Home is where the heart is

Well, here I am, back in town. I had thought I might return on Tuesday with Anne and take the opportunity to meet with Hope, but in the end, I decided to stay another couple of days and sort out a few issues with the estate. And I am very pleased that I did. I met with Anne for lunch after her return and she told me that her meeting with Hope had gone very well indeed. It sounds like they will be working closely together on a couple of projects. I am so pleased that I have been able to help them both.  Over drinks at the King’s Arms on Friday night, Anne and I were joined by Mr Rotherby who told us that he had just been speaking to a couple of local farmers who said that they had been visited by some developer or other about selling portions of their land.

This very quickly became the focus of a lot of debate around the bar, I can tell you. There is a lot of bad feeling amongst some of the locals about all these new developments, Not everyone is happy about having all these people moving into the area from the cities and cluttering the place with their cars and teenagers. Whilst I don’t share their views, being a city boy myself these days, I can see their point. Many of the small villages around here are like little oases of calm and rural tradition. But it is that very authenticity that draws in their new neighbours. But they also need to accept that these people bring money, jobs and some stability to what are sometimes areas in decline.

But I do have some sympathy for them. It seems that almost everywhere you go these days they are building new homes on what was once good farming land. I know that a lot of people get very angry about it, but so long as they stay away from our old estates and lovely villages, then I don’t see what the problem is. After all, politicians and campaigners keep banging on about the need for more houses, so let them get on with it. But if anyone thinks they are going to get their hands on any of my lands, they can think again. I may not be there very often, but I am determined to keep the estate as well maintained and intact as possible.

You know, I really don’t understand all the fuss about the housing shortage. I see plenty of empty properties almost every day, even in the city. There are whole blocks just sitting there with no one in them. Whilst some of these may not be housing as such, surely they could be converted or knocked down and rebuilt to make something suitable. Then they wouldn’t need to start looking avariciously at our beautiful countryside.

And I don’t understand all this fuss about what they call “affordable” housing. I mean, surely if one has a job one can afford a mortgage or rent. I admit that I am no expert when it comes to the economy or finances, but it doesn’t make sense to me to make house prices too high for people to afford. And if buying is beyond reach, there is always the rental market. A large part of my family business is related to property development and rental, and although I don’t understand it all, it seems to me that there is plenty of property out there.

It’s strange but for most of my life the old family house has just been somewhere I visit occasionally. It has not been a real home to me since I was in my teens. Although, if I am to be totally honest, I am not actually sure it ever was, even then.

My parents sent me away to school when I was very young so that is where I spent most of my time and I think that in many ways, the various schools I attended became home. That was where my friends were, and where I was happiest, which I think is as good a definition of home as any.

I have always been glad to return to the city, but there are times, like now, when something about the country leaves a trace of regret. The country estate may never have felt much like home to me, but family is important, and the family home is as much a part of it as the people themselves. After all, it is the place that holds the family’s memories and treasures. And there are certainly plenty memories in the old place, but not all of them good. And as for being a repository for the family heirlooms and mementoes, it is certainly that, in spades. Most of the walls are lined with portraits of various ancestors on my father’s side. The house shows very little of my mother’s influence, other than some improvements to the kitchens and new greenhouses.

Anyway, I am back in my Kensington abode, which feels much more homely now that Dorothy has returned from her filming job in Edinburgh. I am so relieved to have her around the place again.

Art for arts sake

When I am away from London I often find things can be far too quiet. Without the chaps from the Club and the general hustle and bustle of the city, it can very quickly become tedious. Many of the people one comes across in the country just don’t have the same interests or outlook as fellows from town. That is one of the reasons I keep my visits to the old ancestral home infrequent and brief. But one thing that being on the country estate does have that London simply cannot match, is the landscape. The vistas from the house can be quite stunning, particularly when the weather is like it has been these past few days. With bright sunshine and the rich autumnal colours, there is nothing anywhere that can hold a torch to the Hampshire countryside.

It is views such as those I enjoy from the house and gardens that have inspired some of my favourite artists, such as Constable, Turner and Gainsborough. Capturing the majestic beauty of the English countryside is no simple matter and it is something that very few people have been able to accomplish well. However, I am not some kind of art snob. Certainly, the walls here contain pictures by some of the great, but there are also many in my own rooms that are by largely unknown artists. These I have selected personally, not because they have any great intrinsic value or because they carry any kind of kudos. That was very much my father’s approach to collecting art. Instead, I will choose to purchase a picture solely on its own merits. If I like it, that is enough reason for me to add it to my collection.

I think it is fairly well known both here and back in town, that when it comes to any of the arts, I am not exactly what one might call an expert or even an art lover as such. I like what I like, and that will just have to do. For me, much of what passes for art these days is actually rubbish. It has crossed my mind that this approach to art may be what has upset Hope so much. After all, she does run her own gallery and is trying to promote young talent.  Now, I know this sounds like I am rambling, but there is a reason for all of this waffle. You see, I had a telephone call on Saturday morning from my new friend Anne Fletcher who thought I might be able to help with a new commission she had been offered. Now I have to admit that I don’t really understand the role of an interior designer. Yes, I appreciate that they help to decorate rooms or houses, but I see that as a fairly simple task and can’t see how a woman like Anne could possibly make a lucrative career out of it. Surely one only needs to browse a few samples, point out that one likes the best then hire someone to do the work. Quite where the likes of Anne fit into that scenario I don’t really know.

Anyway, as part of her latest job, she has to source some original artwork. Of course, I immediately thought of Hope and passed her details on to a very grateful Anne who then accepted my invitation to come on over to the house and join me for a spot of lunch, which we took in the new conservatory overlooking the rear gardens. Whilst I have to admit that they are not exactly up to Capability Brown’s standards, the view is considered by many to be quite as good as that seen in many of the more publicly recognised stately homes. Shortly before her death, my mother was trying to convince my father to allow her to have a fountain installed, similar I believe, to one she had seen at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire when she was a young woman. My father, not surprisingly, would not go along with it, and I must say I am with him on that one. Although I have not seen the gardens myself, I don’t believe that anything so ostentatious as a fountain would add anything significant to the wonderful view I enjoyed on Saturday.

In the end, Anne stayed with me until the late afternoon when she had to leave to collect her youngest child from a birthday party or something similar. I did offer to have him collected for her, but she insisted that, kind as the gesture was, it simply wasn’t possible to send a complete stranger to collect a child from a party. After lunch, we had enough time for me to give her a very brief tour of the house. It is only when I show someone else around and talk to them about the history and events the house has seen, I am reminded that it is an integral part of my heritage and one I really should appreciate more.

As she was preparing to leave, Anne asked if I had ever thought of opening the house to the public. Obviously, this is something I would never countenance and was very surprised that she had asked the question. The thought of having total strangers wandering around my home is anathema to me. Whilst my visits here are brief and infrequent, it is still my family home and as such is not to be used as some kind of money tree. I know that for some families, their history and the building’s connections with history make opening them almost inevitable. But as this has always been a family home and has not seen the unfolding of historical events or been used as a hiding place for escaping royalty, I don’t think there would be much interest in the old place anyway. I think Anne was a little surprised by my answer as it is possible I may have been a little more vociferous than I had intended.

Yesterday saw the arrival of yet another unexpected visitor in the shape of my old chum Dorchester. His girlfriend has returned to America for a couple of weeks and I think that he has realised just how isolated he has become from his old friends. He had heard from the guys at the Club that I was out in the country so had decided to take a Sunday morning ride out to join me. We decided to make the most of the weather and took the guns out to do a little shooting. It is one of the few country sports I enjoy and is one of only a couple of activities I am actually any good at. That I think is largely down to my father’s insistence I learn how to handle a gun at a very young age. I am not sure why he thought it was important, but then I never understood a lot of things my father did.

During the course of the afternoon, I received two telephone calls. The first was from dear old Aunt Murdock asking when I would be back in town as there were some business related things she needed to discuss with me. The second was from Anne thanking me for introducing her to Hope. Apparently, Anne is travelling down to London on Tuesday to see some of the works in the gallery. I am sure they will get along well and both can benefit from the meeting.

 

 

A friendly face in the crowd

I had a very welcome telephone call this morning from Dorothy. She is still working on her little film in Edinburgh but tells me she should be back in London by the end of next week. It is quite a relief as I have missed having her about the place.

I have spent the past couple of days catching up with some of the old local families and, despite the ever-present sense that I am on display like some prize horse, I have quite enjoyed myself. And to be fair, there haven’t been as many staged introductions as I had feared. However, there does seem to have been something of a change of focus. Whereas previously I have been introduced to a seemingly endless stream of single young ladies, this week it has been middle-aged widows and divorcees. It’s as if I have passed some kind of generational milestone and I’m no longer considered suitable husband material for the under thirties. I must admit that I am not sure I like that idea. After all, I am not old. I’m not even fifty. And even if I was, that’s nothing. I am still fit and healthy and I have all my own teeth and hair, which is more than some men half my age can say.

It is also more than can be said for some of the middle-aged widows I have met this week. One particular lady had more facial hair than me and I’m pretty sure that my neighbour’s second cousin may have once been a man. That’s not to say they are all unattractive. No, far from it. I have met several women this week who I found very pleasing both to the eye and the ear. One thing I have noticed about the country ladies though is their propensity for gossip, and as a group, they are often quite narrow-minded in their interests and opinions. Now I am sure that there are some who might say the same about me, but I think that you will find that I am actually quite cosmopolitan. One could never really get along in London without being prepared to accept all sorts of people and ideas. I find that people who live their whole lives in the country lack the worldliness of city folk, with their limited society and confined outlook.

Being here at the old homestead always reminds me just how lucky I am to have chosen to live where I do, much against my parent’s wishes I might add. They wanted me to be part of the country set, but I never really felt I fitted in. One has to find one’s own way in the world and should not be constrained by the lack of ambition of mobility of earlier generations.

One thing that I have noticed on this visit is the relatively large number of new faces. It would appear that there have been several new developments in the area that have attracted several new families. I met with some of these whilst taking a spot of lunch at the local hostelry, the Kings Arms, with my estate manager, Mr Rotherby. Now, according to old Rotherby, most of these families are what he calls “the new rich”, his term for those who have acquired their wealth relatively recently with no family history to speak of. Whilst the some of the established families are a little reluctant to welcome them too openly, I find the news quite welcoming. After all, I suppose that there may have been a time when even my own family were considered “the new rich”. I know that on my mother’s side, their wealth and influence stemmed from the Industrial Revolution, prior to which, I believe, they were simple traders. I still have work to do, but I think that Nigel and I are really getting somewhere with all this ancestry research.

Anyway, as I was saying, I have met a couple of the new families and so far I have found most of them to be quite charming and very approachable. One household in particular, the Fletchers, has caught my attention. They live in one of a small collection of new cottages that have appeared about halfway between here and the King’s Arms. They have been built to look like traditional cottages, but the lack of thatch and the plastic window frames put paid to that notion. Mrs Fletcher, Anne, is a very attractive divorcee with three children, all in their late teens. According to the local gossip she left her husband after discovering he was having an affair and, in the words of old Jim (the landlord of the King’s Arms), she took him to the cleaners. I met Anne on one of my lunchtime visits to the King’s Arms and we seemed to get along quite well. She told me she moved to the area after her divorce mainly to get as far away from her ex-husband as possible, but also because she has family in the area. They are not a family I know so presume they are from one or another of the smaller villages or towns here about. Anne herself runs her own business, something to do with interior design or some such. It seems that I am always meeting up with arty types, which is ironic really as I don’t think I have an artistic bone in my body.

Anne and I have enjoyed a couple of unplanned lunchtime meetings this week. It seems she likes the atmosphere of the King’s Arms and is often there, either with a client or, as she was today, her eldest daughter, Stephanie. Now I am no judge of these things, in fact, I have to admit to being absolutely hopeless when it comes to estimating people’s ages, but when they were sat side by side, Anne and Stephanie looked more like sisters than mother and daughter. Of course, that may have been down to the poor lighting and plenty of makeup. As I say, I am no judge of these things and decided not to express what I was thinking as I was not sure if it would be considered too passe, and I didn’t want to copme across as some kind of lethario, scattering compliments in the hope of some kind of return.

 

Anyway, they were absolutely charming company on what was otherwise a very wet and dreary day. In fact, we remained in the bar for several hours before Anne had to rush home to call a client. I have had no engagements for this evening, which is just as well really as I think I need a break from the seemingly endless round of dinner parties and social gatherings that have fairly monopolised my time. I came out to the country for a break and to help recharge the old batteries, but so far I have hardly stopped, dashing from one engagement to the next. Whilst one has a certain reputation and standing in the community to uphold, there is a limit to how long one can be expected to keep smiling and nodding politely. I don’t know how Lizzie manages it.

My aunt Sara left this morning to spend a couple of days with an old school friend up north somewhere. She’s actually quite a character and has something of a reputation in the county for her forthright opinions and capacity for alcohol. I do enjoy her company, but this week she has been relatively quiet. I don’t expect either her or Nigel to be back before I return to London, which I must do next week.

Jungle drums

Well, it seems that the jungle drums have been hard at work with the news that I am back home again. My return has been greeted in almost Austenesque style with several invitations to dine with some of the local families received already. In fact, if I spend enough time here, I begin to feel like a character from one of Miss Austen’s novels. Not that I have read them myself – I don’t go for all that romantic nonsense – but one seems to have an instinctive understanding of the characters and plots of such books. They are as much a part of our culture as Shakespeare and Dickens, and consequently one just knows what they are all about without the need to actually read any.

Actually, I have never read any Dickens either, except at school where we spent several terms battling with the intricacies and somewhat dark and dreary lives described in Bleak House. Once we had finished the book I vowed never to read Dicken’s again, and so far I have managed to keep that pledge. Moreover, I find that I can’t even watch the televised dramatisations without being overcome by a creeping sense of foreboding.

Anyway, I had only planned to stay here for a few days, maybe a week at most, but it has become obvious that I am now going to have to extend that a little. After all, one can’t be seen to be avoiding people, especially those who have been connected to my family for generations. Although this kind of socialising can be a little tedious, I have to admit, having been away for so long, the prospect of meeting with some old friends is actually quite exciting, in a way.

Nigel is staying here for a further few days and we are going to do some more digging into my family history. Our recent little chat with Mrs Dalton has opened up some interesting new avenues of investigation for us and Nigel, in particular, is very keen to do some more ancestral sleuthing. He says he also has some business of his own to attend to. Apparently, he is talking to one or two of our neighbours about some kind of new business venture. He was rather cagey when I asked him about it, and wouldn’t give me any details. He said it is to do with computers and the internet and I wouldn’t understand. Admittedly, my technical know-how is a little lacking, but I am getting better. I mean, here I am, keeping up to date with my journal on a computer I haven’t used before. That may not seem much to the youngsters out there, but it is quite an accomplishment for me.

Yesterday I took a tour of the grounds with my estate manager, Mr Rotherby. He has been with the family, running the affairs of the estate for longer than either of us care to remember. Mr Rotherby is a fine fellow; his family have been connected to the house for several generations and I suppose he is as much part of the fixtures and fittings as anyone could be. He must be due to retire soon, but it is something neither of us wants to discuss right now. Old retainers like Mr Rotherby have a tendency to just keep going and I don’t really know who will replace him. Anyway, everything seems ship-shape and Bristol fashion, as I knew it would be.

During our walk around the estate, Mr Rotherby told me that there has been some interest from a property developer in some of the outlying land. So far they have not made any formal approaches, but he says that he is sure they will in time. I must say I am not happy to think that some shady builder types have been discussing my property like this. I have had dealings with some of these developer chappies and I must say I have not been impressed by them. This is obviously something I need to keep an eye on.

I am visiting one of my neighbours this evening after accepting an invitation to join them for supper and drinks. They are one of the oldest families in the county and, thankfully, do not have a daughter they might be trying to foist on me. I am not sure who will be there, but I am certain that there will be more than just the immediate family. There always is. It will be the first of several such outings this week so I had better prepare myself.

I am not really looking forward to being paraded around the various homes of the county, but it comes with the territory I suppose. I just wish Dorothy were here to help; I am sure she would know how to handle these events, and her presence might have acted as a deterrent for those matriarchs who are still trying to marry me off to their daughters. Of course, if Dorothy or Hope were here I am sure I wouldn’t get so many invitations.

Talking about Hope, I am still pondering our last conversation. It seems that the more I think about it the more confused I get. Not just about Hope’s behaviour, but also why it bothers me so much. I mean, I hardly really know her and she certainly doesn’t owe me any explanations. That said, she did invite me to her gallery event and we did seem to be getting along so well before she turned away from me at the end of the evening. I am happy to admit that I have never really understood what makes women tick, but the last few weeks have highlighted just how lacking I am in the female empathy department.

What are Sundays for?

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I often have mixed feelings about being back in the countryside. Whilst I do enjoy the break from routine and the beautiful surroundings, I am a city boy at heart and find myself missing the hustle and bustle of London life. I even miss the sound of traffic at all hours. But the one thing I can never get used to is Sundays. Back at home in Kensington, there is always something to do, somewhere to go or someone to see. But out here, in the back of beyond, I often find myself at something of a loose end. If the weather is fine then I can always take a turn around the grounds, maybe even have my old camera with me and try to capture the landscape or the local wildlife, but by and large, I find Sundays in the country a little dreary.

Of course, the churchgoers amongst the local population have their own routines, drifting as they do between the parish church and the local public house before returning home to the traditional Sunday lunch with the family. Of course, life in the City is very different. Whilst there are still plenty of Londoners who regularly make their way to the local churches and watering holes, they do so with a greater sense of urgency whilst battling against a tide of non-believers heading towards the miriad of other venues that offer up Sunday afternoon entertainment of some very different flavours.

I remember my mother was always very involved with the local church, but I don’t think my father ever set foot in the place, except for the obligatory weddings, funerals and occasional christening. Personally, I never been one for organised religion and preferred to spend the time at home with the newspapers or listening to the radio.

Of course, just working one’s way through the Sunday papers can be quite a challenge in itself. I know some chaps who only get the Sundays as it takes them all week to read them. Personally, I like to settle into a comfortable chair, with a large pot of coffee beside me, and work my way through the various sections and magazines, with a little Bach or Mozart playing in the background. And there is almost nothing better than doing this in front of a roaring open fire. Now that is one of the benefits of a house in the country, having a real fire to keep you warm and cosy.

I must just say that yesterday’s little excursion to the local restaurant that Nigel was so keen for me to visit went down very well indeed. I was very pleasantly surprised, not only by the atmosphere and situation of the place but also by the impeccable service and truly wonderful food. The menu is simple and based largely on local produce, with just a hint of the more exotic in their desserts. And Nigel was not exaggerating about the wines. We had a couple of bottles of a particularly exquisite Nuits St Georges that I must say complimented the local steaks extremely well.

 

Home on the range

I have been at the old family home now for a couple of days and I must say I am quite enjoying the change of scenery. They say there is no place like home, and that may very well be true, but I have very mixed feelings about the old family home. I have lived in London since my early twenties and my visits here have been regular but infrequent, especially since my parents’ deaths. I wouldn’t say it holds particularly bad memories or even particularly good ones; I just think that I am more at home in the city than the country.

Having said that, being here, surrounded by all the family nick-nacks is often a comfort to me when life begins to feel a little too intense. Although my visits have been infrequent, I do find that when I am here it gives me an opportunity to relax and put my city woes and stresses into some kind of perspective.

I will be the first to admit that it is a grand old place. The main parts of the house are about two hundred years old, but some of the out-buildings and surrounding cottages go back almost four hundred years. It is quite an impressive structure, although maybe in need of a little work here and there – a little like myself really.

For most of the year, my Aunt Sara lives at the house. Sara is my Uncle Adams’ widowed second wife and is actually younger than me. She married the old sod when she was barely sixteen and according to most of the family, she did it just for the money. But we have always got along quite well and I let her stay at the house whenever she wants. Otherwise, the old place would be unoccupied so in that way she is actually doing me a bit of a favour.

Often when I am at the house it can feel a little like stepping into a Jane Austen novel, all plotting matriarchs and houses bursting with sisters. It’s actually quite amazing when you get right down to it how little has changed in the country. Marriages continue to be arranged for convenience, family connections and money. The country set might not have the kind of balls that Miss Austen would recognise, but family parties and dinners are generally organised with the same ulterior motive – matchmaking. I generally try to avoid them if I can, although Aunt Murdock has a totally different view of things. In fact, she only ever makes an appearance when there is a party to attend, and will often as not try to force me to go along with her.

Most of the families around here have been part of the county set for generations; my own family have been here for a very long time. There is a long-standing expectation amongst many people that your’s truly will cement the local ties by marrying one of the more eligible single ladies that frequent the various parties and dinners around here. It’s not that I have anything against any of the young ladies themselves. Many of them are nice enough, in a country sort of way, but they are not really my type. Not that I am sure what my type really is anymore. I can think of two women of my current acquaintance who I will admit to thinking of in a more than casual way. Unfortunately, one is my gay cousin, whilst the other seems to be avoiding me.

Anyway, Nigel came round this afternoon and got me set up on the computer so that I could keep up with my journal. Mind you, I also have a sneaking suspicion he comes here to see Sara, but that is up to him. This evening he is taking me out to try a new restaurant that he assures me is every bit as good as any in London. Whilst I find that hard to believe, I am prepared to go along with him.

 

Is it possibe to be neutral?

Earlier this week I walked into a conversation at the Club that was getting everyone hot under the collar. Anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I am not one of the world’s great philosophers, and I am certainly not one to let fads and fashions interfere with my life too much, but occasionally a topic arises that just can’t be ignored. As I said, this happened earlier on this week, and at the time I was a little too preoccupied to give the subject much thought. Indeed, I took very little part in the conversation itself as I was feeling somewhat sorry for myself.

You see, I was at the Club, seated away from the bar reading the Times. I could see some of the chaps were having a rather heated discussion about something or other but couldn’t quite hear what was going on. So, as I needed a top-up on my whiskey, I made my way to the bar. It turns out that they were talking about an article that one of the younger chappies had been reading in one of the supplements about some star or other bringing up their children to be, what he called, gender neutral. I have to admit that up until this point I had not heard the term before and was at a disadvantage until one of the fellows explained it to me.

My initial reaction was that it was just another of these new-fangled business terms, probably what I would have referred to as unisex. For that reason, I could not understand what the fuss was all about. After all, the idea of unisex toilets isn’t new. I have been to several establishments over the years where men and women share the same facilities. It was only after a second whiskey and some further explanations by some of the chaps, that I began to understand what they were actually talking about. As it was, I left very soon after this and, at the time, gave the subject not another moment’s thought.

But in the meantime I have found myself pondering the subject, going over the discussion in my head. Previously I would have spoken to Dorothy about it as she would undoubtedly have been able to explain it to me in a way I could understand. Not that I normally need things explaining to me, but there are some subjects where Dorthy’s input does help me to put things into the right kind of perspective. I did speak to Nigel about it over drinks yesterday afternoon, but it seems it is a subject he knows even less about than me.

Whilst I can understand the idea of objects or facilities being gender neutral, that is to say, that they are not specific to male or female, the idea that a person can have no gender is one I find not only difficult to grasp but one I find totally absurd. How on earth can a person be gender neutral? it simply isn’t possible; it goes against the very laws of nature. And to think that a so-called personality can openly state that they are bringing up their children to be gender neutral is one of the silliest things I have heard for some time. Boys and girls are different, even if only the most basic physical sense. But that physical difference is hardly one that can be overlooked or dismissed. And even if you accept that some people are confused enough about their sexuality to be considered transsexual (something I also question), they are in a minority and should not be telling the majority how to raise their children.

The conversation I interrupted at the Club was by and large light-hearted with most of the chaps laughing about the issue. I myself joined in the general mirth, but on reflection, I find myself quite angry really. What will those poor children think when they discover that their own parents have deceived them about a very important part of their lives? For all the liberal who-har that you see and read about women’s equality, men and women are fundamentally different. It is the way nature made us. And whilst the modern world makes much of the traditional male and female roles redundant, we remain, and always will, two genders with different physiologies and different roles to play in society.

You can make as much noise as you like about equality and parity, but men will never have babies, be natural homemakers or have the same empathy as women, and women will never be as hairy. Of course, there will always be exceptions to the rules, but the genders are different, and I for one thank heaven for that. And as far as I am concerned, the sooner children learn to understand the roles that we each play in life’s rich tapestry the better.

Fashions and fads may come and go, but there are some fundamental truths that simply must be maintained, and allowing girls and boys to be just that is one of them. And on that note, I think that tomorrow I will pop out to the old family homestead for a few days. I think the change of scenery and pace will do me good.