrow morning we’re all going to get together on Zoom – the girls in London, Hazel in Highbury, Steph in West Sussex, Jennie in Norfolk, Aimi in Walthamstow and me up on Dartmoor. We’ll raise a glass to one another and a metaphorical glass to all our subscribers around the world who have kept us going in difficult times with orders and letters and messages of goodwill. Happy Christmas!