In the days when I was less happy in my skin than I am now, I used to feel stabs of envy whenever I visited the large country homes of much grander friends. I’d notice their array of class signifiers — the boot room with battered hunt coats and riding crops; the massive Victorian baths with enormous taps, weird cylinder devices instead of plastic plugs, and funny little dog foot stands; the framed pictures in the loo of Oxbridge matriculations and born-to-rule offspring posing with the beagle pack at ‘School’ — and think: if only this could one day be me.
Well now it is me, more or less. Finally, in my early fifties, I’ve got round to joining, near as damn it, the country squirearchy. And let me tell you, it’s every bit as enjoyable as I’d hoped. I get to be rude, eccentric, antisocial, reckless, prejudiced, reactionary, unkempt, unapologetically conservative and free to a degree that just wouldn’t have been possible in my benighted townie years.
The country is often stigmatised as a small-minded place where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Possibly. But the secret — as most rural folk well understand — is not to care.
Maybe things were different back in the day, when you really did need to court the good opinion of whoever it was who lived in the Big House, when you really were dependent on being accepted by the community. Not in the age of Netflix, though.
Sometimes the Fawn and I can go for months on end without accepting a single social engagement. (Not that people tend to invite us any more, because they know we won’t reciprocate, which lets us off the hook of quite the worst thing about living in the country: the dreaded dinner party where you don’t get served the main course till after 10, because half the guests have to get home from their London commute).
But if ever we changed our minds, there’d be no shortage of opportunities. I could take up hunting again — which, sorry fam, I still just might. Or I could work harder at landing a few more shooting invitations. True, ideally you need a shoot of your own with which to reciprocate. But as I’ve discovered after nearly a decade in the sticks, there are ways and means of getting the lifestyle you want — even when you’re not as posh or rich as you’d like to be.
Cheap hunting is quite hard to pull off because no one really likes to lend you a decent horse in case you break it, and the caps aren’t cheap either. Shooting is easier, though, because it’s much more declassé than it was. How grand you are or how skilled a shot is sometimes less important to your host — especially if he’s a mega-rich hedge-fund type — than how entertaining or novel you are. So being a semi-celebrity or someone people read in their favourite political weekly can come in handy.
This wasn’t how I planned things to be when I was plotting my future all those years ago. The way I’d acquire my large country house, I imagined, would be from the vast fortune I made in the City, or from the sales of my bestsellers, or maybe as part of the dowry from the Duke’s daughter I married.
None of this transpired. But the happy thing life has taught me — mark well, all you young men harbouring similar unrealistic dreams — is that if you want something badly enough, you’ll always end up getting it: just not necessarily in the way you expected.
Think you’ll never be able to live in a Queen Anne rectory on a Capability Brown landscaped estate when you’ve next to no money? Oh but you can. You can rent one for less than the cost of a two-bedroomed flat in Clapham.
Worried that you’ll always stick out like a sore thumb if your tweeds don’t look as if they’ve been inherited from your grandfather? Yeah, I used to think that when I first got my hacking jacket, looking all stiff and new from Cordings. But what you do is wear it — for cubbing, for walks, for church, for Sunday lunch, to the pub, when you’re gardening, at your desk — and before you know it, what you’ll find is that it has become the shapeless, battle-hardened, thorn-scratched, pheasant-blood-stained, vintage sartorial heirloom you always wanted it to be.
Some things aren’t negotiable. You need a dog, because everyone has one and because walking — which you’ll do a lot — isn’t the same without one. And you’ll need to get a Land Rover (or similar) — not, as townies do, to willy-wave your status, but because you need something with enough clearance and big enough tyres to survive the appalling potholed, ridged country roads, and to get you out of your drive when it snows.
In town, London especially, people know exactly how well you’re doing by where you live, what you wear, how recently you’ve done up your home. But in the sticks, it’s much harder to gauge. People with enormous houses may in fact be skint; people who look like peasants may own acres worth many millions.
Either way, it really doesn’t matter. And this is another thing I’ve learned since the days when I imagined that it was all about class: people judge you much less than you’d think. Perhaps it’s different in the Cotswolds, I’m not sure. But where I am in Northamptonshire, if you want to kid yourself that you’re a country squire then, damn it, you are a country squire. Everyone’s far too busy concealing their own dark weird secrets or flaunting their own eccentricities to worry much about anybody else’s.