On Monday morning I am outwitted by my four-year-old daughter, who manages to leave for school in a light cotton dress on a phenomenally cold and wet spring day. That night I therefore take myself to Chelsea Town Hall for the launch of The Seven Secrets of Parenting: Or How to Achieve the Almost Impossible. I pick up a copy and read ‘Ditch the guilt’. Sold.
On to the Getty Images Gallery for a campaign to find adoptive parents for thousands of British children. The photographer Cambridge Jones, himself adopted at the age of two, has joined forces with Barnardo’s and a host of celebrities to put together portraits of some of their smiling, laughing faces. At the launch party, photographers are crowded around a group of well-built and fit-looking young men. They are, I am told, England rugby player James Haskell and X-Factor finalists Journey South. It amuses me that it is not obvious which is which. Unlike the last time I was here — with a bevy of old rockers who ran no risk of being mistaken for national athletes.
The Bank Holiday weekend finally begins in the early hours of Saturday, at the Boris victory party. It is a jolly affair. Not least because the guests have been there since 5 p.m. on the day before, when the results were optimistically expected in. The next morning, after some sleep and much breakfast, we join many others oozing up the crowded M6 with a Battle of Britain mentality. For who could expect the usual two-hour direct rail journey to take less than five and half hours and two changes on a holiday weekend? We eventually arrive at Knutsford, the real-life Cranford, for its famous May Day parade. This includes every schoolchild in the town dressed as an historical character, in date and geographical order, followed by Pennyfarthings, sedan chairs and a 12-year-old Royal May Queen in a carriage. At the front, however, twirls a mischievous character not on the history and geography syllabus. Jack in the Green harks back to Mayday’s pagan origins as the festival of Beltane and is the symbol of rebirth — and fertility. It does not take much imagination to see why Oliver Cromwell banned Maypole dancing et al in the 17th century. It takes a little more to see why the maiden schoolmistress daughters of the Knutsford vicar reinstated it here in the 19th — those Cranford ladies are clearly just as feisty as Mrs Gaskell made out.
This feistiness is clearly catching. A couple staying at our house in the Peak District, a few miles from Knutsford, spotted a bonfire on a ridge nearby. ‘Just like The Wicker Man,’ they exclaimed. ‘What Wicker Man?’ I replied. Three days later a DVD of the 1973 original flew through our letterbox. The following weekend a long-lost university chum came to stay with her delightful husband, the sort of chap who had left the army recently enough to run our local fell race in his brogues. After dinner, while my husband was upstairs responding to a child’s cry, I slipped our new DVD into the player. Reviewing the evening, my husband said that by the time he had returned, it was too late. As the movie ran, I squirmed with embarrassment in front of my new friends while a naked Britt Ekland made love to a wall.
On Saturday evening, I find a lamb struggling to stand, tight wool curls hanging about it in wrinkled folds. I am soon joined by an agitated farmer on his quad bike. ‘Don’t worry,’ I say, ‘I promise that this year we won’t rescue any.’ The Osborne lamb-rescue history is not glorious. There was the dehydrated lamb which we fed boiled water using a baby-bottle. This passed through its system at a rate of knots, leaving not a dry pair of trousers in the house — including those of the farmer, when he came to rescue the lamb from us. And there was Larry, the lamb that couldn’t walk, found by us and adopted by our veterinary student neighbour. The hitch being that it never could walk, and when it died shortly afterwards there was not a dry eye in the valley. ‘They go to market at 12 days,’ replies the farmer as he motors off. Twelve days! I tremble with the cruel reality of farming life, and a dangerously lamb-focused maternal instinct returns....
On Sunday, I set off for a walk with a girlfriend and her guests and the heavens open. Soaked to the skin, when we return to her house we rapidly begin to remove our clothes. Our host raises his eyebrows. ‘This is beginning to look like one of Idina’s parties.’ He is clutching the Sunday Times News Review, open at the serialisation of The Bolter, my just-out biography of my five-times-divorced great-grandmother Idina Sackville. Idina’s evenings in 1920s Kenya’s Happy Valley began with her receiving guests lying naked in a green onyx bath. Dinner was followed by White Mischief sheet-and-feather games allocating guests new partners for the night. But behind this glamour lay a searing tragedy. In the aftermath of the first world war, Idina left her first husband, whom she loved, and lost her children. The heartbreak that followed her attempt to return to them quite literally killed her — and not before her cherished much-younger third ex-husband, the Earl of Erroll, was found on the Kenyan roadside with a bullet in his head.
A fellow walker replies: ‘Don’t be silly, it’s only lunchtime.’ Wet clothes innocently swapped for dry, amid an awkward silence we settle down to Bloody Marys in front of the fire.
The Bolter: Idina Sackville — the woman who scandalised 1920s society and became White Mischief’s infamous seductress, by Frances Osborne, is published by Virago at £18.99. For more information of the Barnardo’s campaign see www.cambridgejones.com.