Killing sacred cows in rural Suffolk
DEAR Claire Rayner: I've got a bit of a problem. (No, not the usual; that was sorted with a Chinese herbal preparation and a revised personal hygiene regime.
DEAR Claire Rayner: I've got a bit of a problem. (No, not the usual; that was sorted with a Chinese herbal preparation and a revised personal hygiene regime.) This is something altogether more challenging.
There's this author, you see - Judy Rumbold - who in 1999 moved to Suffolk after nearly 40 years as a confirmed urbanite. I've got to write a feature on her book. She was once the fashion editor of a national newspaper, but seems a million miles away from the stereotype of a pushy, ruthless, sell-her-grandmother-for-an-exclusive kind of journalist.
Judy's mild-mannered, softly-spoken, polite, funny, interesting, a patient listener and probably a bit shy - much happier being an interviewer than the interviewee.
So far, so hunky-dory. But then there's her book.
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It's very well done. Judy's got an enviable turn of phrase and an instinct for a killer line. It's just that her humorous observations might put a few rural noses out of joint. Take her views on country inns.
The argument goes that “most village pubs are as cliquey as the front-row guest lists at a Prada show. I have been to municipal rubbish tips and felt a warmer glow of generosity and acceptance.”
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Regular attendance “coupled with a willingness to forego jumped-up London girl-drinks in favour of Suffolk beer the colour and consistency of crude oil, and you might be in with half a chance of eliciting the odd grunted greeting, but don't expect miracles”.
Then there's shopping for clothes in this Harvey Nichols-less desert.
Country towns are not lacking in individual shops, she points out, “it's just that this individuality is less about fabulous, boutiquey eclecticism than care-in-the-community craft hell. Once you've fought your way through the irksome dangly stuff - the wind-chimes and dream-catchers and crocheted monstrosities - the clothes tend towards a gormless, tie-dyed slant involving a lot of shells and boiled felt. Or there are dusty old Fifties shops called things like Sheila-Ann selling garish polyester shirtwaisters . . .
“Generally, then, I despair. If the demographic and social profile of a region was compiled based on the kind of clothes stocked by its shops, you would have to surmise that East Anglia is largely populated by retired dog-breeders and surfers, with, perhaps, a smattering of legal secretaries soaking up the middle-age range.”
There's even a pop at the sacred cow that is the EADT letters page: “the first refuge of the apoplectic, the angry and the merely p****d off. To read these daily outpourings of bile and fury, you would have to surmise that East Anglians live in a perpetual state of boiling rage at the antics of those jumped-up s*ds from the city - led by a 'hopelessly metrocentric' government - and their 'relentless crusade' to, basically, 'shut the countryside down'.”
Now, Reasons Not To Move To The Country will be found in the “humour” section of your local bookshop, but I can't help fearing that some folk might take it all a bit too personally.
How, Claire, can I write a feature that doesn't make Judy sound like a sharp-tongued Londoner railing against Silly Suffolk? Like James Herriot or Bill Bryson, there's an over-riding warmth and well-disguised protective affection for surroundings and customs that can also slightly irritate.
Yours sincerely, Steven Russell
IT'S a fitting time and place for taking tea with Judy Rumbold. The rain's pouring down - calling to mind the mud that's been a sworn enemy since she moved to the countryside - yet the bright and shiny refuge that is Saints wine bar and café in Ipswich wouldn't look out of place in the London she left behind.
Let's get the awkward bit out of the way first. Will Suffolk people be sending her parcel-bombs?
“Hopefully they'll see it's light-hearted and amusing, and will relate to some of it themselves. At the end of the day I think it's me who comes out worst. The joke's on me. I found it hard to adjust, and essentially I've set myself up. The aspirations I had have now come crashing down on my head. I hope they'll take it in the right spirit.”
True, she has suffered - not least being pictured pushing a wheelbarrow full of logs while, incongruously, wearing a swish floral dress.
“What I want to emphasise is that I don't hate the countryside and I don't hate everyone who lives there! We've got some lovely friends in the village. What I say in the book is that it was a steep learning curve. You don't take everything into account when you take a huge leap into the unknown, as in this case.”
It all started when husband Jocelyn Targett, who had enjoyed the dizzy heights of journalism - he was deputy editor of The Observer - had a change of emphasis and became a marketing bigwig with a Newmarket-based equine stud operation. Not surprisingly, commuting from north London began to pall. A move to the country was the answer, he reckoned - though his wife took a long time to be convinced.
There were times, she confesses, “when I joined in the dinner-party hand-wringing about the grime, the lack of space, the paucity of organic quinoa outlets and the appalling shortage of gullible East European teenagers you could exploit for cheap babysitting. But never in an especially heartfelt way. Never in a way that suggested for a minute that I intended to do anything other than stay put”.
Get over it, she told her beloved, and dug in her heels.
“Then he started bringing home chunky property propaganda, and purposefully leaving it around the house: amazing chocolate-box cottages.” Such delights could more or less be traded for the family's desirably located but poky terraced house in Islington. “I had my head turned in the end - a slow-burn 12 months.”
The search for a new abode was a bit of an eye-opener, however.
“I think we had this romantic idea of cosy cottages and inglenooks, but most of the places we looked at were sort of hovels built for hobbits and midgets. We did look around a lot of places built with Mrs Tiggywinkle in mind - wall to wall chintz and clutter.”
Eventually, home became a glorious pile in a village 'twixt Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds, with a river running through its 2.5 acres - “A home that, surely, would make up for the fact there was no Harvey Nichols or a decent curry house within 100 miles.”
Judy, born in Birmingham in 1960, grew up in the Midlands before moving to London at the age of 18. A freelance journalist who relished the people-watching opportunities of the capital, she didn't do rural.
“But like a lot of middle-class city parents do, I thought 'How hard can it be? I've held down a demanding job in the city; I'm now going to go and make jam and build willow structures in the garden.' Arrogance, really!
“I thought it would be like a permanent holiday, but you don't think about the day-to-day practicalities of life in the country, involving the school run and the shopping, and the things you need to make your life run smoothly.”
The garden was a challenge. Those acres looked exceedingly manageable in winter, when they viewed the house and nothing was growing. “Then summer happened . . . We'd had no experience of natural vegetation in London at all; we'd seen four-foot window-boxes and central reservation box-hedging. It was neat and tidy and didn't cause any trouble.”
Other practical tasks tested her resolve.
Depressed by the “unremitting bleakness” of East Anglian winters, Judy dreamed of roaring log fires - “though they've been a whole learning curve of their own. There's this paraphernalia you need just in lighting fires: kindling, firelighters, the right kind of wood. They've really tested my patience. Once you've got them lit, you have to stand over them like newborn babies or risotto, tending to them.”
One of the biggest jolts was realising how much time country folk are obliged to spend behind the wheel if they want to do anything. “After breathing, driving is the crucial skill you need if you want to live in the countryside,” Judy quips.
Rural isolation can scupper your evenings if you have to stay sober to pick up 11 high-spirited teenagers from a nightclub in Ipswich. A picking-up and dropping-off round-trip through the villages can take almost three hours, she bemoans: “But, then, we brought them out here, so it's like I'm paying my dues.”
Then there are the social challenges.
Judy paints a vivid picture of her initiation to the village shop to pick up some milk. She was in a hurry, and “adopted the customary eyes down, gruffly monosyllabic air of urgency that had served me so well in London”. There was, of course, a long line of villagers content to chat while they waited.
“In his brown grocer's coat, complete with a gnarled pencil on a string, the man behind the counter looked as if he'd only recently stopped peddling dried egg rations and shoving illicit meat packages under the counter to women in pinnies and tan nylons.”
A few years later the owners retired and the shop was reincarnated as a self-service Londis. “The village mourned. I, on the other hand, danced a jig. I never thought I'd be so pleased to see strip lights and Ginsters pasties.”
Of course, Judy accepts (through semi-gritted teeth), that chatting and being sociable is a positive thing.
“My husband said 'It's lovely. This deceleration is good for you. Relax into it.' It's taken me a long time to do that; I wouldn't say I was even half-way there. I think I'm a grizzled, curmudgeonly Londoner.”
The “extravagant politeness” involved in living in the countryside has been a shock, too.
“Well, when you're driving and constantly having to say Thank you” - she mimes a wave through an imaginary windscreen - “as you're passing in narrow lanes. You have to recognise number-plates, and I haven't got to grips with that at all. You have to say hello (to acquaintances) if you see them.
“People remember and, I think, store up that information.” What, resent you for not waving? “I think so, yes. You have to be always aware; always alert.
“When you're in the city, you keep your eyes down and don't have to talk to a living soul all day (out on the streets), but there's a certain standard of conduct expected of you in village life. “Which is good; it's a civilising thing. I don't know why I rail against it, but it's just that it's difficult to get to grips with.”
Then there was The Curious Affair of the Virginia Creeper, and the sequel, The Case of the Japanese Knotweed - subtitled “How Easy it is to Upset The Locals.”
The family's Virginia creeper was encroaching too far over a wall and “compromising the safe passage of dog-walkers up the road adjacent to the church”. They were named and shamed in the village magazine. Judy says that to her it was “a nice manifestation of nature. But in this case it was shoddy gardening; neglect of your green-fingered duty!”
Or, as she puts it in the book, “treated, it seemed, with the same grave disapproval that greets unprovoked assaults on pensioners, hit-and-run incidents, and arson”.
Then the Japanese knotweed brought a letter from the environmental health officer, warning of the dangers of letting it run unchecked through the garden.
The complaints were anonymous. “I think people like to pursue the right channels,” she smiles. “They like to involve paperwork. They like it to slow-burn and carry on for a long time.”
Mind you, there are encouraging signs that our urbanite is adapting to Suffolk ways. Judy confesses she's becoming a bit of a busybody.
“I can moan with the best of them: about the vulgarity of the Christmas lights - that's a whole other interview - and about the phone-box being unceremoniously removed from our village square without anyone being asked. It's now been returned, but it's been a long-running battle.”
In her book, she explains the motivation: “Essentially, we rural villagers feel lucky, blessed and fortunate, and are simply defending our little patch of paradise. Either that or we're all insufferable, small-minded grouches with too much time on our hands.”
Whisper it, but she's even starting to talk like a champion of the countryside. We rural-dwellers have long complained that the decision-makers have little knowledge of life outside their Islington supper-party enclave. Judy sees our point.
“Yes, I can. Especially when I'm standing on the platform in Stowmarket, waiting for the train that's never going to arrive. In my mind I imagine they're thinking we're bumpkins, out in the sticks, and it doesn't much matter if the trains run or not; we're expendable, carrot-crunching, straw-chewing yokels. If trains are cut, or if timetables are wiped off the map, then it's always us that cops it. I get quite cross about things like that.”
The Government should definitely do more to improve public transport and halt the closure of services like rural post offices.
So is Judy glad she made the move?
She weighs her words. “Well, we have a lovely garden and have met some fantastic people, and the longer I live here the more I've got interested in wildlife. I never thought I'd turn into the twitcher I've become.
“There's something lovely about the peace and quiet. Although I moan about the noise - the church bells and the cocks and the mating ducks - in comparison it's quiet. I don't know if it's something to do with getting older, but you can't beat the silence, can you?”
The couple's children, Lola and Teddy, are now 14 and 11 respectively. They go to local schools - their parents are supporters of state education - and have adapted well to rural life.
“It's always hard moving from a multicultural place to somewhere that's obviously monocultural. I think they miss that. My son had friends from Iran, Gambia - he enjoyed that. So that was a jolt.
“And I think we had visions of them running barefoot in a meadow, catching sticklebacks in the stream, growing their own pumpkins - and, of course, that doesn't happen. They're just like any other kids: they want to play computer games and do whatever else it is they want to do.”
Here's the $64,000 question: does she see herself staying in the countryside?
“I don't really ever think that far ahead, to be honest. I've always had a hankering to live by the sea, but then I think a lot of us have airy-fairy ideas about living by the sea. When the children get to a certain age” - presumably post-high school - “you start planning the next step, don't you?”
Judy might have dedicated her book “To Calabria Road, fondly remembered”, but there's no doubt the magnetic attraction of the capital is beginning to wane.
“I do feel a pull, but I think I've now done with the city exactly what I did with the countryside: I've idealised it. I only remember the good bits and have filtered out all the things that irritated.
“So when I go back now, expecting a clean, vibrant city filled with interesting-looking people, dynamically going about their business . . . well, when I spend a day in London now I actually run back to Liverpool Street when I get the train home.
“So for all my bullish talk about wanting to move back, I wonder if I actually could now.”
She writes at the end of the book: “Streets lined with lights and shopfronts used to thrill and delight; now I find their insistent garishness overwhelming.”
“We do live in a beautiful part of Suffolk. And if I do complain about the moaning that goes on, I now realise that people moan about windfarms, sculptures built on Aldeburgh beach, runways and traffic noise because they want to preserve the beauty of the countryside. I can see that.
“I realise now that moaning isn't actually a bad thing; it's a national sport, and the person who moans alone stays alone. Do it in public, in the shop or doctors' surgery, and you're more likely to be integrated.”
Reasons Not To Move To The Country is published by Short Books at £12.99. ISBN 190497774X
JUDY Rumbold's book catalogues 33 reasons for not moving to the countryside, ranging from its leisurely pace and self-sufficiency to the demands of lawns and thatched roofs. Here are some more.
Dog-walkers: “I used to spend a lot of time walking when we first moved, before I became convinced I was getting sidelong looks as I went by, from people thinking I was some kind of axe-murderer.
“I tried to convince myself it was because I didn't have a dog; everyone else out walking did. So after a life of saying I hated dogs, I've now got one!”
Bernard, a one-year-old Jack Russell is lovely but has chewed up three pairs of Teddy's Arsenal socks. “That hasn't gone down well. He didn't support Arsenal until we moved to the country - much to the disgust of his Ipswich-supporting friends. To be fair, he did grow up within earshot of Highbury.”
Agas: “I have been confronted by multiple slobbering Dobermanns and felt less fear.”
Craft shops: “Perhaps . . . the most irritating thing is that, in already choice-impoverished rural areas, they occupy retail space that could surely be better used - Tesco Metro anyone?”