Rachel Billington

Diary - 23 August 2003

There's even a higher class of litter in Dorset

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Naked ambition is harder to disguise in the country. Take the duck race at a neighbouring village f'te. A hundred yellow plastic ducks went whizzing along a turbulent stream. My grandson Phineas's duck was number 94, a prankster who liked to swim bottom up, head under water. We supporters cheered from the bank, lamenting as our duck tangled with a willow branch, rejoicing as he sped on a discovered current. A surprisingly gentle country pursuit, you might think, until I spotted number 94 had joined the leaders. 'Go for it, 94! Squeeze them out, 94! Bash them with your beak! Scuttle the wimps!' Now he was up to third, then second, one bridge to go, a foot or two of shallow and he could win! 'You're the champion!' Shaking with tension and triumph, I turned to my grandson's round, wondering eyes, to my house-guests' quizzical expressions. 'You realise,' said Trevor, 'he was in the second wave of arrivals, which makes him 16th....'

On the walk home, I noticed Trevor's wife, Valerie, behaving rather oddly, scuttling into the undergrowth. It turned out she was extending her Clean Up North London Campaign. I was rather miffed to think Dorset needed her attentions, but, emerging with an insalubrious piece of plastic, she consoled me with the assurance that we have a very high class of litter which didn't even call for her rubber gloves or animated steel hand.

It does, of course, take time to simmer down after a summer in London. I have never quite understood why 50 per cent of awards, lectures, parties, conferences, launches and assorted events take place in June and July. Happily, this didn't depress attendance at the two family events I'm involved in: the Longford Trust annual lecture and the Catherine Pakenham Award. Last year Cherie Blair came and said the right things about the inefficiency and misery of prisons – she was dressed all in white and had a delightful angel-of-mercy look to her. This year we had the great Bishop Sentamu, who said just as many right things but applied them to the wider world, i.e., if you don't sort out the difference between justice and revenge at home, you'll never do it abroad. I know who I was thinking about – someone not so far from the Angel of Mercy.

My sister Catherine was killed in a car crash when she was 23 and at the start of a journalistic career. Each year now she comes to life again at the awards in the person of a young woman of just her age, skirts a little longer or shorter over the years, but sharp hopefulness the same. I find myself becoming more, not less emotional as the years pass. Or is it sentimental? At last Sunday's Mass my husband interrupted his singing of a hymn by W. Chatterton Dix (1837