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I WAS in the back garden beneath.


I WAS in the back garden beneath a merciless sun, humping sacks of fertiliser across the lawn, when the creak and groan of my joints was overcome by the insistent ringing of the telephone from its perch on the table at the bottom of the stairs.

Soon, however, my poor eardrums were drilled by an even more penetrative sound.

"Can you take that?" called my wife. "I'm very busy in the lounge with the shopping catalogues, choosing shades of toenail varnish for our hols. Which do you think would be better for lounging on the edge of the pool - cherry-in-the-snow-red or frosty pink?"

In my haste to regain an upright posture, I dropped a sack awkwardly, causing sharp pains to hurdle up and down my sciatic nerve, as though preparing for their own version of the Olympics.

"Frosty pink," I gasped, between yelps, finally breaking into a steady stride down the hall.

Mopping perspiration from my brow, I picked up the phone. You could almost smell the insurance salesman's after-shave lotion chasing his ingratiating voice down the wires.

Was I aware, he wanted to know, that our existing plumbing policy didn't cover taps. Did we want to change it? What had he in mind, I wondered, a new policy, which covered taps but not pipes?

But I decided on a different ploy.

"Are you familiar with the story of Noah?" I asked. "You will remember that he took the ultimate precaution against flooding by building an ark. He was a wise, God-fearing man. Should I follow his example? An ark instead of an insurance policy?"

"Have I called at a bad time?" asked the salesman. I sensed stifled alarm in the rising pitch of his voice, suggesting a chap, eager to escape further engagement with a religious fanatic.

"It is always a bad time," I replied.

But, far away, there is another England, you know - still breathing and smiling gently, quiet and shy, where mothers on Sundays roast potatoes until the shells are crisp enough to dunk in the gravy, while fresh grass dances to the advance of mowers, pushed by fathers with leather patches on the elbows of their jackets.

Yes, you can see it and smell it and almost touch it in the pictures of the mind. The air hums and the roistering boys of Saturday yawn deeply, as the church bells sound, sad and slow, and the big trees weep over the greens for the pretty girls, who is lick their rouged lips ever closer to the ghosts in the mirrors.

In the distance, a bicycle boy puffs on the hill. Creepers sigh on the church wall and the feet of the faithful crunch the gravel outside the village hall... forever.

Lurking in this England are the secretaries of the history and literary societies, the WIs, the church social committees, Townswomen's Guilds and the debating and philosophical societies.

Among their many jobs, these secretaries have to book speakers for their weekly, or monthly meetings. And, at about this time, they start thinking of filling their diaries for next year. Into view loom the names of minor local celebrities - those very minor celebrities, who have unusual hobbies, or know a little more than the average person, about orchids, pickling, Tudor architecture, the forgotten poems of Fanny Frumpton, the Holy Land, potion-brewing, witches, trains and trams of a bygone age, herbalism, Inca courting rituals, folklore, embroidery cooking and flower arranging, Roman coins, or the hidden gems of their town/ village/ hamlet/ parish. Hobbling along behind such luminaries come local authors, broadcasters and newspaper columnists.

Periodically, I receive calls from desperate secretaries in remote rural locations, who have found that they are speakerless on a Friday in late February.

The conversation skips around a few pleasantries, before approaching the thorny questions of a fee and how to get to Lesser Toadhole-on-the-Ooze. "We're a very small organisation, dwindling numbers you know. People just dying off. Need some young blood. By the way, do you charge for your talks on what is it - whimsy?" asks the secretary.

"Well, the problem is getting there and back is going to cost me about pounds 30," I say.

"Don't worry about that. We'll dispatch Ethel to Greater Toadhole-on-the-Ooze railway station to fetch you in her bull-nosed Morris. She's 103, you know. Ethel, that is - not the car. It's only 73. Ethel's still remarkably spry, though there are worrying signs of Alzheimer's. But she knows the country lanes like the k back of her hand.

"So that's agreed then. You speak on whimsy for 90 minutes for no fee. But the tea and biscuit are, of course, ex gratia."

This is the true spirit of England.

But, far away, there is another England - breathing and smiling gently

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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Aug 12, 2008
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