Modern manners


Now, my question today is, is it ever ok to call ‘Please, please, for the love of God stop singing’ along a row of changing cubicles to the songbird three doors down? He was obviously a happy chap after his swim, and why wouldn’t he be? I often feel like having a bit of a trill after a dip, but therein lies the difference: I don’t. I hum under my breath. I might be swept away by the swelling strains of an orchestra, or soaring high over the descants of the organ in St Paul’s, but crucially, the thunder is inaudible to everyone who doesn’t live in my head. Anyway, naturally I didn’t say anything at the pool, or at least, not at a volume any higher than the one I’d set for my heartbreakingly beautiful rendition of Danny Boy that was currently unspooling UNKNOWN TO EVERYONE AROUND ME.

It must also be pointed out that the quality of my performance suffers with every extra notch of volume, as anyone who has stood near me in church will attest, so it’s not just selflessness, it’s mortification that keeps me silent. Not so nobly forbearing after all, then.

Another conundrum tangled my wires last weekend. It was as I was helping my father carry some large trunks (packing, not swimming) down two narrow flights of stairs furnished with an awkward bend at each end. The trunks weren’t crushingly heavy, on the flat at least, but the question of whether to obey my 78-year-old father’s instruction to ‘Let go; I’ve got it’ when he’s three stairs below you and the trunk is made of steel and threatening to toboggan unchecked down to street level threw up some urgent-feeling quibbles.

Floorless logic


Boooo, here comes winter. Boooo. The weekend of recuperation in Hereford was wonderful, though I must remember in future that I am useless the first day back – there was a lot of wanting to read the paper and drink tea and stare into space. This was thrown into sharp relief by the host’s hyper-busy cousin, who was endlessly up ladders, replacing lights, pruning roses and walking dogs, and by the two children who were swimming, running half-marathons, going to parties, playing badminton and entertaining friends.

Since then I have been walking a few times, sometimes in Ireland (Wicklow and Kilkenny) and last weekend in Henley. Again I overestimated what we could achieve in the hours of daylight and so we cut slightly short our wondrous walk through sunny Buckinghamshire beechwoods and floppety-rabbit-nibbled valleys. The route was up for modification anyway, as just before lunch we found ourselves directed towards the guns of a pheasant shoot, who had at the very moment of our approach wounded but not killed a hen pheasant, which bounced and flapped and bled for a long time before finally expiring. This was not calculated to mollify my 30-years-a-vegetarian friend, who responded with loud conversational potshots at the shooting party – ‘You going to be able to eat all those, are you?’ – while spent buckshot pattered down around us. ‘Let’s run over there shouting “Votes for women!”’ was her vintage suggestion, but allowed herself to be steered away up the hill, out of range and into the woods.

This, oddly enough, was restful compared to the state of the homestead. On my return from Ireland a few days earlier, I reported a flashing light on the boiler and nothing but icy cold water from the taps. The landlord and I shared one of those Airport 77-style phone chats – ‘Can you see a silver pipe with a black tap on it? Ok, turn the tap 90 degrees. What’s the pressure gauge saying?’ – but to no avail. There was a leak somewhere in the house.

Our noble landlord arrived that evening, having only just finished up a three-week maintenance programme on the house, God love him, which was meant to leave him free of landlording nonsense in time to start his new job. No such luck. I was having friends over for dinner and what had threatened to be a slightly stressful evening quickly turned hilarious with the news that the leak was probably under the kitchen floor and had to be tracked down immediately. Ten minutes later I was slicing potatoes on the hall table while Colin from across the road was on his knees by the cooker gripping an angle-grinder as it screamed through slate. The friends arrived, graciously consumed a half-teaspoon of kitchen floor with their Spanish omelette, and we sat in the front room drinking wine and chatting. A sudden silence from next door was finally broken by the landlord’s voice. ‘Shit. It’s not under the floor; it’s in the wall.’ Which called for another handsome bumper of red and heartfelt thanksgiving for my brilliant, selfless, lovely-chap landlord.

You can scour all the etiquette books you like and I daresay you won’t find it recommends offering a weekend guest stone-cold water in which to wash, a hellishly early start on Saturday and a skitter through gunfire, but actually, in the context of Colin and his screaming angle-grinder, it was a picnic.

Damp patch


The last morning dawns milky and filled with birdsong as I prepare for the final push through Hereford and west. Incidentally, think twice before you try to cross the Wye. It is mysteriously difficult – practically no bridges! Why? Do they fear invasion? Engineering? The automobile? Except there are even footbridges, so you have to tough it out, on a narrow, fast road, without walkways, locked in combat with motorists, a hefty percentage of whom seem bizarrely affronted to see someone on foot, even though I’m in high-vis gear and show a craven willingness to squeeze into hawthorn hedges face first to let them pass.

Yesterday was tough, though. Steep hills and the sun came out, making it hot work. The compensation was sensational views (I try not to think what beauties have been shrouded in fog or veiled in rain earlier this week. Also, my calculations were correct – it is apple season, and how. Ledbury to Hereford is packed with orchards and lunch yesterday was picked up en route and shoved into pockets – it seemed sensible to get clear of the place before scronching into the ill-gotten gains.

Last couple of days have also had me getting lost – quite badly in some cases. Since last winter’s flooding, Tewkesbury is having major ditching work done. Footpaths have gone and landscape reconfigured. Still, plodding up to a stranger ‘Where are we?’ is quite the icebreaker. I’ve met a mechanic, some ladies on horses, a postman and, deep in some woods, in a hut, sitting at a circular whetstone and fiddling with a chainsaw, a one-eyed sixty-something who told me he’d got his gold Duke of Edinburgh award and came top of his class for mapreading. And that encounter, in a nutshell, is why I love walking. You simply have no idea what’s going to happen next – you could be rescuing a dog from a main road, scrambling over a hedge, tiptoeing across someone’s garden and praying there’s no one home, eating an apple while sitting on a stile and gazing out over a red, gold and green valley. Or having a laugh with a one eyed man in a wood.



As one approaches Tewkesbury, plashing through the pastures, it’s hard not to wonder whether these were the fields on the news last winter, under thousands of gallons of rain. There was more of the stuff this morning, though a good night’s sleep had picked me up from what was a pretty low point last night. This was not helped by the doom crier of a b&b owner, who advised me last night, once she’d established that I was soaked through by announcing that the forecast was terrible for the whole week. She grabbed her phone and said ‘Yeah, every day [scroll] rain…[scroll] rain…[scroll] rain…’. Later announced there were loads of steep hills between Stow and Tewkes, and this morning, as I was forking down egg and a fried slice, fixed me with a gimlet eye and asked what I’d do if I couldn’t go a single step further. Christ! Lie down in a field and wait for death, obvs. Ffs!
Anyway, this morning’s drenching gave way to cloud /fog so thick I got lost within 15 mins of leaving the road. A farmer on a quad bike loomed out of the murk like Mr Rochester, set me right and gave me a boiled sweet. The fog cleared, the rain stopped, I in my turn rescued a breathtakingly thick Labrador as it lolloped about in the middle of a fast, busy, wet road. Then scrumped some apples from an orchard, admired a pear tree so glowingly the owner gave me three of its fruit and found a damson tree in the hedgerow and stuffed myself. Tomorrow I’m in Ledbury, and although a fan of Nature’s bounty, I’m going out for steak and kidney pie and a pint of something local.

Aah, Bicester


Which is presumably a joke the burghers of Bicester have heard once or twice before. And anyway, I didn’t make it to the town, I just skirted south on my way, on foot to Hereford, for it is the occasion of a mighty walk. Too mighty, I decided last night, almost weeping with pain and rage as I barrelled through, over and under the brambles and farm machinery obscuring public rights of way. Sabotage or indolence, but walker/council apathy is a definite. And there are strands of my hair caught in brambles to prove how nearly it worked if they hadn’t been pitched against a bloodyminded tourist who’d waaay overestimated her time/distance/speed performance and couldn’t afford to go back and look for another route. God, yesterday was long. So long that when I missed my way again, thanks to no signposting, it was soon so dark that I simply headed towards the faint red smudge above the horizon that said west. A bit scared, I was. Today was shorter by far, but so unbelievably wet that my T-shirt was clammy through two layers of waterproofs and people in teashops were laughing at me. I may get myself varnished. Tomorrow combines all the chuckles of days one and two, ie rain and distance, but it’s also my mother’s birthday, and nothing bored her more than self-pity. I’ll see how far I can honour her memory (predicted score on that effort: looow.

God is great


Sir Christopher Wren certainly thought so, although I suspect he thought he ran God a pretty close second. In fact, when it came to rebuilding St Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire, he probably thought it was even stevens. The man had a point, I thought, as I walked around St Paul’s this cloudless morning, on my way from Camden to Tate Modern. It’s a jaw-dropper, a magnificat in stone, a marvellous, floating impossibility of grace and proportion. And yet – undercutting any pomposity – there’s a gleeful delight that revels in its naughtiness, the turrets and twiddles and dome hidden behind wraps until it was too late for the city authorities to do a damn thing to change it. Bravo.

The reason I was walking past it – an unaccustomed journey for me – was because I had volunteered to flatsit for a friend who has gone to a wedding in the Caribbean. My role is to water the garden and see that the place is neither flooded nor torched while he is away. These simple yet nerve-wracking instructions were dished out on Tuesday evening while I feigned interest and craned around him to satisfy myself on more pressing concerns, like how the telly worked and where the tea lives.

I’ll spoil the ending now by saying that nothing has been broken, burned or stained – yet – though he is away for ages, leaving plenty of time for me to announce his absence with telltale heaps of unbinned pizza fliers sticking out of the letterbox, or lure in a horde of vermin with uncovered food. On the subject of which, forgive me, but there’s something ineradicably Camden about a Camden flat. You can call it a garden flat, build it a snazzy glass extension and install a water cannon for a shower. You can do anything you want to it, but it’s always going to carry a whiff of Withnail.

Incidentally, way before St Paul’s, still back up in Clerkenwell, on this gold and sapphire morning, I overheard a snatch of conversation between two women. ‘He was just the right level of funny, d’you know what I mean?’ Yes, love. I know absolutely exactly what you mean. And thank you for putting it into words.

Scotland has been on my mind for months, and suddenly, here we are, on the eve of voting in one of the least democratic processes I think I’ve ever seen, bar that time in Ireland when the EU made everybody vote all over again because Brussels didn’t like the outcome. That was seriously off-colour. Oh, and the hanging chads of Florida – they were pretty bad too. And actually any election in Bradford isn’t to be fully relied on without close scrutiny, either. Yeah, ok, democracy’s a pretty baggy entity when put into practice.

But those examples have been crap in the execution; this one is systemically crap. How else can you describe a process that denies a vote to 96 per cent of the people affected? And since I haven’t spoken to one single person in England – and I’ve been doing a LOT of speaking about it because I haven’t really been able to think about much else – who would vote yes to dissolving the union, the whole thing feels, well, a bit Russian. In an aside muttered over a pint, one Irish friend even declared he didn’t think the Republic of Ireland should have split from the union in 1922, but he keeps that pretty much under his hat, he said. A wise choice, friend. And an astonishing statement.

Still, whatever the outcome, I worry deeply for what may follow. Smaller economies are weaker economies. I feel tiny fault lines that were never there before, both in personal friendships and on the wider stage. I fear people have expressed things they can’t take back. In short, I want Scotland and England and Wales and Northern Ireland together, counteracting each other’s excesses through regular elections. I want UK votes to dilute Scottish sectarianism and I want Scottish votes to dilute English Tories and Ukip. But what I, along with the other 45-odd million people of voting age in the UK who are denied a say in their future, may want clearly doesn’t matter a toss. Yay.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 26 other followers