So now I must find somewhere else to put my books and live sometimes. Dartmoor, I thought: one of the wildest places left in England yet just 20 minutes to Exeter St David’s station, if my car starts, and another 20 to Torbay hospital along the new bypass for appointments and treatments.
What I have in mind is a miner’s cottage with bracken growing against the granite walls and an indefatigable little stream passing close by for use when the pipes freeze. There would be no wifi, no phone signal, no BBC radio or television. Final demands would be left in a postbox at the end of the unmade track half a mile away. The cottage would be a bit dilapidated but the roof would be mostly sound and the chimney would draw.
The advantage of this spartan severance is that deep silence you get up there when the wind isn’t blowing. Also that magical sunlight in the mornings and evenings and in the winter glittering snow and hoar frosts. Ravens, kites, owls, foxes, weasels and stoats for neighbours. And ragged sheep, Galloway cattle and semi-wild ponies grazing right up to the front door.
By an odd coincidence, Robert Louis Stevenson has described my ideal place far better than I can in a poem of 1887. I came across ‘The House Beautiful’ the day before yesterday and was astonished to see my reclusive fantasy so accurately described. To unappreciative eyes seeing from a distance, his ‘naked house’ on a ‘naked moor’ is ‘bleak without and bare within’. But he lives there and sees the moor in all its moods, the ‘incomparable pomp of eve’ and the ‘cold glories of the dawn’ and the ‘wizard moon’ ascending, creating ‘a cheerful and changeful page’ which — the way he tells it, anyway — turns his lonely existence into a beautiful year-long hallucination.
If money were no object I would call an estate agent and be living in my house beautiful by this time tomorrow, with two chest freezers, a neat stack of bought logs and a shiny stand-by generator. But money is an object. I need to attract the attention of, and appeal to, another eccentric who could profit from the property but doesn’t want to be bound by written agreements or health and safety regulations. Also, by keeping part of it warm and doing the odd repair, a tenant would arrest the cottage’s decline into a ruin.
Don’t ask me why I think I want to live like this: it’s either a delusion with a biblical flavour or a perfectly normal psychological reaction to current realities.
So I flew a kite in the form of a handwritten postcard placed in the window of one of the remoter village post office and general stores. ‘Writer,’ it said. (A needless exaggeration, I know. But I was trying to convey ambition and purpose tempered by hopelessness and failure, while keeping it pithy.) ‘Writer looking for Dartmoor rental accommodation for a year, possibly two, no matter how primitive or remote. Preferably fairly dry in parts, however, as lots of books. Also lives in France.’
It’s too late now, but I have since regretted not adding to the sentence about these apparently precious books: ‘…and a wood-burning stove for using them as fuel if hard winter. Non-smoker.’
Two replies so far. One from a lady offering a shed in her garden for what seemed to me a great deal of money. The second from another lady offering a terraced cottage in a moorland village, which I arranged to see, taking with me two small boys, aged eight and nine, as my chief advisers. She was away at the moment but her boyfriend would show us the cottage and she gave me his number.
I called, spoke to a man breathless from cycling 20 miles, and we arranged to meet in one of the village cafés. The lads and I arrived half an hour early to have lunch there.
It was one of those informal, organic, communitarian, vaguely ethnic cafés one finds everywhere from Cornwall to east London. Inside was one central, communal table and two peripheral ones. We shared it with a well-turned-out, bored-looking woman whose glasses cost more than the car we drove up in. The food wasn’t very good but at least it was pretentious. ‘What’s “organic”?’ one of the lads asked. The word featured heavily on the labels of the produce lining the walls. I said it meant ‘expensive’.
Our prospective landlord turned up five minutes early. In no time at all he was outlining his belief that the world is run by a small and shadowy elite. I had already decided to move to Rotherham instead, but while we were there we let him show us over his property.