I HAVE a strong sense of déjà vu — and not only because I’m writing a Church Times Diary column again (the first for eight years). We’re back in the village in north Devon where we first holidayed just before the Beloved’s appointment to London was announced; there is a synchronicity in being here again just after he has settled the date for his retirement.
Although we came here for the first time as a family 21 years ago, it transpired that the Beloved’s family had holidayed near by in his childhood (he did have one, once. . . ). They used to rent a house locally; when they arrived, their landlady — an enthusiastic aficionado of Ladies’ Bowls — would don her team bonnet and disappear for the duration.
One year they went to North Wales instead. There, they were disconcerted on arrival to discover that, to accommodate them, the landlady and her family had moved out — into the garage.
Washing the family linen
FOR a few years, we had a cottage here ourselves, the setting for many happy holidays. My maternal grandfather’s family came from this part of the world; we once spent a morning ancestor-hunting among the gravestones in a local churchyard.
One of my grandfather’s aunts rejoiced in the name of Gertie Boggis; perhaps inevitably, she was known as Dirty Bodice.
TWO of the children have been wild-camping in Scotland; they struck lucky with the weather, which was spectacular, but were less fortunate in becoming intimately (I use the word advisedly) acquainted with The West Highland Midge.
So extreme was the persecution that at one stage Number Two son, revising for a medical exam, fled with his notes to sit in the cooling waters of the loch, wearing only his boxers and, by way of anti-midge protection, a rainjacket and a balaclava.
Despite the startling statistic that, thanks to the rise of the smartphone, 20 per cent of all the photographs ever taken have apparently been taken in the past year, there is alas no selfie to record this remarkable sight for posterity.
I THINK of myself as a Londoner: I’ve spent all my adult life in London, and, even before that, I was always close enough to London to think it the most exciting place to be. It’s still that: a melting-pot of possibilities that is even more than the sum of its multitudinous, diverse parts — even though the recent combination of cycle superhighways, Crossrail, and utilities works have turned the roads around St Paul’s into a series of bus parks.
But being away from London makes it easier to understand the resentment felt in other parts of the country towards the capital — towards the metropolitan perspective that seems to dominate political discourse, and towards its apparent prosperity. Of course, London has areas of deprivation and real poverty, but they are close enough to areas of affluence or, at any rate, renewal to mean that there is always the possibility of hope.
Here, as in so many other parts of the country, distance seems to be at least part of the problem: large parts of the UK are simply inaccessible by any sort of public transport. Where such transport exists, it appears to be carefully unco-ordinated: the nearest station to where we are staying is served by a branch line, with a connecting train once every two hours. Meeting the last train of the evening earlier this week, we watched the rear lights of the only possible bus connection disappear into the darkness shortly before the train arrived. So people are forced to use cars (or taxis), and the demise of public transport and increased dependence on private vehicles becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I do understand that HS2 is designed to do much more than simply trim the journey time to the North (not least because it will apparently have the capacity to carry more people per hour than two motorways), but it’s hard not to speculate about the possible impact of even a small share of the projected budget of £42.6 billion (plus another £7.5 billion for the trains) in refreshing other parts of the country that current transport networks fail to reach.
FOR years, I have joked that it will take me every day until the Beloved’s retirement to clear the accumulated paraphernalia of the past two decades; now I see that it isn’t a joke at all, and, if I leave it much longer, Channel 4 will be able to feature us in its documentary series about compulsive hoarders. Not the least of the challenges ahead, therefore, is the dreaded downsizing.
In theory, this should be quite straightforward: very little of the detritus of two decades is actually necessary for daily living. In practice, of course, it’s more complicated: by the time you’ve factored in sentimental attachment/Things That Might Come In Useful One Day/reluctance to send anything to landfill, it’s depressingly difficult to dispose of anything except mountains of paper so large that an industrial shredder is called for.
But even the Things That Might Come In Useful are hard to call. Much of my cooking equipment is scaled to cater for large numbers. Day to day, we will suddenly and routinely be two (plus the dog), but when family descend the numbers escalate; and I can’t imagine we will suddenly stop entertaining, or wanting to see friends. How many place settings do I keep? (Probably more to the point, how many will I even have room to store?)
In Amatrice, several hundred people are suddenly discovering precisely what is essential to daily living; by comparison with their plight, being brought face to face with the extent of our surplus is mortifying.
AS EVERY occupier of tied accommodation knows, the house you retire to is not the one in which your children have grown up. I thought I’d done my empty-nesting: the children have grown and flown — on gap years, and to university, and flats, and further afield: there was a year when one was living in China, and another in a tent in the High Arctic — but not the least of the advantages of living in central London is that they have also come back again.
So The Beloved’s retirement effectively draws a line under this particular stage of family life; it might even be (mistakenly) assumed that the Bishop of London is retiring to spend less time with his family.