Saturday, January 27, 2007

A sort of postscript

Note: this post relates to Thursday 25th Janauary 2007.

The night was dark and bitterly cold. In the clear sky the stars were bright in their constellations. I drove through the shabby town and up into the woods, mile after mile of unrelieved blackness (the woods are part of a ducal estate, and so undeveloped by houses).

Eventually I arrived at the estate village. I parked the car on a little slope, wondering whether it would be secure (there was ice underfoot). About three miles away the ducal castle was floodlit with white light. Because the castle is on top of a hill and surrounded by woodland it had the appearance of floating in the air. Looking at it, I thought it resembled a giant gothic-revival UFO hovvering in the sky. I turned my back and went into The Chequers gastro-pub, last visited with Robert Leiper three weeks before (then it had been mid-afternoon).

I felt having dinner here tonight would be a sort of postscript to the Robert Leiper visit.

Above: this is an old picture I took of the floodlit castle, but imagine it smaller (further away) and whiter.

Above: The Chequers pub.

Through the front door, you go into a big square bar - a perfect Old English pub. Roaring log fire which almost filled one wall. Above the fire a stuffed boar’s head, and various old agricultural implements (impossible to say what they were for). On another wall a huge silver shield, recording the triumphs of the village cricket team. All around the walls were comfortable antique settle sofas, with cushions so flat they must have been sat on by thousands of people. In the middle of the room were two long tables – the pub has a common board where you sit down at the first seat available and take pot luck about who your fellow diners are (I suppose it’s one way of meeting new people).

The actual bar was new looking, blonde wood, lots of champagne bottles in evidence (not normal in a pub, but par for the course in a place with a Michelin mention).

Everything about the pub was reassuring and comfortable except the absence of any people, indicating the prices were too expensive for ordinary pub-goers to afford (even when people started to arrive, they were upper middle class people who had one drink at the bar and then had dinner).

Above: boar's head above the fireplace.

I ordered a Scotch and soda (no ice) and went to sit on one of the settles near the fire. The heat was almost overpowering. I sat there with my drink until Gary Spencer arrived.

Instead of joining the common board we were shown into a small dining room off to the side – the walls were rough bricks (hand-made bricks from the 18th century) with a cheerful fire in a brick fireplace. Rabbit and ham terrine, sirloin steak with haricot beans, steamed orange pudding with orange sauce (this meal was one of the nicest I have ever had). One glass of house wine during the meal and two cups of coffee afterwards.

We discussed Robert Leiper at some length.

We discussed the crime rate: “I’ve told my children that if they are attacked they should be prepared to defend themselves and not expect any help from the police. There are lots of criminals who have no qualms about using force to take what they want. If someone attacks you, you need to fight them off yourself rather than hope the police are going to turn up.”

We discussed property in Dubai: “We’re going there this Easter and staying at the Royal Mirage. I’m buying four apartments in that new block I told you about. You need to get in quick if you want one…” (as if I would want to buy a flat in one of the most volatile and dangerous parts of the world).

Gary Spencer outlined his theory about the reshaping of populations: “Countries like Dubai are competing for the world’s wealthy people. Mobility is becoming so accepted that millions and millions of ordinary people will have two or three homes around the world and move between them every three months not paying any taxes. In ten or twenty years no country will be able to levy high rates of tax as people will just move away from them – it’s a big consideration for countries with social welfare programmes funded by taxation.”

“All we have to do is find the lights” – Saturday 30th December 2006 (with brief entry for Sunday 31st December)

Note the actual date of this post is Tuesday 13th February 2007

We had tea in a nearby teashop, cramped at a table in the low twee interior while homely waitresses fussed around us. I was trying hard to think of places to take Robert Leiper, but in Christmas week everywhere was closed. Eventually I told him we would look at some of the rural landscapes for which the county is famous.

We drove up into the hills, the afternoon already advanced so that the light was beginning to fade. We were going to villages known more for their picturesque qualities rather than any great historical or architectural interest. Our first objective was a tiny hamlet that looked fairly easy to get to on the map, although in reality we were driving around for ages trying to find the right road. Down narrow lanes, and even narrower lanes, and metalled tracks that were hardly even lanes. The hills are very undulating at that point and we were constantly going up and plunging down again. Eventually we arrived at a farmyard cut into a hillside, the lane stopping at the farmhouse with wooden barns further down the slope.

Parking the car, to our left was a ridge, and on the crest of this ridge was one of the most minuscule Victorian churches I have ever seen, in dull brown brick and stone facings. No tower, just a little bell on the west gable. No porch, the unlocked south door leading directly into the church. Inside everything was neat and tidy, with fresh flowers on the altar. Hanging on the north wall were two large framed nineteenth century embroideries of the Creed and the Commandments. The only monuments were a couple of brass tablets gleaming in the half-light.

Outside we stood in the little churchyard and looked down into a secret valley. The reason I call it “secret” is that there did not appear to be any roads or pathways into it, and so the place must be comparatively unknown. It is a feature of the hills that they encompass exceptionally beautiful landscapes but on a miniature scale. Looking down into this valley, I felt it was one of the most lovely places I had ever seen (thinking about it later, it very much resembled the John Nash painting Cornfield). Woodland guarded the tops of the hills, with little fields swelling and falling down into a narrow cleft. In one of the fields corn had been left unharvested, the neglect adding to the sense that the valley had been forgotten. The dying light affected the colours of the place so that under a Prussian Blue sky the landscape was dissolving in twilight shades of grey-green, grey-brown, grey-purple, the greys gradually coalescing and deepening so that the peaceful rural darkness was slowly rising upwards from the valley to the crest of the ridge where we were standing. The air was cold against my face. I could have stood there for hours watching the night fall but I could tell Robert Leiper was impatient to get away.

To the next village at the bottom of a small valley, the houses sprawled around with no real sense of organisation. We drove backwards and forwards looking for the centre, having to turn the car and retrace our path about nine or ten times. Eventually we gave up and decided to go on, but as we were driving out of the settlement the church appeared on the side of the road (surely we had been down that way several times without seeing it?). It was another small Victorian building without a tower. Going inside, Robert Leiper switched on the lights. “There is nothing in here” he said, a contemptuous note to his voice.

While it is true that there was nothing inside the building that would interest a tourist, the place appealed to me because it was so modest. Just reading the notices on a board at the back revealed a whole world that would repay a lifetime’s study (”see the world in a grain of sand” as Jane Austen, quoting William Blake, advised). Slightly musty smell to the interior, the air grown milder, the sound of sheep baaing in the field next door.

Night had fallen although it was only five o’clock. We drove on to the next village, which took us about half an hour. The night was so black that the picturesque elements of the landscape were entirely lost to us. Arriving in the village we were unable to find the church (highly commended by Pevsner). I could tell that Robert Leiper was becoming irritable. We stopped at the main crossroads by a pub which had every window lit up. Robert Leiper got out to find someone who could give us directions. He was gone about twenty minutes and came back saying everywhere was deserted. As a last resort we decided to try each of the roads leading off from the crossroads, checking all the byroads along each one. The last byroad on the last crossroad had a small turning marked “Church Road”. We went along this track (grass growing up the middle) and it petered out in a tumbledown stable yard, with the big church away to the right. As soon as I switched off the car lights we were plunged into darkness.

Getting out the car, the darkness was relieved a little by the light that came from a house the other side of the track. We went up the path to the church, and Robert Leiper began to walk anti-clockwise round the building until I called sharply to him that if he intended to walk “widdershins” round a church in the dead of night I was going back to the car and driving off. Something in my voice must have told him I wasn’t joking, as he meekly stopped and came back.

The crunch of the gravel path underfoot guided us up to the south porch. A little stumbling and we were at the door of the church. Against all my expectations the handle turned and the door opened… and we stepped into a darkness more intense than any I had anticipated.

“All we have to do is find the lights” Robert Leiper said. “All we have to do is follow this wire and it will lead us to the light switch” (fumble, fumble, slithering noise as his hands rubbed against the walls). “They must be here somewhere, all we have to do is check everything logically” (crash as something was knocked from a table, thud as his leg bashed against a piece of furniture, flutter and rustle as his hands messed up some papers). I half-heartedly joined in the search for the light switch. Ten minutes passed and still no luck. I began to feel an urgent need to rush from the dark church back to my car.

Then my eyes became used to the dark and suddenly I could see. I can’t really explain how this occurred – it was as if everything came into focus, and although I couldn’t see in any great detail I was able to make out the shape of furniture, the span of the gothic arches and the aisles leading up through the church. Walking automatically (I felt as if I was gliding) I went into the centre of the church, up the long nave, up the three chancel steps, and switched on the lights at the chancel arch (don’t ask me how I knew they were there – I just knew).

When the lights came on, like Howard Carter opening the tomb of Tutankhamen, we saw “wonderful things”. To the north side of the chancel was a big chapel screened off by iron railings. Inside the chapel were the multi-coloured marble monuments of a great family, dating from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Dimly we could make out coloured heraldic achievements, recumbent effigies, Latin inscriptions, Purbeck marble tomb chests, brass engravings, draped urns, weeping alabaster children, angels in clouds, a relief with skulls, bones and an hour glass. Robert Leiper strained his arm though the railings trying to force the catch on the iron gate. Into my mind came the words of Thomas Gray: The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power. All that wealth, all that beauty ever gave. Await alike the inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

From the village we drove to a nearby town. Robert Leiper was in a buoyant mood, exhilarated by what we had just seen. Parking in the town square, we went into a small fish and chip shop (long queue of people waiting to buy chips) and down steep stairs to a tiny restaurant area in the basement. This room held six tables and was furnished more or less like a room in a private house. Against one wall was a black enamelled Victorian kitchen range with a blazing fire. Only one other table was occupied - a family of four, just finishing. We ordered fish and chips. The family of four departed, leaving us in peace. The greasy succulence of the meal was very enjoyable.

New Year’s Eve – Sunday 31st December 2006

During the morning Robert Leiper talked extensively about the publishing company he wishes to found and which he would like me to be involved with. I stressed the need for coherent sales and marketing. My brother (the only other person in the house that day) joined us for lunch which was roast beef, Yorkshire puddings, roast potatos, Savoy cabbage, boiled leeks.

Early afternoon I drove Robert Leiper to a town on the main line where he could catch a train to London without travelling on the branch line (which can be slow and cold). I parked in the little car park where you only get twenty minutes, but it’s less distance to the station entrance. After some effort we transported all Robert’s luggage onto the platform where it caused quite an obstruction (especially the big case for his skis).

The train was late and so I went through that that odd sort of limbo where you have said goodbye to someone but they havn’t gone yet. Eventually the train arrived, and we had to pick up all Robert’s luggage and move it down to the guard’s van, delaying the already-late express. Doors slammed, a railway operative blew his whistle, and the train left the station, picking up speed as it did so.

Walking back to my car, I experienced a very weird sensation. It was as if I had gone through some kind of trauma which had unexpectedly come to an end. All that I could think of were the words: thank goodness he’s gone, thank goodness he’s gone, thank goodness he’s gone…

Later that day

I have never cared about celebrating New Year – it seems to be an empty event dedicated to over-drinking. Most years I normally go to bed early. But this New Year’s Eve I happened to be up at midnight and went out to stand in the lane where I saw, five miles away, fireworks exploding over the local town. The coloured flares and bursting clusters seemed to take on a special significance. I felt euphoric. My mind began to repeat the mantra: thank goodness he’s gone, thank goodness he’s gone, thank goodness he’s GONE!

Exteriors – Friday 29th December 2006 (afternoon)

Note the actual date of this post is Monday 12th February 2007.

“I want to see some secular architecture” Robert Leiper said, “some stately homes of England”. I explained that very few places were likely to be open in the winter, but that we could look at some exteriors. He went into his room to change, and reappeared dressed as a chav, including a Burberry baseball cap (he must have brought this item of ASBO-chic with him as there was nowhere locally he could have bought it). He thought this chav outfit was a huge joke. I told him that if he got into any fights he was on his own. We left the house just after one.

It was a cold day, slightly misty, occasionally raining. We drove across the county and through a small market town (elegant 18th century Town Hall) and stopped in the next village to look at the monuments in the church (I insisted on this, despite Robert Leiper complaining he was “all churched out”). I showed him the ducal pew, some elaborate marble compositions, and a set of shelves supporting marble heads. We then drove around the estate trying to find a gap in the trees where we could see the house. The closest we got was the main gates, from which point we could see the main façade about half a mile away. The “Castle” is one of the grandest houses in England, with a reputation for hauteur, and so it seemed appropriate that we were kept at arm’s length.

Above: I showed him... a set of shelves supporting marble heads.

Above: we could see the main façade about half a mile away.

Next to see a “Manor” Robert had read about in a book on 19th century architecture. As we approached the house through the surrounding parkland we passed lots of notices saying “Strictly No Entry” (Robert Leiper was unperturbed by these prohibitions, encouraging me to drive through them). Parking by the service wing, we walked around the exterior of the house, a monstrous edifice in the Jacobean style, designed by Salvin and currently occupied by the European branch of an American educational institute. It was a little unnerving to walk in the courtyard under all the many windows, but the place seemed to be deserted and no-one challenged us. It began to rain heavily so I stepped under a protruding piece of masonry to shelter while Robert Leiper continued to walk around. I stood there for about twenty minutes until I heard footsteps approaching on the wet gravel. I was screened from view by one of the pillars, and so the two people approaching could not see me. They stopped only inches away from me, also sheltering from the rain. It was obvious from their voices that they were a American couple, and from what they were saying I judged that the girl was a student at the institute being visited by her boyfriend over the Christmas holiday. Their conversation became very intimate, and referred to things a third party should not hear (this was not done in an extrovert way – they were very seriously discussing their carnal relationship). I considered walking away, but to do so I would have to pass them, and the issue of trespassing might be raised. I hoped they would walk away, but they showed no sign of doing so. I hoped Robert Leiper would distract them, but he had entirely disappeared. Eventually, after about ten minutes, the girl took a small step forward and we came face to face. It was an embarrassing moment for both of us.

“Hello” I said to her politely.

“Hello” she said back politely, her boyfriend appearing at her shoulder.

I stepped forward and walked swiftly past them. I could hear them walking swiftly in the opposite direction. I went back to my car and when Robert Leiper finally appeared we drove off.

From the “Manor” we drove across to the edge of the county where we got a fairly good view of a ducal castle from a distance (on top of a hill with woods all around). We were very close to the gastro-pub Marie-Astrid planned to take us to on Wednesday (that disastrous night!), and went in to have a look. It was warm and comfortable inside, but too late for lunch and too early for dinner.

The rain continued to fall, and the light faded. We drove into the next town, a grimy, sprawling centre of manufacturing. At the station we asked about trains for Robert to go back to London (smiling teenage chavs hanging around the station chatted to him, intrigued by his American accent).

We then had “afternoon tea” at the main hotel in the town. This was not my idea, as I knew we would be over-charged for what we could get at a café for a fraction of the price, but Robert Leiper saw it advertised on a board outside the hotel and wanted to try it. The meal (mostly cakes) was excessively sweet and sugary so that I felt nauseated. Cold, wet and very tired, I was glad to get home.

Boiling vegetables into a mush is part of our culture

Note the actual date of this post is Thursday 8th December 2007.

On impulse we decided (actually Robert Leiper decided) to go and see one of the towers that featured in the 18th century engravings Robert gave me as a Christmas gift. He had bought these engravings at Christies in New York, mainly I suspect to impress CW who works there (she is employed there part-time as well as her magazine job). Anyway, to get to the tower entailed a long drive south-east into the next county (as soon as we crossed the county border I felt we were entering a different world).

The weather was wet (although not actually raining), the air was chill, the light was already beginning to fade at two o’clock. Eventually we arrived at a remote village that seemed to be mired in mud. The church tower dominated the surrounding cottages. Getting out the car we looked up at the looming bulk of the masonry, unmistakeably the same structure that was in the engraving. After a little bother (having to go to three different houses) we obtained the key to the church. We had to go in through a side door, jiggling the key around in the lock until it finally clicked.

Through a small ante room (winding stone staircase off to the side, leading nowhere) we entered the main body of the church, a tremendous structure so cavernous and enveloping that I irrationally felt it could come crashing down on me at any moment. Momentarily I was disorientated by the fact that the building was larger on the inside than the outside – this was obviously because the church was sinking into the earth (you had to go down several stone steps from the ante room, so the floor of the building was several feet below ground level). Robert Leiper had left his jacket in the car and was only wearing a black “BBC” (Billionaire Boys Club) t-shirt, and in the cold of the interior he began to shiver.

We walked around the building - dusty side chapels, Norman font, medieval choir stalls. Standing in the nave, far above in the murky light you could see angels carved on the hammerbeam roof. At the back was a reproduction of the 18th century engraving

From the muddy village we drove deeper into the county. Passing through a hamlet we stopped to look around a tiny ruined church built of flints and with a round tower, no bigger than a small house. Robert Leiper was entranced by this ruin, although I did not feel altogether happy there (it had an “atmosphere”).

Next to a well-preserved ruin of a Norman castle keep, surrounded by earthworks. You enter via the gift shop where you have to buy a ticket. The shop manager was very interesting to talk to and described various supernatural occurrences around the site, including a white clammy mist that manifests itself in the top chamber of the castle. He also discussed his archaeological work in the surrounding area including excavating a ruined church connected with one of the missionaries of the Saxon period (“my theory is that there were hermit cells connected to the cult…”). We were there for quite a while listening to his descriptions of local ley-lines. As we walked away from the gift shop Robert Leiper told me forcefully “Don’t you dare ask that docent any more questions.”

I had been to the castle several times before, so did not share Robert Leiper’s enthusiasm for the cold chambers and awkward staircases. We looked down the wells and peered through the arrow-slits. No ghostly white mist appeared when we went up to the top chamber.

On the way back we stopped at a town on the coast for a cup of coffee and to look at various historic buildings in the dark and the rain. Wet cobbled streets, with a surprising number of people about. Then we drove home for dinner of roast lamb, Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes, broccoli, carrots, and the last of the Brussels sprouts (Robert Leiper complained that the vegetables were over-cooked but I told him that boiling vegetables into a mush is part of our culture).

Clash of Titans - Wednesday 27th December 2006 (evening)

Note the actual date of this post is Tuesday 6th January 2007.

One evening we drove across to have dinner with Marie-Astrid. Robert Leiper took a lot of trouble over his appearance and spent ages in the downstairs bathroom getting ready, eventually appearing in a loud Bright & Bynum jacket and multi-coloured striped shirt by Ralph Lauren Polo. He asked me anxiously how he looked (I did not tell him the truth).

We all planned to go out to a restaurant in a “typically” old English pub (actually a gastro-pub that has a mention in the Michelin guide, but dressed up with open fires and rustic touches to look suitably authentic). However, an hour before we were due to leave I got a phone call from Marie-Astrid. Her babysitter had just cancelled, and so instead of going out she was having some food delivered.

I suggested canceling the evening rather than putting her to a lot of trouble, but she insisted we came over. So we got in the car and drove across to the town where Marie-Astrid lives. The journey took us over an hour.

The house dates from the 1970s and is a bit stark in appearance, although fairly large (when choosing a home Marie-Astrid values space over attractiveness, being unable to afford both). Being a frequent visitor there was no need for me to knock – I just opened the front door and went inside. As soon as I stepped through the door I knew the evening was not going to go well (the voices talking in the room just beyond the hall had an edge to them, as if there had just been an argument).

In the white lounge (everything white – walls, furniture, carpets) we found Marie-Astrid, her friends Emily, Dave (plump and avuncular, with glasses) and Dan, plus two people I had not met before. These were introduced to me as Breda and Tony. Because of the white carpet everyone had taken their shoes off but as no request was made to me I kept mine on.

Breda (pronounced by the others as “Bree-va” although she pronounced it herself as “Bree-ta”) was a work colleague of Marie-Astrid’s. Like most public sector workers she had spent a lifetime in not-for-profit organisations, and also did voluntary work for the European Movement. She was a lot older than her partner Tony (about 40 I would guess). In appearance her figure was very slim, and she had natural ash-blonde hair in permed curls, white face drained of all colour, and glasses that were slightly tinted. Her voice was loud and had a heavy Irish accent.

I introduced Robert Leiper to everyone.

“It’s the Scarlet Pimpernel” mocked Dave good-naturedly, referring to Robert’s jacket.

Dan asked him what he did for a living.

“I don’t do anything” said Robert.

“So you’re unemployed?” said Dave.

“No, I’m a writer” said Robert.

There was an exchange of knowing looks between Dan, Dave and Emily.

“So you’re unemployed!” said Dave again, laughing.

Various questions were put to him about how long he was staying in England, what he had seen so far, what he wanted to see.

“I want to see some chavs” said Robert.

“Why, what’s so special about chavs?” said Dave.

“I read an article about them in the New York Times. It’s a sign of how cultural standards in England are falling. The whole dumbing-down thing.”

“I thought chavs were wearing American national dress” said Emily reasonably. “Baseball cap, jeans, trainers, bling. I thought all that came from America.”

“American culture does a huge amount of damage in the world” said Breda. “But the Americans don’t see it. They think we want Macdonalds and Pepsi Cola everywhere. They are all brainwashed as children. Brainwashed with nationalism. They sing the Star Spangled Banner, they pledge allegiance to their flag, they watch Fox News, they constantly tell themselves their way of life is better than anybody else’s. This nationalism is made ten times worse by the fact that few of them ever go outside their country. And so when Americans come to Europe and experience a thousand-year culture that outclasses anything America has to offer they get aggressive. Not that anyone in England stands up to the Americans, you’d have to go to Ireland or France to find that.”

Breda said all this at great speed, and very passionately, as if challenging anyone to interrupt her. Although all her words were clear and her movements were precise I began to suspect she had been drinking heavily. The sound of the doorbell, and the arrival of parcels from Mr Pang’s Chinese restaurant brought this phase of the evening to a close.

We all went through to the conservatory that runs the whole length of the back of the house. This room was still decorated for Christmas (tasteful decorations, nothing kitsch). The surroundings, table decorations, clothes people were wearing – everything suggested we were at a very smart dinner party, but nothing could disguise the fact that we were basically eating a takeaway. It became clear that there was a considerable sense of resentment against the way in which the babysitter’s abrupt cancellation had dashed everyone’s hopes for the evening. This resentment needed an outlet, and Robert Leiper was unconsciously providing one. I decided against taking sides.

Dave asked Robert Leiper where he lived in America, and when Robert told him New York asked about the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2003. Robert Leiper had a peripheral experience of the attack as his office was four blocks away from the World Trade Centre, and the staff were evacuated through the panic and debris following the collapse of the two towers. Previously he had refused to talk about this journey on foot through devastated streets filled with toxic fog, but now he launched into a polished account filled with anecdotes (“…we were all choking and couldn’t go on, so we broke into a delicatessen to rest. There was this guy from our office who wanted to stay there. He kept saying: We’ve got everything we need – food, bottled water, shelter. But everyone else wanted to get home…”).

Discussion of the Nine-Eleven attack led to the subject of Iraq. Voices became raised. Breda was scornful of British and American attempts to subdue the country: “You’re up to your old tricks again, trying to take land which isn’t yours. You won’t find this war so easy to walk away from. The Americans are going to be the surrender monkeys this time…”

“Why is the American army so fucking incompetent?” said Dan. “It’s like they’re dragging us down with them. Everything they touch falls to pieces.”

“Wait ‘til Brown becomes PM” said Dave. “We’ll be out of Iraq pronto. Either that or Brown will be tainted with Blair’s legacy and kicked out of Number Ten.”

“Brown will never be elected Prime Minister because they’ll be no more British elections” said Breda. “The UK’s falling apart. And you won’t be able to stitch things up like you did with the six counties.”

“In the event of the break-up of the United Kingdom” said Dave, “I want it clearly understood that Northern Ireland is a Scottish problem. The vast majority of people there are Scottish Presbyterians. It’s a Scottish colony and nothing to do with England.”

“Scotland and the Irish Republic will have to sort it out between them” said Dan.

“And pay any costs” said Dave.

“Scotland will have plenty of money once the English stop fleecing their oil revenues” said Breda.

“We wouldn’t need the oil revenues if they would stop exporting their unemployment to England” said Dave, “and that goes for Ireland as well” (this was obviously a dig at Breda who has a very good job in the British public sector).

There was lots more in the same vein, but I wasn’t able to remember it all, and so it is lost. Curiously Robert Leiper didn’t say anything memorable although he was in the thick of most of the argument, and a target for Breda’s anti-Americanism (“What is America for? It’s just a vast machine dedicated to consumerism. Life, liberty and the pursuit of stuff…”). In a way this was a little unfair as Robert has always opposed the war in Iraq.

Eventually the meal came to an end (thank goodness). Even then the bickering continued. Breda washed the plates up while Dave and Tony did the drying up and everyone else stood around in the long kitchen and talked. Robert Leiper was very critical of the way the dishes were being dried immediately they came out of the soapy water. He insisted that washing-up liquid would transfer onto the food next time the dishes were used. He told us that in America dishes are always rinsed after they are washed. This lecture provoked Breda into another outburst (“For a country that dropped napalm on children in South East Asia you are unusually squeamish about chemical residues…”).

Throughout the evening Marie-Astrid had smiled serenely, as if everything was going smoothly. In the kitchen we ignored the others and talked quietly. At one point she asked me what films I planned to see over the Christmas and New Year holiday.

“They always repeat Clash of Titans on ITV” I said, “but after tonight I think I’ll give it a miss.”

At 11.30 Robert Leiper and I said goodbye to everyone (Breda kissing us both, as if it had all been in good fun) and set off on the drive home.

“That must be the most bad-tempered meal I have ever been to” I said.

Robert Leiper said nothing, but I could tell from the brooding way he sat slumped in the passenger seat that he was not in a good mood. He began to play with the electric window on his side. Up and down the window went, up and down, up and down.

The night was very cold and I was already feeling the onset of a sore throat and sore chest.

“It’s very cold” I said, “so perhaps we could have the window up?”

Robert Leiper lowered the window once more and left it down. I am able to control the passenger electric window from my side and closed his window. Slowly and deliberately Robert Leiper opened it again.

For a brief murderous moment I wanted to stop the car and turn him out (miles from anywhere, the temperature already below freezing). I dearly wanted to do this. But I continued driving, ignoring the provocatively open window (overcoming my anger at that moment is possibly one of the noblest things that I have ever done).

In the shadow of the great man - Wednesday 27th December 2006

Note the actual date of this post is Wednesday 2nd February 2007.

The air was very chill outside the house this morning, with a mist that never completely went away.

Robert Leiper seemed to be in a contradictory mood, saying the opposite of whatever I said (he often does this when he is bored and wants to provoke people). I drove him into the local town where he took some shirts to the dry cleaners, literally gasping at the high cost (a result of the decline of the American currency – one pound sterling is now worth two dollars). A farcical tour around the town’s shops while he tried to buy some shooting socks. I asked why he wanted them and his reply was so evasive I suspected he didn’t really need them but just wanted to buy something unobtainable outside of the United Kingdom. Eventually we found some in a gentleman’s outfitters to the south end of the town. They were so expensive he could only afford one pair (£19 or $38).

After lunch we decided to go out (“Let’s have a blast” Robert said). I warned that hardly anywhere would be open. We took the dog with us.

Driving deep into the hills, we arrived at a tiny village, birthplace of a nineteenth-century Poet Laureate. Crows cawed overhead as we examined the exterior of the Old Rectory where the great man had been born (a Regency villa with gimcrack gothic additions). Much more impressive was The Grange, a very substantial castellated house next door.

Through an iron gate and up the slope of a small mound, we came to the church where the poet’s father (a disinherited eldest son with mental health problems) had been Rector. Inside was a small case of mementos (a clay pipe, a quill pen, scraps of paper with the poet’s handwriting) and a big brass bust of the Poet Laureate in later life (I paused by this sculpture, literally standing in the shadow of the great man). It was all very modest and restrained, considering he was the greatest poet of his age.

Next to the neighbouring village (a even smaller settlement, consisting of Hall Farm and a few cottages). I was very pleased to find the small Perpendicular church open, as I have tried several times to get in. The building is constructed of greenstone, and has a dignified little tower with grimacing gargoyles at each of the corners. Inside the church the air was freezing so that it hurt your lungs as you breathed in. There was a half-hearted attempt at tourist information – the parish contains the “babbling brook” mentioned in one of the poet’s more famous works. Simple one-aisled nave leading to a chancel with elegant 18th century tablet memorials (I wondered about the lives of these refined individuals - possibly they had died of hypothermia).

The dog was sick on the back seat of the car - I covered it up with Robert's copy of The Times.

Always Robert Leiper wanted to move on, so that the afternoon was characterised by a restless quality. We drove on to the next village. The sound of gunshot cracked the air in neighbouring wooded copses, and we saw pheasants walking carefully along the side of the road as if trying to remain incognito. The church was open and contained a recumbent effigy of a knight with very fine chain mail. From the churchyard you could see over an high wall to the Hall, featured in one of Laureate’s most famous poems (a half-true story of obsessive unrequited love, including lines where the name of a girl is repeated in heart-broken monotony, as if crazed repetition could conjure up the object of desire). Robert wanted to see the front of the house so we found a footpath leading through a field (ignoring a warning sign to mind the bull) that gave us a view - a very beautiful façade of mellow red brick.

And that's how we spent our day.

So many questions

When Robert Leiper had been in London he had gone to a second-hand bookshop in Mayfair. While looking through one of the books a postcard fell out, which he kept (dubious moral grounds as he didn’t buy the book) and gave to me. I reproduce it here because I found it interesting.

On one side the postcard features a photograph taken in 1959 of a chic woman looking through a very impressive telescope, accompanied by an elderly man about twenty years her senior. They are in what looks like a whitewashed spare bedroom (single bed). The bright light suggests a Mediterranean location (actually Tangier on the northern tip of Morocco).

Below the photo is some writing:

With all good wishes for Xmas and 1960 to you and the boys from James and Marguerite. Tangier.

On the other side are two messages, both written (I would guess) by the chic 50-year-old from the photo. One message obviously comprises New Year greetings, written previous to the holiday and put on one side ready to go out (perhaps as part of a larger batch). Underneath this she has added a postscript explaining that the old gentleman had died after a short illness, the bright hopes for the future becoming a sad souvenir of the past.

The full text is:

We can easily see thru the Straits of Gibraltar and 49 miles into Spain but the future looks a bit murky – and we wish we could see you. Love (and the signature was a stylised drawing of a flower – presumably a marguerite, which is a type of daisy).

PS 3 Dec . 1959
You will be sad to know that James died on the 1 December after an illness of 10 days – and is being buried today. He was very fond of you all and so I know you will be glad to have this photo. M.

There are so many questions raised by this postcard.

Boxing Day – 26th December

Note the actual date of this post is Wednesday 31st January 2007.

By the time breakfast was cleared away the morning was almost gone. Robert Leiper wanted a walk so I sent him off in the direction of the next village (a distance of about five miles). I have to say I felt relief at being on my own for a while. He came back wailing about his clothes (which he is obsessed by), having been completely unprepared for the amount of mud a December walk in the countryside would generate.

When Robert Leiper returned we had lunch – cold turkey, chestnut stuffing, sausagemeat, boiled potatos, Brussels sprouts, with a chilled Sancerre to drink. To follow were slices of cold Christmas pudding (with more of the sauternes we opened yesterday). Robert Leiper asked for two helpings of the cold Christmas pudding, a request I have never heard made before (he seemed to regard the pudding as a great delicacy).

Afterwards we all had some tea and sat at the table talking.

It was one of those tedious lunchtime conversations when we talk about nothing at all. The chintz style of decoration in the house was commented on, and Robert Leiper said: “In America it is known as English Country House”. Robert Leiper then described various big arguments he has had with various people culminating in the clash that lost him his job.

It was dark when we took the dog for a walk to the end of the road (the dog was more appreciative of the muddy walk than we were). We had a red torch to light the way, but didn’t need it as there were absolutely no vehicles about. Robert Leiper talked about skiing in the Adirondack Mountains, his admiration for Jeremy Bloom (someone I had never previously heard of), and his plans to go skiing in Germany.

A very late tea (past nine o’clock). Smoked salmon, a variety of cheeses, hot vol-au-vant, Dundee cake, cups of tea. “All we do is eat” remarked Robert Leiper, “tomorrow I want to go out someplace”. I explained that in Christmas week almost all places of interest would be shut – even the medieval churches were likely to be locked.

Later he launched a very long discussion about a publishing venture he wants to set up. I wondered how serious he was. It was unclear what he wanted my role to be (although it was very clear he wanted me to have a role).

Christmas Day – 25th December

Note the actual date of this post is Tuesday 30th January 2007

Everyone was busy during the morning getting the lunch ready. Robert Leiper got up late and had his breakfast alone in the Dining Room. He then came to stand in the Outer Kitchen while I helped do the washing up, expressing surprise at the amount of food being prepared.

He gave me a present (unwrapped) of two eighteenth-century engravings he had bought at Christies in New York. They were magnificent steel engravings, mounted and in plain varnished frames. The subjects were two medieval towers in a neighbouring county (one was a church tower, the other was a castle fortification).

Above: Robert Leiper also gave me some very expensive French wine which he brought over from New York in a Kenneth Cole bag.

At noon we began to drink Champagne, and Robert Leiper changed into a Banana Republic blue mohair suit. At one o’clock we had lunch of roast turkey, Brussels sprouts (from a stalk chucked over the fence by the farmer), roast potatos, roasted parsnips with black pepper, chestnut stuffing, sausagemeat, bread sauce, cranberry sauce and gravy. Then a homemade Christmas pudding, round in shape, which we had with brandy butter and a glass of sauternes (Robert Leiper was fascinated by the pudding which is not common in America - they have pumpkin pie).

Above: Brussels sprouts (from a stalk chucked over the fence by the farmer).

The meal lasted until three o’clock when we took our drinks into the Sitting Room. The Queen’s Speech came on and Robert Leiper stood up for the (British) National Anthem, the only person in the room to do so. Her Majesty talked about family life.

Most of the afternoon I spent talking and reading. At one point I must have dropped off for about an hour. Later Robert and I took the dog for a walk as far as The Grange, a distance of about half a mile. No-one else was about. Robert talked about the band he had been in last year and the attempt to generate interest via MySpace. The enterprise had been a complete failure.

Back at the house tea was ready – including cold turkey, ham, bread and butter, Gala pie, savoury biscuits, chocolate biscuits, Brussels pate, cheeses (eight kinds, including a large Stilton), Tunis cake, Christmas cake. The meal was interrupted by telephone calls from friends and relations (including calls Robert Leiper made to his family in San Diego) so that we were not finished until past 11pm. This did not mar the meal in any way – it was the sort of meal that benefited from being drawn out.

Christmas Eve – 24th December

Note the actual date of this post is Monday 29th January 2007

At 9 o’clock I went downstairs with the dog. Out in the garden the day was mild, the white Christmas Roses in full flower. Robert Leiper was already up and having breakfast in the dining room (tea with toast and marmalade - Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade).

I was concerned to know how well Robert was getting on with everyone as he has a controlling persona. If you are not firm with him you can end up being pushed around in your own house. For instance when showing him the main Sitting Room, which has seven armchairs and two sofas, I told him one of the armchairs was only used by my aunt. Not surprisingly, when I next went in there he was sitting in my aunt’s armchair. I knew this was a test of will so I told him to move. I would have ejected him had it been necessary.

He also seems to be a bit of an exhibitionist, and I got reports that he was undressed this morning with the lights on and the curtains open. This information was provided by one of the farmers who use the sheds in the old farmyard – he told me seriously “the old biddies won’t like it”, referring to the locals who use the lane as a shortcut up to the church. I had to explain to Robert that although the house was isolated, lots of people use the lane and the footpath through the old farmyard, and they can see through into his room, especially if he leaves the light on (these are not people who would understand the Californian concept of letting it all hang out).

Other feedback I got concerned Robert’s loud exuberance (“does he have to be so hip and happening?”) and the amount of mud he was bringing into the house (“doesn’t he know how to use a doormat?”). Old advice about not mixing friends and family came back to me. I decided to get him out of the house as much as possible to minimise the culture clash.

We had a big lunch – as it was a Sunday we had roast pork, sage and onion stuffing, roast potatos, carrots, cauliflower. For pudding we had mince pies. After lunch and a cup of tea Robert Leiper wanted to explore the local area.

Just below the escarpment is a small market town that is halfway between the hills and the coast (because of an estuary it also has a small port). With a population of about fifteen thousand inhabitants, it has a mostly Georgian and Victorian appearance, the streets packed closely round a great church in the centre (the size of a small cathedral, with a lofty tower). Seen from a distance, and from the vantage point of the escarpment, it resembles one of those gothic cities in a medieval Book of Hours.

We drove into the centre of the town and parked in the cobbled Market Place. As it was late afternoon on Christmas Eve nowhere was open, but I was able to show him the exterior of various buildings. So we looked at the Assembly Rooms, the Old Custom House, the blue-plaqued birthplace of an inflammatory sixteenth-century rabble rouser (author of a Martyrology), the Guildhall, and the great church itself (soaring perpendicular, intricate gothic, dazzling complexity of flying buttresses and lofty pinnacles).

Returning home we joined the others, had some tea and talked for several hours. Robert Leiper seemed mesmerised by the town we had just visited and the size and scale of the church/minster/mini-cathedral that dominated the centre. He wanted to see inside, and looking in the local newspaper I found that there was a Christmas Eve Carol Concert at seven o’clock.

At 7pm we drove down onto the plain to the small town again (Robert Leiper had put on a dark Dolce & Gabbana blazer – “Cost me eight hundred and fifty bucks” – with a t-shirt that said Starboard Attitude). The church was lit up, from both within and without, vast in size, the gothic tower looming upwards 272 feet into the dark sky. In through the porch, we entered the enormous gothic interior and found seats on the left hand side of the nave, fairly near the front (the nave was nearly full). As we came in and were given the Order of Service we were also presented with one lit candle, but Robert Leiper went back and insisted that we had TWO candles (he is very competitive). I pointed out the fine transitional windows. “Gothic upon gothic my abbey rises round me” said Robert Leiper appreciatively, quoting a minor poet (and typically getting the quotation wrong).

The service was comprised of Lessons and Carols, the format very familiar to me (all the usual carols were sung including Once In Royal David’s City, Hark The Herald Angels Sing, Joy To The World etc). The Lessons were read by various members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy (which is extensive at the church/minster/mini-cathedral) in an escalating order of importance. The service ended with the choir and clergy, led by the cross holder, processing to the back of the church to bless the crib.

In many ways it was a very ordinary Christmas Eve service. Possibly even a little clichéd. But Robert Leiper was delighted with the event, calling it “classically English”.

After the service, when everyone was milling around at the west end, Robert Leiper’s loud American accent attracted the attention of one of the wardens of the church and he was given a brief impromptu tour. As Robert looks young for his age I thought it worth pointing out that he was a Doctor of English with an interest in medieval manuscripts. This immediately led to an invitation for him to return later in the week to see the church/minster/mini-cathedral’s Library (not normally open to visitors).

Robert Leiper and I returned home and had some more tea. Once again we talked for several hours. Because our lunch had been very substantial neither of us was hungry.

Midnight Mass

At 11.30 in the evening we went out once more, this time all of us going to a local village church. Bells pealed into the night sky as we entered the building. Robert Leiper was very excited (like a child) when we entered the church and saw the bell-ringers working away under the tower (apparently it was the first time he had seen bell-ringing). The church was almost full. We sat on the right hand side of the nave, halfway down. There was a fuss when the lord of the manor (who is also the local MP), wearing red cord trousers, arrived with his party, ostentatiously taking their places in the front pew.

The church is filled with many treasures, chief among these being a great brass chandelier, with about a fifty candles in several tiers, dating from 1722 and hanging over the central aisle. The sight of this chandelier lit up for Christmas was very beautiful. The service was a Midnight Mass, being Holy Communion for Christmas Day. We sang traditional carols: O Come All Ye Faithful, Away In A Manger, God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman etc. We went up with everyone else to take the Eucharist bread and wine (Robert Leiper crossing himself). When the offertory hymn was sung a collecting plate was passed around and Robert Leiper placed in this a £20 note (a sight almost as ostentatious as the lord of the manor’s red trousers).

The service ended and we emerged from the church at the same time as the party from the manor. Most of them got into cars, but the MP said loudly that he wanted to walk across the park and climbed over an iron gate to go back on foot to his Queen Anne hall (one of the nicest houses in the area). The night was cold.

We returned home and had (another cliché I’m afraid) hot mince pies and glasses of sherry.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Arrival of Robert Leiper - Saturday 23rd December

I had expected Robert Leiper to arrive by the 12.22 train and went to the station to meet him. Several people got off the train, but not Robert. I wondered whether he had arrived by an earlier train, and spent some time looking around the railway station (station bar, waiting rooms, surrounding streets) before returning home.

At home the telephone rang – Robert Leiper had got off the train at the wrong station, and now had to wait for the next branch train. When this train eventually arrived I was there to meet it. Robert Leiper was one of the last passengers to descend the footbridge steps, weighed down with luggage.

Robert Leiper is a mixed-race American, aged about thirty. I have known him about ten years. He is very sports-orientated, but is also interested in serious subjects, such as the environment, and Democratic politics (enthusiastic about Hilary Clinton). In mid-December he had been fired from his job with an academic association in New York and had now come to Europe with the intention of becoming a writer. He intended to go to Paris and duplicate the career of Ernest Hemingway. On the way he was spending some time in London, and I had asked him to my house for Christmas. He spends a huge amount of money on clothes, and will always tell you what he is wearing, whether you are interested or not. It’s as if he depended on clothes for his identity. Today he had on (I listed them down) Tommy Hilfiger jeans, American Apparel black T-shirt with a sort of collar, black Tod’s trainers, nondescript coat that he had bought second-hand.

There was a lot of difficulty getting all of Robert Leiper’s luggage into the car. Among the items was a long black case (about six feet in length) that held his skis. It was a waste of time his bringing them as the only snow in Europe was in Norway.

We got to my home and introduced him to everyone (I will have to refer to them obliquely as they have specifically requested not to appear in this blog). I gave him a cup of tea and offered him a choice of a meal or going out to see something of the country (we would have to go immediately as the light was already beginning to fade). He chose to go out (we took the dog with us).

We went down onto the plain, and across to the sea coast (not a long journey – it takes about twenty-five minutes from my house to the shore). Most of the coast is inaccessible, but one point where you can get to it is at a tiny seaside hamlet represented by two former hotels (one converted into holiday flats, one ruined) and a scattering of cottages strung out along the inner sea wall (a great grassy bank of earth). The salt water had retreated from the hamlet, and we walked to the next sea wall (via a connecting bank) and then the sea wall beyond that before we were finally at the edge of the coastal marshes.

For about two miles we walked in isolation along the outer sea wall. The bleakness of the landscape (the colours comprised of muted greys, browns, dull greens), the crying of the sea birds, the steady salt-scented sea wind (not really cold) taken together created a mood of solitude and melancholy. Like most visitors, Robert Leiper seemed surprised at the haunting beauty of the coast. As we walked he talked about his continuing obsession with CW. Not for the first time I wondered whether he might be mildly stalking her. I advised him to keep away from Sussex while he was in England.

We returned home. Dinner of poached salmon with asparagus and boiled potatos. Robert Leiper was very interested in “chavs” having read an article on them in the New York Times. He wanted to see some chavs during the holiday. I told him it would be impossible to avoid them. His continual references to chavs sounded weird - are the fashions and lifestyle mores of the ASBO generation starting to register on the international tourist itinerary?

On previous visits to the United Kingdom Robert Leiper had complained of the cold, and so instead of giving him a bedroom upstairs (most of them hard to heat) I had set up a portable single bed for him in one of the downstairs rooms where the cold is not too bad, despite the room having a stone floor.

Friday, January 19, 2007

A few snapshots of the Christmas period

Over the weeks of my illness I look back to the last proper entry I made, and wonder whether so much time has elapsed that this blog is no longer viable. The readership may have wandered away, the momentum (never very strong) of regular entries may have lapsed, the sense of purpose I once had may be impossible to regain.

What concerns me most are the wads of notes I made during my illness that need typing up and posting with photographs. Many times I have considered junking them and starting again. Many times I have also considered giving up and closing this site down.

But, more for my own record than anything else, here are a few snapshots of the Christmas period:

(Above): artificial Christmas trees in the windows of Saatchi and Saatchi.

Metropolitan presentiment

The weather was unseasonably mild, almost warm, for December. At seven o’clock in the evening I walked along Charlotte Street past the artificial Christmas trees in the windows of Saatchi and Saatchi (was this some kind of 1970s revival, I wondered?). The north end of Charlotte Street seemed full of people just leaving the office for the day (emerging from corporate front doors and walking purposefully towards Goodge Street tube station). As I walked southwards the character changed, and the street became livelier. I passed several pubs and bars filled to bursting and generating noise. Eventually I arrived at Pied-a-terre.

(Above): Pied-a-terre in Charlotte Street.

Pied-a-terre is one of the best restaurants in Fitzrovia, and has one Michelin star. It is one of the smallest restaurants I have been to (roughly the size of a small shop). You go up a couple of steps, through a sort of reception area and then into the restaurant itself – tables covered in white linen, walls of black glass, ostentatious table lights that looked as if they were made entirely of crystal.

(Above): ostentatious table lights that looked as if they were made entirely of crystal.

Gary Spencer and Jason Kramer had already arrived and were at a table in the far corner. My seat was actually in the corner itself, so that I felt a bit squashed (literally squashed up against the wall). Gary and Jason had ordered some champagne (£78 a bottle).

All the tables in the restaurant were full, but we didn’t have to wait to get served. The staff (French, all dressed in black) were very efficient, but not intrusive. Although we were hemmed in by other tables it was quite private in our corner.

I had roast Mallard duck with choucroute and a ragout with mushrooms and quails eggs, followed by roast venison with a quince sauce, mashed potato, bacon, cabbage and walnuts, followed by a large muille fuille slice. In between courses we were brought little extras such as an apple sorbet, and various other savoury tasters (most of them I didn’t care for). Apart from the champagne we had Pouilly Fuisse with the main course, and coffee at the end.

It was a very good-natured meal even though we mostly talked about difficult subjects - economics, politics, business. Our views coincided so that there were none of the usual arguments when these emotive subjects are raised. At one stage we discussed possible business ventures. Jason suggested founding a restaurant in one of the villages just outside Cambridge. Called “Proust” the restaurant would be decorated in a belle epoch style and only serve the meals mentioned in A la recherche du temps perdu (as the book is packed with descriptions of elaborate meals, there would be plenty of options for the menu). Possible sources of funding were suggested.

We also discussed plans for a journey across Europe in 2008, taking in Paris, Munich, Zurich and Vienna.

Very late we finished our meal. After saying goodbye to Jason Kramer, Gary Spencer and I decided to walk back to the terminus instead of getting a taxi. The onset of the Christmas holiday was imminent, and I voiced my concerns about the arrival of Robert Leiper and the difficulty of keeping him entertained and occupied during Christmas week (he was coming over from New York and staying at my house over Christmas before going on to Paris and Berlin).

PS thanks to everyone who has commented and e-mailed and sorry about not responding - I havn't even had the energy to log on.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Apologies for not updating - there was the Christmas holiday and now I have a terrible 'flu sort of illness.