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Monday, 15 October 2012

1066 and all that

The south. It’s another country. I’m talking about southern England, the place where I grew up. I feel like an alien down there, and it’s not surprising. I’ve been away for almost forty years now.

We went to visit my friend Rebecca de Saintonge and her husband. I think it’s okay to say that Rebecca used to manage TLC ( Certainly she was the person I connected with back in 2001 when I started reading manuscripts for the outfit founded by Becky Swift and Hannah Griffiths. Whenever I phoned it was Rebecca who answered. She effectively ran the readers, refereed the dialogue between us and the clients - and got the cheques out on time. And she was always willing to chew the fat with people like me who like to break up the writing day by… chewing the fat.

Before long we were talking about our respective lives, loves, work, childhoods, and, as often as not, what I was eating; or planning to eat, largely because whenever she rang me I had my mouth full of food - or my head full of what I was going to eat later.  Plus ca change… And in order not to disappoint her, here’s a photo of the lunch we shared yesterday - a chorizo and bean soup cooked, I should point out, by her husband.

Well, Rebecca left TLC quite a few years ago, and now runs a business that specialises in house histories ( She and her husband have moved out to rural East Sussex where they have an old brick-and-weatherboard cottage at Three-Leg Cross (yes, only in England…) and barely fifty yards from The Bull, a splendid pub with open fires which serves hearty grub and excellent beer.

I now see that I’ve started this with a bald statement about the south being a foreign country. Perhaps I ought to justify it. Let me mention two things that always strike me when I go south, beyond the boundaries of Greater London, that is. Because London is a different story altogether. One is the way that all these tiny, picturesque villages are absolutely swamped by cars. When they’re not zooming along the narrow lanes terrorising pedestrians, they’re wedged, two three four of them. into every front drive; or parked in jagged rows astride the kerb, the entire length of the every village street and beyond.

What also strikes me is the very attractive-looking countryside, clad in woodlands. It seems so very different from any northern landscape, and I’m no sooner sighing at its beauty than I come over all bristly. I know that I ought to rejoice in the sight of oak trees in their autumn colours, of hilltop after hilltop receding towards the coast and each one topped by mature trees; but I’m never quite able to. In part this to do with the apparent inaccessibility of the woods, and my suspicion that they’re all in private hands - in private wealthy hands - and the fact that whenever I see a wood I want, rather than just looking at it from the road, to enter it, to walk, play, camp, perhaps even live in it. I want free access - and I don’t think that’s available down south.

Oh, dear, I’m fear I am going to sound more and more curmudgeonly, more of a malcontent, with every tap of the keys. But I’ll blunder on. My view of what is indeed very pretty countryside is also coloured by a feeling that ‘they’ - the southerners - seem able to afford to keep it pretty. Up north it seems that the land is used: for agriculture, industry… or, in the case of the uplands, sheep, shooting and recreational pursuits. Down south, on these outer fringes of the Great Wen, it seems to be all paddocks and private woods. I suppose it’s a bit like those National Trust properties one visits: elegant mansions surrounded by exquisitely managed parklands all set out by aristocrats with a heightened aesthetic sensibility - or rather the ability to hire a landscape gardener with a heightened aesthetic sensibility. I see these places, as I cycle by, and my spirits soar for a moment or two. Then these dark feelings creep in, about exploitation, appropriation, privilege, how this particular wealth was first acquired: my cudgel is bigger than your cudgel…. Here, mon brave, you did a fine job of invading southern England: have half a county. 

Still, none of the above stopped us from having a delightful weekend in East Sussex. On Saturday we managed a trip to the coast, our intention being to have a look at the site of the landmark conflict of 1066… the battle of Hastings. We were turned away. The village of Battle was under siege. Not Normans this time, rather re-enactors - and thousands of visitors. The car parks were all full, and the lanes leading to the site were clogged with… yes, cars (including ours).

So we headed to the Hastings itself, where I pulled out my old camera and took some stunning pictures along the sea-shore, which pictures I have since managed to wipe.  Luckily, A. was there, snapping away, and I have her to thank for the photo at the top of the page.

Yesterday was a glorious autumn day: frost first thing, then clear blue skies. We walked around the huge reservoir, just down the lane from Three-Leg Cross. There were some dazzling sights, none more striking than these fungi. Good enough to eat? Probably not.

There’s more to tell about the weekend, but I need to get dressed, cast my mind back to 1964 and that steam laundry, and start writing. Meanwhile, a reminder that winter isn’t far away: 

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