Sunday, 21 October 2012


 If Eve and I had thought that Sussex was country living, we soon found out that rural life in Somerset was the real thing. Cow pats in the fields and lanes for one thing, cocks crowing at dawn, huge blackbirds nesting and cawing high up in the surrounding trees and Farmer Burroughs, our immediate neighbour, watching me with interest one day as I removed a new scythe from the back of the car after a shopping expedition.
 'What’re you going to do with that then?' he asked.           
 'Cut the long grass in the lower field,' I answered.
 'Sheep will be better at that than you,' he said,  'I’ll lend you a few..'
 So we became sheep farmers. Well, we watched as three of Burroughs’s sheep munched the long grass for a couple of weeks, more concerned about whether they liked the names Athos, Porthos and Aramis than replenishing the water in the rather decorative wooden tubs we’d bought for them.
 The grounds around the Old Rectory were wonderland and my writing suffered delays, for I spent more time out in the open learning the difference between beeches and birches, alders and ashes, pear, apple and plum trees than tapping away at my typewriter.
 When the sheep had done their work Farmer Burroughs took them away and replaced them with a few geese, they were a bit noisy but did their duty till I found Jemima Puddleduck without a head.
 'That’ll be a fox’s doing,' Farmer Burroughs said quite unemotionally. 'Id let you have a cow but it’ll need milking. Would your wife do that?'
 'She was a London fashion model,' I said.
 And he didn’t pursue the matter.
 After a while Eve contacted a donkey sanctuary and we were appointed proud guardians of an emaciated creature with very long ears and a bulging tummy. The animal, we were told, would eat all our surplus grass, but he spent most of his time just standing looking sad and lovable at the farthest end of a paddock which was a long way away - so we called him Tipperary.
 'Do you think he’s happy?' Eve asked Farmer Burroughs one day, worried as the poor little donkey didn’t seem to be cheering up.
 'Best ask him,' he answered.
 It did not take us too long to integrate with the locals. A few evening visits to the pub down the road soon satisfied the curious that we were city folk so could be forgiven whatever errors we made in our knowledge of  the countryside and some even came to see what I was doing in the garden.
 'Things grow bootiful here,' they said, unimpressed by my new gum boots, new rake, new fork. 'You’ve got some lovely stuff to look after. The Vicar had green fingers.'
 Aware that I couldn’t tell one plant from another, I wisely walked over to the new vicarage on the other side of the church and asked our previous incumbent whether he could enlighten me on the rare species of vegetation I had inherited from him. He was a gentle elderly man who had loved the garden but had frozen to death in the house. He happily came over and I followed him along various paths between which there had been herbaceous borders and he pointed out leaves and plants that in their time would blossom into hydrangeas, delphiniums, lupins, dahlias. He pointed to areas where I could expect a pageant of blue bells, snowdrops, daffodils.
 Over a cup of coffee he told us that the Rectory had once been inhabited by Montgomery of Alamein’s uncle, then rector, and that the Field Marshall himself had often stayed in the house as a youth. I later wrote to the Field Marshall to verify this and was surprised to get a long detailed answer by return which started:
Dear Launay,  It would be true to say that I slept in the Rectory between 1903 and 1908. I always shared a bedroom with my cousin Neville, but cannot recall which room it was; it was a large room on the first floor......The letter ended : My uncle used to entertain the choirboys to tea every Easter and I used to help. 
  When the vicar finished his coffee, I walked him home and, at the gate, he looked directly at me and asked 'Will we see you and your good wife in church on Sunday?'
 I must have hesitated for longer than I thought, for he just smiled wearily, shook his head sagely and said 

 'Never mind...'

  Furnishing the place proved easier than expected as Eve and I bought huge wardrobes, bedsteads, tables and carpets that went for a song at local auctions benefiting from the fact that we had the space and no one else wanted the cumbersome pieces.
 When it was all done, the guests came. Major Bill and Doris every two weeks to begin with, then only now and again as we had hoped. London friends visited, happy to get away from the pollution. Eddy came over from France, was staggered by the size of the place and would have voiced his opinion that I was suffering from ‘folie de grandeur’  if he, my mother and Maman had not themselves invested in a palatial villa in Cagnes where all three now lived.
 Time and distance had changed Eddy’s attitude towards me. Though I was still a director of the old food firm he hardly asked about the business and was openly impressed by the publication of a book on luxury foods I had by then written which was pleasingly well reviewed. His visit passed off very amicably, even a little sadly for, on occasions, I saw him looking wistfully at Nicolas and Matthew, wishing, perhaps, that he was their true grandfather, for they were well behaved, amusing and lovable little boys.

  By 1966 I had written a dozen or so books, among them the six humorous thrillers, the Balmain epic, a failed biography of Russ Conway the nine fingered pop pianist, the successful guide to luxury eating, a less successful guide to English country wines, a quite boring recipe book for cocktails and snacks and compiled the dictionary of dates. I was an established author living comfortably on advances and royalties but by no means a best seller novelist. To rectify this, for I had become a little ambitious in that direction, I started going to London more frequently to build up contacts and, on the way, unfortunately fell victim to the charms of a pretty young actress.  

Lance Corporal Matthew on his charger Tipperary 
Field Marshall Montgomery of Alamein

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