8 December 2012

Finding an outfit for a wedding is a doddle compared with finding one for an investiture and I wonder how sensible it was to buy my hat first. I love hats. My mother was a dressmaker and designer and she also made hats and wore them with style and aplomb, in the days when women never went hatless, even just to go shopping. When I was a child she embarrassed me beyond endurance when turning up at school events in one of her rakish creations. I remember the Christmas play and a small black felt number worn jauntily on one side of her head. It had protruding bright turquoise feathers and a turquoise satin slash. Worse was the one that turned up at sports day. That had cherries dangling from it and a sort of ribbon pineapple atop. Well, my investiture hat is the most outrageously hatty one I have ever worn, and I hope my daughters are not mortified by it. Meanwhile, I don’t yet have the rest of the outfit. My scarlet hat with scarlet and black feathers is terrific, but probably not on its own.

I wish it were possible to say something to the Queen instead of just answering her question. I would use my allotted 30 seconds of her time, on the day, to say ‘Thank you’, not for the pretty insignia she has just pinned onto my as yet unchosen garment, but for being there, being our ‘rock’. I remember her not being there as Queen, and then her Coronation, very well, but I was only ten. For my whole adult life and more, she has been a force for good — steadying, reliable, faultless and exemplary. I admire her and am amazed by her. She has never put a foot wrong, she is — as demonstrated by her recent James Bond antics — a thoroughly Good Egg, and I am frankly terrified of her. So while I do want to say ‘Thank you for being our rock’, I bet I don’t have the nerve.

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I have lived in this mainly 18th-century Cotswold farmhouse for 21 years and it is home to an extraordinary accumulation of stuff and even more memories. But it is time to move on, and let it give out its feeling of calm, light and geniality to another family.  So although I will miss the 450 cherry trees, the moorhens, the carpets of snowdrops, fritillary meadow and nesting barn owls, as well as the safe feeling the house itself has always given me, I am not as sad as I thought I might be on leaving. Next spring, I will be in an even older but smaller farmhouse, in north Norfolk. There is the river Glaven at the end of the meadow, nesting barn owls again, kingfishers, and a protected wildflower pasture. The house has even more odd levels, attics, small staircases and nooks and crannies than this one, but it is just as friendly, light and welcoming. Some potential buyers came round here three and even four times, dithering about. I know within five minutes if I want to live in a house, guided entirely by feeling. It was probably within two that I knew the Norfolk one was waiting to accept me.

Writing books is what I do and love to do and writers do not retire, even if occasionally they claim they just have. Only Iris Murdoch really gave up but that was because she recognised that Alzheimer’s had finally won the battle. The late, wholly good and delightful Maeve Binchy claimed to have finished writing and even sent her friends a specially designed postcard of herself lying on a beach having a pedicure while being served with cocktails. She didn’t stick to it though. Philip Roth says he’s done but we’re all keeping an eye on him. I have ideas for books of every sort queuing up into a future I cannot possibly live to see. The whole business gets more and more exciting and stimulating, which is why bank managers and accountants and the like cannot get their heads round our sort. ‘Why do you want to go on working?’ they cry. ‘Take your pension and sit in the sun.’ But that’s the quickest way to an early grave.

Moving house after 21 years is a business and a half, part physical labour and the hire of skips, part shredding the bank statements of decades ago. And part looking back — to small children, now grown up, racing about the fields, beloved dogs long gone to the great kennel in the sky, past Christmas trees, floods and snow, and escaped ponies. I walked round the house late one night, feeling the letting-go badly. But the house said to me, ‘I’ve given you all I have for over 20 years. Now it’s time for me to give it to someone else. So it goes on. You are going to a house which has given itself to others since the 16th century. Now it’s your turn.’
I felt better.

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