Category Archives: General rants and moans

Christmas: the verdict


So myself and I had a vote and came to the conclusion that Christmas in the country is nicer than its urban equivalent. Not that London Christmases aren’t great and all (I missed outdoor ice-skating, the South Bank’s German market and the all-out, end-of-days boozing, but managed to fit in a Christmas show – Matilda, which is ace, and no you don’t need a kid to drag along.)

But Christmas in the countryside was something else altogether – dog-walking across fields crunchy with frost, attending the crib service at the village church (faith not required), cosying up by the log fire…

Actually, no: let me shatter that myth. Log fires are the worst form of heating I’ve ever come across. The only way you’ll get warm from a log fire is by roasting on it, like a pig. The rest of the time you’re standing in front of it, arms outstretched, alternately blowing on your palms and wondering why the hell it’s gone out again.

Over New Year we went to Hampshire (leaving the countryside to go to the countryside feels like a massive exercise in pointlessness, but there you go. Some people swear each English county has its own identity; I say visit one and you’ve got the idea.) But in Hampshire we came across the Holy Grail. A country house that was actually warm. All the time. Even at night.

The secret was the Aga, a country cliché up there with black Labs, SUVs and Emma Bridgewater crockery. They might cost upwards of five grand and use as much energy in a week as a standard oven does in nine months, but as the temperature plummets and wind howls, all I can say is that clichés are clichés for a reason.

But back to Christmas (this post really is all over the place. What can I say? I’m tired.) Check out how one of my presents came wrapped. Look! Special folds! I was wildly impressed.

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Rural ambivalence

‘So? How is it?’ your city friends will ask about your countryside move. Here most people who’ve moved out make the mistake of sounding unrelentingly positive. ‘Yeah! Great. We love it. It’s weird – we don’t miss London at all,’
they’ll say, launching into some spraff about how lucky they are to have the best of both worlds, because they can visit London all the time yet still escape the grind, blah blah.

No one hears that, of course. What they hear is an unconvincing exercise in self-justification. Because moving out of London is never straightforwardly brilliant, no matter how fond you are of fields and WI bake sales. Anyone who’s spent more than a month in the capital will move to a small town and balk at the twee shops selling costumed teddy bears and pervading hordes of old people, regardless of how much they enjoy the space and tight-knit community feel.

Because in Britain you can’t have the best of both worlds – the rural views combined with top-flight museums and kick-ass sushi restaurants. In parts of America you can (such as LA and the Hamptons), but here everything’s a trade-off. You’re allowed your world-class cultural stuff, but only if you take the crowds, pollution, traffic, etc. Alternatively you can have the big house, pretty scenery and quiet, but you’d better like staying in.

Not that I was going out as much in London, mind you. That’s the trouble: once you have a kid, you don’t see the glitzy, ES-party-pages face of the city so much as the waiting-at-a-windswept-bus-stop-outside-Chicken-Cottage side. To get more space, you find yourself living in steadily crappier areas until one day you’re in Cockfosters wondering why the hell you bother.

At least here there are no bus stops involved, since you can drive everywhere (which is brilliant, I don’t care how fashionable it is to protest otherwise). And my son gets to go to a picture-book village pre-school and roam acres of woodland. People round here boast (rather nauseatingly) that the kids are free-range. But that’s not without peril, either. You can, after all, be too sheltered. I don’t want him to become the kid who fears crowds and cries if he sees a black person.

So when my city friends ask how it is here, I always answer with a qualified, ‘It’s fine, but…’ Making them wish they’d never bloody asked.

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Things to do in the country

A common complaint about the countryside is that there’s nothing to do, so it’s been a nice surprise to find just how much is laid on. Admittedly it helps if you’re a fan of talks called things like, ‘Why Watercolour? A Personal View’ or ‘Sussex and the European Union: Should We Stay or Should We Go?’ But, to be fair, if you’ve a small child, you won’t struggle to find something to keep them occupied.

The problem is that everything seems to take place on the second Tuesday or third Thursday of every month (except half-term), which means you need Moneypenny-style organisational skills to keep track of it all (or at least a working knowledge of when the hell school holidays are).

What’s missing, of course, are the museums and galleries – the rainy-day staples of London life that let you feel like you’re on the vanguard of contemporary culture as you sit eating cake in the café and looking at the nice pencils in the shop.

The trick, I’ve decided, is not to try and recreate what I did in London, as this way depression lies. Whereas Sundays are when East London comes into its own, with Columbia Road, Spitalfields and Brick Lane markets in full swing, and cafes packed with people enjoying late brunches and boozy lunches, here we’re back in Morrissey territory, where it’s all a bit silent and grey.

So I’ve embraced the old-school Sunday – roast dinners and country walks, roaring fires and Downton on telly. It’s actually pretty nice. One week I even went to church (admittedly more out of curiosity about the neighbours than Jesus). And this too was pleasant, if exactly like The Vicar of Dibley. Not sure I’ll do it again though. Emilio, quite sweetly, danced and clapped along to the hymns, but I spent the whole time trying to keep him off the organ/pulpit, and even the vicar’s patience was tried.

Since I never once went to church in Shoreditch (that being far more Rev), I guess this all adds up to prove that a countryside move inevitably involves a massive change of life. I just can’t work out whether or not that’s a bad thing.

NB: Even the clothes have changed. This is me in my countryside get-up. I wanted to go for the whole Liberty Barbour/Hunters, look-at-me-fresh-from-the-city thing, but even I blushed at the cliché of it.

**update** I’ve had two lots of compliments on the hat. It’s Rag & Bone, for anyone who’s interested.

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The pleasures and problems of country life

One of the great joys of moving out of London is that – for a while, at least, until you get used to it – you get to swan about like Lady Bountiful, marvelling at how cheap everything is. ‘Three hours’ parking for £1.40, you say? Why, I’ll take six, just because I can! ‘Five pounds for my child’s haircut? Here, note the generosity of my tip!’ Whole afternoons can be passed trawling the antiques shops, hissing, ‘See this farmhouse table? Do you know how much this would cost at Spitalfields?’

The flipside of this is that the pace is proudly slooow. People here shudder at the go-go-go nature of London as if the alternative is somehow better, when in reality it’s no more than a series of minor irritations.

Yesterday, for instance, I took a pair of shoes in to be re-heeled. ‘Next Monday all right for you?’ said the cobbler. I was so busy doing my amenable new-in-town face that it only occurred to me on leaving that this was a full week away. A week to re-heel a pair of shoes. Isn’t the whole point that they do them while you wait?

Similarly shop-opening hours, hardly drawn-out at the best of times, seem to be vague guidelines rather than any kind of diktat. The other day I popped into our estate agent’s at 5pm, a full hour before it was due to close, and found it locked up for the night. I mean, for fuck’s sake. You might as well live in France.

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The myth of the country pub

I’m sure it’s a massive cliché to spend five minutes in the country and want to take over and transform the local pub, but fuck me, I want to take over and transform the local pub. I can barely pass it without mentally ripping out the claggy carpets and binning the Constable placemats.

Every so often there’ll be a piece in the newspaper about how country pubs are closing at a rate of knots and I’ll think how sad that is. Then I’ll go to one, and inevitably it’ll be some gloomy cave serving flabby quiches with crisp garnishes, the toilets cold and reeking of a combination of piss and urinal cakes. The soft drinks will consist of some ancient bottles of Britvic, while the (bad) wine list will be painted onto one of those fake chalkboard signs (Why? Because real chalkboard is too much of a shag?)

I know the countryside has many lovely pubs, but they seem to be the exceptions, and even the ponced-up ones are decorated with an almost total lack of imagination, as if someone’s told them that if they Farrow & Ball every surface and install a couple of roll-top baths upstairs they’ll be a five-star boutique hotel.

It’s such a shame. Everyone has a picture in their heads of their ideal country pub, and invariably it involves the same thing: roaring fires, cosy atmosphere, hearty but well-cooked food. But it’s amazing how few landlords bother to indulge those fantasies. Surely it can’t be that hard?

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Country creepy crawlies

No one told me about the insects.

It turns out country houses are full of them. We arrived to find the aftermath of World War Woodlouse in the kitchen, their corpses strewn everywhere, the remaining survivors cowering in corners or fleeing for refuge under the stairs. Everyone I’ve mentioned this to says, ‘Oh, they’re perfectly harmless, they don’t carry disease or anything.’ Like that’s the point.

Meanwhile there’s a great chunk missing from the back door, where something has tried to force its way in. I kid you not – look:

‘Probably a fox or badger,’ the estate agent said breezily. Now we were no strangers to foxes in Shoreditch. But at no point did they try and force their way into my flat.

But worst of all are the spiders. Or should I say this particular beast, which has been staring at me through the living-room window since we got here. Never trust a spider with skeletal markings, I say. Or a belly that fat:

Ugh. I’d evict the fucker, but I also like knowing where it is. But they’re everywhere, too, the spiders. We’re massively outnumbered. On opening the pantry door, my first reaction (well, second – after, ‘Ooh! A pantry!’) was, ‘It’s a spider house. Nice.’

People talk of being ‘close to nature’ as if this is a good thing. When we were in Shoreditch, people from less urban climes would make slightly sneery comments about the lack of wildlife. But we had wood pigeons and squirrels and blue tits and surely that’s enough? You want more, go to a petting zoo. But the difference with urban wildlife is that it respects boundaries. I’m not sure I saw a spider in the 12 years I was in Shoreditch. And definitely, definitely never a woodlouse. And you know what? That was just fine.

On the plus side, the garden is nice. Lots of this sort of thing:

It’s an upgrade from the scrap of decking we had before.

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From Shoreditch to Sussex

And so we’ve moved. Hence the radio silence. Well, that and a rotten cold. But I won’t bore you with that, the only thing more boring than other people’s illnesses being other people’s dreams.

So moving, yes. It was two weeks from making the decision to move to being in the new place, which I think is some sort of record. Is that a record? I dunno, it’s been so long since I last moved maybe these days that’s average, but it feels pretty bloody quick to me.

The new place is a five-bed, 18th-century lodge nestled in a South Downs village, which, hilariously, is about £400 a month cheaper than our 700sq ft, one-bed flat in Shoreditch. It’s a big change, obviously (no streetlights, nothing open on Sundays, and the silence is deafening), but I’m throwing myself into country life, to the point of making apple crumble with fruit picked from the garden (I know, I know). That said, I’ve a horrible feeling I’m simply playing out a role, like Madonna in her lady-of-the-manor phase. I told Misha that I was looking forward to my inappropriate-toyboy phase, but he didn’t find it very funny.

On Sunday I took Emilio to the Apple Festival (more apples – I think this is what they mean by embracing the seasons.) This was better than it sounds, with a fairground and petting zoo alongside the morris dancers and cider/hog-roast stands, and an impressive turnout thanks to the nice weather. It was all a bit Birkenstock, as these things are wont to be, but I particularly liked Mouse Town, an olde-worlde shopping street populated by mice:

The place was chock-full of Boden children, barefoot and facepainted. I know this was when I was supposed to feel all smug for taking my son from the polluted urban jungle and bringing him to this green, wholesome place, but instead I kept worrying that he won’t grow up to be an urban sophisticate, but some earnest, fleece-wearing type, who thinks Brighton’s a big city and juggling an acceptable career choice.

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