Notes from Town and Country
From Hazel, Highbury, 23 June 2020
There was a time when we toyed with the idea of doing a holiday house-swap. Friends and acquaintances returned with exciting accounts of economical summers spent in other people’s houses, and holiday company brochures were full of tempting descriptions and heartfelt praise from customers who had formed lifelong friendships with other families in faraway places, getting to know the local community and going back year after year.
In our case it never came to anything, partly through inertia and partly because I could never imagine being able to explain satisfactorily the numerous eccentricities and sensitivities of our house and its contents – the lock on the front door that in certain weathers stuck and locked you out if you closed the door too roughly, the leg on the chest of drawers in the spare room that, if moved, would suddenly give way like a rheumatic knee, the favourite jug with a mended handle that needed special care. They were just things we’d learned to live with – and in many cases still do.
So much stuff of this kind, bought, given and passed on down the generations, has inevitably accumulated in the house during the decades we’ve lived here, and spending a lot of uninterrupted time at home lately has made me more aware somehow of things I normally take for granted. My late mother-in-law was a well-known stripper – of furniture, that is – and opening a drawer of the carved stripped-pine cupboard at the back of the sitting-room, which we inherited from her, I marvel at how she could possibly have had the patience to remove all those layers of paint. It reminds me of Norfolk holidays spent rooting round the barns and outbuildings of country houses when they were filled with vast pieces of furniture going for a song. In the hall hangs a large picture of a sailing ship worked in wool during the winter evenings before television took over by my old uncle, who was a lobster fisherman on the Devon coast. He did these pictures out of his head, and I’m struck afresh by how detailed this one is, the precision of the rigging, the padding behind the sails, the sturdiness of the rough oak frame he made from driftwood he found on the beaches where I used to play.
Books, endless books, cupboards full of china – we’re not excessive hoarders and we do get rid of things, though Marie Kondo and her austere views on decluttering have no place on our shelves. More to my taste is Penelope Lively’s A House Unlocked (2001), in which she tells the story of her grandmother’s house Golsoncott through some of the objects in it. I know that part of Somerset because Golsoncott is only a few miles from the house belonging to my great-aunts where I spent some of the happiest years of my childhood. Theirs was a very old house but its atmosphere and the life that was lived in it were distinctly Victorian – heavy William Morris curtains in the morning-room, glass cabinets of treasures brought back from India. I think I fell in love with our present house because the feeling of it reminded me of the aunts. A few of their things came down to me and I suppose I had always imagined that we, in our turn, would pass our things on to the next generation. But even if they want them, who these days has room for big stripped-pine cupboards or wall-space for all the pictures we have?
Our lodger Robin tells me that the local gym will be opening again in July. I’ve only once tried going to a gym and the boredom of it simply overcame me. However, feeling that now would be the ideal time for an exercise routine based on housework and gardening, I’m delighted to find that the Internet is full of them. Some of them are astonishing. I’d never thought of putting cloths round my feet and getting into a kind of downward-dog yoga position to clean the kitchen floor, or indeed leaping on and off the sofa to tidy the cushions. I think now I really need to lie down.
From Gail, Manaton, 23 June 2020
News last week of President Macron arriving in London on 18 June to be welcomed with a royal audience, a flypast of the Red Arrows and the award of honours for French veterans – all this to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s rousing broadcast to Occupied France on the same day in 1940. There was a lot of talk in the papers of this being important in the context of Brexit, a chance to reinforce a message of friendship between France and Britain. But I wonder whether anyone in the Foreign Office or the Quai d’Orsay remembered that 18 June is also the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, when the British (with a great deal of assistance from the Prussians) finally trounced Napoleon.
De Gaulle himself was not above reminding the British of past defeats. In September we’ll be publishing An Englishman’s Commonplace Book, Roger Hudson’s wise and witty collection of ‘the unexpected, the vulgar and the ridiculous mixed in with the elevated’. In it he recalls a state visit to Britain by de Gaulle, who was entertained to dinner by the Queen in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle, its walls hung with pictures of the leaders of Britain’s allies from 150 or more years before. De Gaulle gestured towards them and asked: ‘Alors, pour battre Napoléon il vous a fallu tous ces messieurs?’
That in turns reminds me of Churchill’s plan for his own state funeral. He wanted the train bearing his coffin to depart from Waterloo rather than Paddington (which would have been the more logical departure point for a train bound for Bladon in Oxfordshire, where he was to be buried). The French President would thus be forced to walk bare-headed beneath the station’s archway which celebrates the great victory over Napoleon.
What a long memory we have in this country. Not long after we moved here we went to visit an elderly Major up in a valley beneath Hound Tor. As we approached the house, the children spotted a flag flying from the flagpole outside his house.
‘Do you know what that commemorates?’ the Major asked us, with a distinct twinkle in his eye. ‘Today is Oak Apple Day, to celebrate the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.’ And then we saw that in his buttonhole the Major was wearing a sprig of oak leaves. We never visited him on 18 June, but had we done so I’m sure he would have had a flag flying then too.
Talk of Waterloo naturally leads on to the Duke of Wellington. Ever since I read Elizabeth Longford’s masterly two-volume biography of the Duke, I’ve been an admirer, not least of his wonderfully hawk-like nose. And that in turn puts me in mind of a new resident down here. For the last couple of years we’ve had a pair of goshawks nesting in the conifers on our boundary, and this has got the local twitchers very excited. I’m told there are only 400 or so breeding pairs left in the British Isles. Unlike the local buzzards, our goshawks are fairly reclusive, but occasionally I see one through the kitchen window, perched on a weeping ash in the middle of the field, and very occasionally on our daily walk to collect the newspaper from the bus shelter, we see one weaving silently and swiftly through the trees. No wonder they are known as the phantoms of the forest.