Another year over and it wasn’t all bad, you know. Here are some of my personal highlights.
Best birthday parties: my dear old friend Liz Hogg’s 90th and my dear older friend’s Jim Lovelock’s 100th. The latter, in the Orangerie at Blenheim Palace, was possibly the most unboring semi-formal social occasion I’ve ever attended. My table included the philosopher John Gray, a dapper Japanese gentleman who had been blown out of his bed by the Hiroshima bomb, and an economist from northern Uganda who’d narrowly escaped the Lord’s Resistance Army massacres. For her PhD, she had delighted in triggering her thesis supervisors by arguing that western aid programmes don’t work. Jim Lovelock is one of the most extra-ordinary people I have ever met: a free spirit, always eager for new ideas, beholden to nobody, loving life. I’m sure that’s one of the three reasons why he has thrived to such a ripe old age — the others being his amazing wife Sandy and his unlikely Inuit genetic stock. (Apparently Baffin Bay Eskimos would sometimes be recruited by whalers when they’d lost crew members.)
Best send-off: Christopher Booker’s funeral. Barely a day goes by when I don’t find myself wishing my honorary dad were still here, so we could dissect the idiocies of the day in one of those rambling phone chats, which invariably began with the Booker’s tar-weathered voice booming ‘Dellers!’ Cancer gave him sufficient time to choreograph his own funeral perfectly, with the best music and hymns, the choicest readings, the most eclectic guest list ranging from eco-warriors like Hugh Fearnley--Whittingstall to reactionary curmudgeons like Peter Hitchens. God repaid all those years the Booker had served as a churchwarden by giving him a glorious sunny day for the funeral.
Luckiest escape: As I was retreating in order to get a better shot with my iPhone of an architectural feature in Le Jardin Secret in Marrakesh, the ground disappeared from under me — just like it did once before when I broke my leg plunging into a ha-ha in the dark at a wedding — and I found myself falling backwards into space and an almost inevitable grim rendezvous with the fracture clinic in a Moroccan hospital. I’d stumbled into a square drain-hole. Instead, though, I hit the tiled surface hard, and I was completely unscathed. Concerned faces loomed over me, for it must have looked like a really nasty fall. What had saved me, bizarrely, were the years I’d spent on the mats in my tai chi sparring classes practising how to land backwards. Quite by instinct, I’d executed a textbook fall, collapsing with my knees and slapping the ground with the underside of my outstretched arm. Well, either that or it was pure dumb luck…
Best horse: I don’t want to be unfaithful to all my other favourite horses, but I am really looking forward to getting back on to Foxy, who spent the last season out of action with an injured leg. Unlike the others — sturdy hunters, mostly — Foxy is a thoroughbred, and thoroughbreds are different. Riding them is what I imagine it’s like trying to make love to a supermodel: exciting, scary, requiring tremendous tact, sensitivity and confidence; not something you get to do very often, if ever; but definitely an experience for the bucket list.
Best bag: My field sporting achievements this year have been disappointing — one definite hen pheasant, one probable cock. But if you count mice, I’m a veritable Marquess of Ripon. That early warm weather we had made it a bumper season for pest infestation: wasps and mice, especially. So far I’ve bagged 24 of the latter in traps baited with Nutella, which works best when congealed because it’s harder to lick off, meaning the mice are less likely to escape. I think mice are cute, and if it weren’t for the health hazards of all that poo and wee over our fruit and left-overs in the larder, I would leave them be. It makes me sad every time I see their dead glassy eyes staring up at me — a bit like Russian gunners must have felt as they picked up the pieces of the fallen Light Brigade cavalrymen. Please, mice, learn your lesson: no more fatal forays. It doesn’t end happily for any of us.
Best buy: There’s an electronic device called Tile which my son insisted I buy as part of some internet offer. You press a white button and it enables you to track down your mobile phone when you’ve lost it, as I do all the time. You attach it to your key ring so that when you’ve lost your keys, as I also do all the time, you can track it down with your phone. The tune it plays is quite incredibly annoying and haunts you for hours. But I can’t tell you how much life it has given me back — at least a month’s worth, probably, of time I would otherwise have spent going round and round the house, increasingly desperate, while the Fawn says unhelpful things like: ‘When did you use it last?’
Best literary discovery: Turgenev. He sounds so like another of those Russian writers you ought to read but never will because, damn it, isn’t Tolstoy enough already? But you should, because of the window he offers into a lost, charming world and a social class and era utterly obliterated by subsequent history — rural, upper-middle-class Russia, where landed folk don’t own just country houses but entire villages. His style is deft, light, perceptive and refreshingly free of the worthiness you find in, say, Dickens or George Eliot. I especially love his long passages treating you to overgenerous quantities of character backstory. I’ve been reading one called Home of the Gentry. I do hope the others are as good.