The fifth week of continuous downpour. Mouldiest summer ever. The children stay abed until lunchtime. I yell upstairs, Who wants to go for a massive walk? Who wants to come to Tesco in Minehead? Who wants to go to the Exmoor pony centre? There are never any takers. Exmoor pony centre was the scene of one of our many recent unsuccessful family outings, rivalling the lack of success of our visit to the Big Sheep ‘all-weather attraction’ outside Bideford. At the Big Sheep, we drove for two hours to watch a sheepdog herd three ewes. So the children basically get up for lunch, when we all crouch in the dingly-dell kitchen with its view on to a ferny bank, eating pasties and hunks of Cheddar, watching the endless rain drench the green valley, puddling the unmetalled road the colour of builder’s tea, and turning the Exe into fast-running Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.
The silver lining is Kristian, our manny. He replied to my ad on the Gumtree website. After years of engaging posh Scottish girls or moody Croatian maidens to be an ‘extra pair of hands’ over the summer, I now refuse to hire any females or any males for that matter apart from Antipodean men. Kristian is a qualified engineer, PE teacher, and hugely laid back, energetic and obliging. My only concern is that he hasn’t had a day off yet. ‘I once spent a month on a prawn trawler, alone with two other guys. One was a recovering alcoholic and the other didn’t speak. And we never caught any prawns. So nah, I’m good,’ he reassured me, as he mended the chainsaw, having cleared three barns. ‘No wucking furries, mate.’
We had a day pass to Salcombe. It’s awfully pretty — with those golden sands and bobbing boats and green hills and rocky outcrops — and fun to see all he yachties. John and Sarah Witherow supplied Sunday lunch. Naturally, as John edits the Sunday Times, and is my capo di capi, and I am his columnist, I was keen to please. I tried to remember titbits from the previous evening’s revel, one of my father’s birthday festivities (which involved several of his six children, nine of his eleven grandchildren, both his first and second wives, and stretched over days). I passed on stuff from my mayoral sources, but the earth didn’t appear to move for him. I couldn’t even wow him with a world exclusive about allotments. Then someone — I’m ashamed to say it was me — remarked that the Sunday Times really is the Sunday papers, while leafing through the many full-colour sections at his table. ‘I love it when you talk like that,’ he smiled.
In Salcombe, all the men were wearing Crocs with faded red canvas shorts, the women were in stripey rugby shirts, and their children wore variants of the above plus life-jackets, just to indicate they’d been out on a boat. The streets were filled with women with the same glazed expression, and harried-looking men. I knew why. After a certain point on holiday, the female simply has to shop. We will buy almost anything. You know when you go into a room and start wilfing (short for ‘what was I looking for?’). Well, we do the same thing when we shop, only we don’t know what we’re looking for until we see it. My husband calls this ‘brimbling’, after a divine shop in Dulverton called Brimblecombe, where female friends always seem to find something they ‘need’. I tried brimbling in Salcombe but couldn’t, as my escort was a thrifty husband who has not bought himself any new clothes, let alone a pair of Jack Wills white denim short shorts, for many years.
We also had an exeat to the furthest west of Cornwall to attend the clan gathering of the Scottish Frasers, who every year take houses on the St Aubyn estate. It was a relief to find that some families are even more competitive and noisier than one’s own. Barrister Orlando was openly preening that he had received two namechecks in his mother’s Desert Island Discs, whereas none of his other five siblings had been mentioned. Mexico-based Damian bragged that he’d spent more in Tesco in Penzance than the others, until Benjie — a poet who works in the City — argued that as Damian’s £520 bill had been split with historian Rebecca, he had won, flourishing a till receipt totalling £340. There were competitions about who could sprint first into the crashing surf at Sennen, who could spend longest in the freezing water in their underpants, and who could throw the frisbee furthest at Porthcurno. One evening started with a barbecue outside, continued with a game of kick the can, and ended with an arm-wrestling contest. I am happy to reveal that Edward Fitzgerald QC, Rebecca’s husband, was victor ludorum — and that the secret of highly competitive families and the survival of long wet summers is to enjoy annual, Nuremberg-style tribal gatherings.
Just as I was writing that, the sun actually came out. So I’m going to stop and rush outside and turn my face to it before it vanishes into the sodden grey sky until next year.