We have just moved back into the house I grew up in. It’s at Sissinghurst in Kent and my father lived there until his death last September, or at least in one part of it. The whole house and garden belongs to the National Trust, but when my father gave it to them in 1967, part of the agreement was that he and any of his descendants ‘however remote’ could live there for ever and a day.
It is a slightly strange experience. The house, of course, is overwhelmingly parental: his furniture, his books, his files, his pictures, his whole habit of being. In one or two of the files, there are little yellow Post-Its stuck in significant places, put there, I guess, in the early 1980s. I catch myself tidying up, not because I mind the mess our family creates but because he would have. Boots in the hall, old cups of coffee, dog beds, last night’s washing-up: all of this would have summoned from him that particular, half-audible, rather sibilant under-the-breath whistling, usually a tune from My Fair Lady, which was the signal of contained rage. A shift into Lilli Marlene was not good: major dissatisfaction. So I tidy up to avoid the whistling. And then, terrifyingly, I find myself whistling too. ‘Why are you whistling under your breath?’ my daughter Rosie asks. ‘Because I like the tune,’ I say, exactly what my father would have said, and equally untrue.
Of course, we are a nightmare for the National Trust. Instead of a single self-contained octogenarian, they now have on their doorstep a family consisting of two untidy grown-ups, a Land-Rover that leaks oil all over the National Trust cream- and caramel-coloured tarmac, two daughters with bikes that get leant against yew hedges, three dogs which need to do what dogs need to do, two adult rabbits (brother and sister, let it be whispered, but that surely has a Bloomsbury touch to it?) and their six babies, which are currently smaller than the mesh of the wire we have put up to enclose them. None of this is within the National Trust guidelines. It must be like having the Grundys move in. The rabbit run we have created looks like something on the back edge of a run-down housing estate outside Swindon. But what can you do if that is the sort of family you are? I am sorting through my father’s immaculately organised photographic archive, trying to find pictures of Sissinghurst in the 1930s and 1940s to show just how rough around the edges it was then too. A speech is being prepared for the next time the dogs think a National Trust lawn has been mown for their convenience, in the way maids in hotels tuck in the leading edge of the roll of loo-paper. Its provisional title is ‘The Spirit of Sissinghurst’.
Lunch in Moro with three friends. It amazes me sometimes just how powerful a sensation friendship can be. There is nothing, in the middle of one’s life, which has a greater ability to make it all seem OK. In Dr Johnson’s Dictionary, under ‘Love’ there are two definitions. The first we still use: ‘to regard with passionate affection’; the second has fallen out of use but we should revive it: ‘to regard with the affection of a friend’. That’s what love is, rare and wonderful.
The New York editor of a book I have written, Marie Estrada, rings up perplexed. She is the sort of sophisticated, level-voiced, Martini-drinking New York woman you might hope for as an editor, sagacious, witty, serious. She had asked an Englishman I know if she could reprint in the American paperback something he had written about the book. He had replied, first, to say that she could if he was paid a suitably vast fee which their lawyers could agree on. Then, a day later, appalled at what he had done, he sent a second email to say that he had been ragingly drunk when he wrote the first email and of course she could print anything she liked for nothing. That’s when Marie rang me. Was this how Englishmen usually behaved? First one thing, then the other? Did we all send raging, red-wine-fuelled emails followed by grovelling apologies? I had to say that we probably did, that in some ways perhaps we had lost the art of civility which was clearly so alive and well in the person of Marie Estrada. I don’t think she quite knew what to make of that either. She decided, inevitably, as a person of deep civilisation, to use some of the piece, but to edit it.
Having had a couple of long and bitter rows with the police over the years, I always like it when I see new examples of police vanity. I was once stopped by a policeman on a motorway who threatened to charge me with the offence of ‘failure to maintain glass’. My back windscreen was dirty. At another time I was stopped because, the man claimed, the sticker in my back window saying ‘Organic Farmers Like It Dirty’ was a safety hazard. Apparently it ‘obscured the view of following traffic’. Today I passed a new police car, covered in all the orange and fluorescent yellow strips which are now thought de rigueur, but this one carried the most absurd sticker I have yet seen. All along one side it said, ‘Kent Police: Helping to Keep Kent Safe’. Why? How can putting that on a police car do anything at all except puff up the egos of the men inside it?
The relationship with the National Trust has now taken a dive for the worse. It is all the fault of my friend Matthew Rice, the internationally distinguished designer, gardener and poultry expert. He came to stay on Monday night, en route to a poultry demonstration the next day. With him he brought three cockerels — something called a Golden Sebright (small and noisy), a Porcelain Barbu d’Uccles and a Lavender Aruacana, which he claimed came from a Mexican Indian and whose chicken wives lay green eggs. He left them in cages outside the back door. At 2.30 in the morning they started crowing and were still crowing four hours later when I finally told Matthew that he had to stop them. The entire resident population of Sissinghurst, consisting of Phil the gardener and his wife Joy, as well as Sally the property administrator and her daughter, had been wide awake staring at the ceiling since the middle of the night. Not popular. Phil said that we were never to bring cockerels to Sissinghurst again. Matthew, holding the Porcelain Barbu d’Uccles by its legs upside down, so that Joy had a full and uninterrupted view of its entire nether regions, said ‘Funny, isn’t it? I’ve heard them crowing so often that I am completely impervious to the noise. I can sleep through anything like that.’ It’s lucky we are going away for a couple of weeks.