When to kick up a stink
THERE has never been a better time to be a countryman. I’ve been banged up under house arrest for 10 days in Norfolk— I can’t elaborate, but it’s a charity TV reality show—forbidden to leave even the garden in case a chopper pitches up. As a result, I’ve watched far too much telly, resenting the fact that the ad breaks for all my favourite programmes (ah, Watercolour Challenge!) nag me about funeral planning and self-ejecting chairs for the geriatric.
No matter. I’ve been enjoying the blissful scents of the English summer. The air is heady and sour with dope. I’d assumed it originated from a village pot-head, but no. It emerges that the sugar factory a couple of miles away has diversified into cannabis. The effects are being felt as far away as Downham Market and the early-warning nuclear-detection system at Neatishead, which does make one apprehensive about the hand on the red button.
Our MP, Liz Truss, in dudgeon I imagine more than usually high, is kicking up a stink right back. (She hasn’t tried living hugger-mugger with 2Agriculture’s chicken-feed mill—on these torrid days, there is a nauseating stench.) However, it turns out that the people in these glass houses are not stoned. They are growing weed, they protest, for medicinal purposes only. Having watched close friends suffering and dying of MS, I applaud their endeavours.
There has also never been a better time not to be a Londoner. The capital feels battered by the whirlwinds it has been reaping. On trips to sing in the drawing rooms and cabaret clubs of Chelsea, I drive past that unmissable black finger of reproach, that buries, along with everything else, Thatcher’s old lie that there is no such thing as society. The national hand-wringing, the waves of emotion, like those after Diana’s death, are because we know in our collective psyche that we are all guilty.
Singing in the Royal Borough feels blasphemous and, rather than a minute’s silence, we are beginning concerts with Noël Coward’s great anthem London Pride, which honours the ghosts beside the starlit Thames, who lived and loved and died. He wrote it in a bombed railway station in 1941, as scores of towers burned across London: ‘Every blitz your resistance toughening.’
Coward’s great genius was to connect with his public at every level, from The Ritz to the Anchor and Crown. Lately, self-interest, greed and ghetto-making have severed those connections: The Ritz has ignored the Anchor and Crown.
Perhaps this is less so in the countryside. We—in many ways an ignored underclass, too—are more co-dependent and take more care of each other. There’s less cruelty, less contempt, because we have to connect. In the bursting natural glories of Norfolk in July, our attention is directed to a hopeful future.
Perhaps some of the Grenfell families, for now understandably desperate to remain in their localities, might consider rebuilding their wrecked lives here, away from the dark tower’s shadow.
No, there’s never been a better time to be a countryman. My long sequestration ended with the party given by The Prince of Wales to celebrate this magazine’s 120th birthday. Highgrove, in belting heat, looked simply beautiful. Once, the house stood solitary and aloof: now, it, too, feels connected to the Gloucestershire farmland in which it modestly stands.
It feels connected to its avenues of new trees and bound by the careful philosophies that created it. The garden rooms, each one bearing the stamp of its creator—rosemary Verey, Lady Salisbury, Miriam Rothschild, the Bannermans—are interlinked.
Highgrove’s owner has infused it with his own character just as identifiably: considerate of other peoples and of other religions, playful in the kooky statuary, gentle in the respectful production of food. A sense of inclusion binds this little Utopia, an awareness of others, from the lowliest gardener to the heir to the throne.
And—i don’t care that I’m risking accusations of being oleaginous—we really do have to be grateful that The Prince, unlike some other residents of Kensington, sees the whole picture, from The Ritz to the Anchor and Crown. That’s his job. He connects.
Nevertheless, recalling those Inuit throat-singers grunting with suggestive earnestness on his recent trip to Canada, we giggled so helplessly that I could not help wondering whether perhaps Highgrove, too, lies in the lee of a cannabis factory.
‘There’s less cruelty, less contempt in the countryside, because we have to connect
Kit Hesketh-harvey is a Society cabaret entertainer, lyricist, opera translator and regular broadcaster for the BBC. He lives in Norfolk
Next week Jason Goodwin