Close en­coun­ters make life worth liv­ing

Country Life Every Week - - My Week - Jonathan Self is an au­thor and raw dog-food maker (http:// hon­eysre­al­dog­ who lives in Cork, Ire­land Jonathan Self

On Sun­day af­ter­noon, Oliver and I were shel­ter­ing in a stone barn wait­ing for the rain to ease off, breath­ing in the de­li­cious aroma of turf and hay and try­ing to think of words that rhymed with banana, when a pleas­ant-look­ing, grey­haired man wear­ing over­alls ap­peared from nowhere and asked us shyly if we’d like some­thing to eat or drink.

‘I felt if we came back in a decade, noth­ing would have changed’

‘My mother saw you duck in here and she thought the boy might need a bit of cake.’ I hes­i­tated. ‘She’d en­joy chat­ting with you. We don’t get many vis­i­tors.’

This I could well be­lieve. We’d been fol­low­ing the mer­est sug­ges­tion of a path around the northern edge of the Mizen Penin­sula and, in three hours, had barely seen a bird, let alone a hu­man be­ing. We were a few miles from the most west­erly point in Europe, per­haps a 30-minute drive along twisty lanes to a shop, twice as long to a bank. Re­mote wasn’t in it.

At Oliver’s age, I took sim­i­lar walks with my own father, as he had with his father. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was con­sid­ered per­fectly normal to stop at a farm and ask to buy food or a meal. By the 1960s, it was not, but if my father was aware of this, he showed no sign of it. Much of my child­hood was spent hid­ing be­hind him as he knocked on farm­house doors seek­ing re­fresh­ment.

The odd thing was that, although the farm­ers and their wives were clearly sur­prised by the re­quest, most com­plied. We would sit in the kitchens of com­plete strangers, eat­ing our fill. When my father, hav­ing had ‘just one more glass of your ex­cel­lent beer, since you in­sist’, pulled out his wal­let, few would ac­cept pay­ment.

If Oliver was em­bar­rassed, it was not by me, at least, but by the ef­fu­sive hospi­tal­ity we re­ceived. Our hosts sat us by the kitchen range and, as our clothes gen­tly steamed, pre­pared a lav­ish tea. Di­rect ques­tions are con­sid­ered im­po­lite in this part of the world. In­stead, one ‘says the wrong to come by the right’, which in­volves mak­ing what are clearly er­ro­neous state­ments that the other party must then cor­rect: ‘By your ac­cent I can tell you are from Dublin’, ‘It’s a shame Oliver has no brothers and sis­ters’, ‘You’re lucky not hav­ing to see pa­tients on a week­end.’

We dis­cov­ered as much about them as they dis­cov­ered about us. It was a not un­typ­i­cal story for ru­ral Ire­land: the el­derly widow and the un­mar­ried son ek­ing out a liv­ing from a small, unim­proved farm. They had a few cows, a few sheep, a few chick­ens. Although they had barely any neigh­bours, they had many friends and, from time to time, neph­ews and nieces vis­ited from Eng­land, Amer­ica and Aus­tralia. There was a com­fort­able rhythm to each day, each week, each year.

I felt that if we came back in a decade, two decades even, noth­ing would have changed, although I knew this was ridicu­lous. Any­way, if they were dis­con­tented, they hid it well. When we came away, we left our ad­dress and hoped that one day we could re­pay their hospi­tal­ity. I thought of Mau­pas­sant: ‘It is the lives we en­counter that make life worth liv­ing.’

Twenty years ago, it was Jack who came walk­ing with me and sup­plied me with one-lin­ers for my col­umns. Some es­caped chick­ens on a boat led to ‘All hens on deck’. Strong, home­made beer re­sulted in ‘The shock of the brew’. On be­ing served eel, he sug­gested ‘Eel meat again’.

now—well, to be ac­cu­rate, next Satur­day—he’s get­ting mar­ried. When he was born, his ears stuck out to such an ex­tent that a friend asked if he was strain­ing to hear. His first word, shouted while I was hold­ing him out­side our Lon­don flat, was ‘taxi’, ac­com­pa­nied by a fran­tic wav­ing of his arm, which pro­duced a screech­ing of tyres, fol­lowed by a ‘Where to, guv?’.

Thanks to a bit of shame­less nepo­tism, his lovely fi­ancée, Greta, was the Fron­tispiece re­cently (April 19). He adores her and, ever since he brought her home, we have adored her, too. Still, for all the joy their mar­riage brings it has rekin­dled poignant mem­o­ries and serves as a re­minder that, once they leave home, they rarely come walk­ing with their dad.

Out­side, the weather was al­ter­nat­ing be­tween sun and rain. As each squall came off the At­lantic and made its way up Dun­manus Bay, the sea turned from silver to dark grey and then back to silver. ‘We lead such busy lives,’ I said to Oliver. ‘Yes,’ he replied, thought­fully, ‘we have no mañanas.’

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