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Diary

Christopher Buckley's diary: Do you have to be American to love Downton?

Plus: My rabbit stew shame, and the fate of the royals' wartime Fortnum's stash

My wife and I spent the winter in Worcestershire. This allowed me to tell everyone back home in the States: ‘We are wintering in Worcestershire.’ This may be a sentence that has never actually been uttered in human history, even by people who spend all their winters in Worcestershire. It turned out to be a wonderful time, despite us arriving in, according to the papers, ‘the wettest winter since 1755’. For what seemed like weeks, every time I turned on the television while cooking, there was Mr Cameron beneath a brolly (as I think you call them) shouting into a microphone, ‘Money is no object!’ There was a lot to watch on the BBC while I made stir-fry and attempted rabbit stew. Between the Olympics and developments in Ukraine, most TV-watching had to do with the Crimea, one way or the other. The stir-fry was a success. The rabbit stew was not. In the future I am going to avoid recipes that call for large quantities of ‘jointed rabbit’, prunes, brandy and brown sugar.  I am also going to avoid watching Oscar Pistorius trials.

We arrived in England on 2 February and departed on 23 April. Brilliant timing, leaving just as England was blooming. We were in Hanley Swan, not far from Great Malvern, in a farmhouse that was built during the time of Elizabeth I. The first month we woke up every morning in the dark to the sound of roosters. I read somewhere that a particular maharaja arranged to be awakened every morning by having a cow winched up to his bedroom window. His bedroom was on the third floor, so by the time the cow reached the maharajah’s windowsill, it was confused and distressed. Understandably. But apparently it made for a pleasant wake-up sound. I wonder: did they use the same cow every morning? Or would a cow get used to being winched three storeys up every morning and stop ululating frantically? After a fortnight (I love that word; we don’t use it much in Connecticut) we got used to being woken up by roosters. It felt rather Elizabethan, actually.


As a big fan of Evelyn Waugh and Brideshead Revisited, I was excited about seeing Madresfield Court, near Malvern, the ancestral home of the Lygon family and the inspiration for Brideshead. Madresfield opened to the public on 1 April. If you haven’t visited I commend it, even if you aren’t into Brideshead. (Most of our English friends turned out not to be Brideshead fans, much less Downton Abbey addicts — in fact, they sneered at Downton. Whatever.  Maybe it helps to be American.) Among the details we learned on our tour was that if the Germans had invaded, the government had planned to move the royal family to Madresfield, and the government itself to Great Malvern. In the event, HM’s government stocked Madresfield with all sort of goodies from Fortnum & Mason and other ‘By Appointment To’ suppliers of fine comestibles — the good stuff, unlike my rabbit stew. In all the excitement between 1939 and 1945, the government forgot about having turned Madresfield’s larders into a Harrods food court annex. Then in 1945 some clerk happened on the file and went ‘Whoa!’ or whatever term an English government clerk would use by way of expressing a keen and immediate desire to reclaim all that yummy largesse. As I recall, our docent’s story ended with HM’s trucks pulling up at the moat only to be told that the goodies had somehow… sort of… well, evanesced.

Coming home through JFK, we got to use the Global Entry for the first time, which was almost as wonderful as wintering in Worcestershire. Global Entry is the ‘Trusted Traveller’ system where you fill out a questionnaire stating that you haven’t yet been convicted of a felony and have no future plans to commit one; are not related to the bin Laden family; and haven’t spent much time in places like Somalia, Yemen, Chad and North Korea. If your questionnaire passes muster with US Custom and Border Protection, you go for an interview and fingerprinting.  My wife is a doctor who volunteers in beleaguered countries. The agent interviewing her said, ‘Kenya? Libya? You’re going to have to explain those.’ She convinced him that she had gone for humanitarian rather than nefarious reasons. So at JFK, instead of getting in line with 2,000 people, we inserted our passports into a kiosk and faster than Oscar Pistorius can say, ‘I didn’t know Reeva was in the bathroom, my lady!’ we were home. When you go away for three months, people back home tease you by calling you ‘expats’. Now that we’re back, I’m waiting for someone to call us ‘repats’.

Christopher Buckley’s books include Thank You For Smoking — the basis of the 2005 film — and, most recently, the essay collection Enough About You.


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