My computer bears the somewhat out of date label ‘Intel inside,’ a reference to the device’s source of semiconductor inspiration – and this blog deserves something similar. ‘Cold inside.’ Also inspiring, in fact, urging along the writing process like nothing else. Yes, it is cold in Gloucestershire. It has been very cold, well below zero for several days last week. But now it is normal, about 5°C, which is cold, but no big deal. What has happened seems deeply rooted in the British national character. Last week’s severe cold threw off deliveries of heating oil, particularly to country homes like my cousin’s…tankers skidding on the slopes of the Cotswolds. Alastair actually drove to a oil depot on the Severn River two days ago, filling large plastic jugs with enough fuel to get us through the next days. Meanwhile, his sprawling country home is running its heating system on a reduced schedule. Making my bedroom rather startling by late afternoon. Thus the impetus to write and to write fast.
Of course, nothing generates heat like friction, and Jane and I have already managed to generate a certain amount on this trip. We had a dire misunderstanding just yesterday morning regarding, let us say, tone. I was heaving myself out of bed at what would be a perfectly reasonable hour under any circumstance, except New Year’s Day. New Year’s Eve having proceeded in the usual way, to the usual extent. And now it was 2011, and I was attempting to gird myself for the morning’s event. The fox hunt. Otherwise known as the hunt. This looks like an utter anachronism, not to mention silly in the extreme, if one is in California. Here, in my cousin’s Gloucestershire village, it is the inevitable result of being 1 January, any year, and at 10:30 it was all happening. Far too much was happening, in fact, and under circumstances that would seem to keep any sane person at home and bundled up.
Weather that transcends weather. The charcoal sky. The slush along the roads. And the dark, a combination of low-slanting northern European sun and the eternal massing of rain clouds. As for the slush, well, it combines poorly with horse turds, the latter falling in remarkable numbers from the backsides of the hunt mounts. God knows where these equestrians spend their days. Or why they don’t take the long scenic route across the fields. But, no, this is how they get to their assembly point, or whatever it is called, via the village high street. Which is now reaching a low. Horse byproducts scattered everywhere, one wheelchair attempting to swerve between the globs of effluent. That is the thing about the rolling life of the disabled. One is low to the ground. Close to the elemental action. Face-to-face with what’s happening on the pavement, grounded in ways the average person can avoid.
It is familiar by now, the curving road through Todenham, Gloucestershire. The manor house, and yes, there is one, lies just beyond the village hall. To gain a sense of scale, consider that the village hall is approximately the size of my apartment. Only last night, New Year’s Eve, I was crowded into this place with 75 other people, including a live band, for an evening that passed surprisingly quickly and enjoyably. After years of visits, I recognize a good number of people in this burg. And it was good to see them, and literally every generation, having a go at line dancing and drunken party games…the evening’s intensity heightened by women’s bodies on display in a way that would seem risqué in California. But not here. People were partying. British people. The gay men in the village attired somewhat more outlandishly than the straight, but only somewhat. One man in fishnet stockings dancing most enthusiastically with his wife all evening. Party time.
Did I mention the fireworks? Big suckers. Huge, exploding starbursts in flaming multi colors…the sort of rockets’ red glare that might go off at midnight over the East River…well, here it was launched from the Todenham graveyard, exploding right over the heads of partygoers in the adjoining parking lot. And now it is New Year’s Day, the party is distantly over, and I am following everyone else, hanging a left off the main road through the gates of the manor house. What is a manor house? Well, it’s this sucker, acres of green lawns with an imposing Georgian residence in the middle. Actually, I have been on these grounds before. The annual village fête takes place here, a charity do with entertainments along the lines of dart throwing and pinning the tail on the donkey. But that was in the summer, and about five years ago. Trust me, summer is over. The sky is so dark, that the morning could pass for evening. The manor has been sold, furthermore. The new lady of the manor is Jewish. Her husband works for a major British property firm. You would think they would rather do something else on New Year’s Day, but they aren’t. They are here and quite happily keeping a tradition. Doubtless, many traditions. The current one having to do with a fleet of horses, people who must spend weeks at the gym to get into their tight-fitting boots and riding pants and jackets. And the villagers and various hunt enthusiasts milling around at the edge of the manor, overlooking the fields through which they are about to chase down a fox, drinking and eating.
If you have recently fought your quadriplegic way out of bed, managed a cup of tea, and that thanks to the woman with whom you are currently sparring, well, by now what you really want is a cup of coffee. That’s why serving people wandering about the manor grounds with glasses of port…well, there are no words for this. What is port? Well, true to accounts, it’s a sweet wine. And how much of this can you enjoyably down at 10:30 AM? A surprising amount, if you put your mind to it. The lady of the shtetl, both cute and endearing, is serving warm canapés. I knock back a couple of sausage rolls. The latter will help swell the fat rolls that I am working on during this trip. They will fight the cold and absorb the port. But they will not help me make any sense of the announcements currently issuing from the master of the hunt. This dude, and the American word for him is infinitely more descriptive than the British, is sitting atop a horse and laying out the ground rules of…well, who knows, foxes being rather thin on the ground in Menlo Park. The riders are beginning to gallop off in the general direction of Warwickshire. Good riddance. The way home is both cold and paved with horse shit.
It was somewhere over Greenland where Jane and I, just days ago, made our shaky way down the aisle of a United Airlines 777. I mentioned something about how hard it was to sleep on planes. Couldn’t do it, I said. Oh, Jane replied, she was counting on getting about five hours of sleep. This struck me like, say, the news that your partner becomes covered with hair at the full of the moon, howls and goes on a murder spree. While Jane slept, how was I going to…well, extract a book from my carry-on? Plug in my headset. Make another one of these trips back to the distant toilets. Who knows? Who knows why we travel, and what makes a trip a trip, and a journey a journey? In short, you never know what you will be bringing home. Never mind the duty-free. No trip is free. And our duties are announced each morning. Stay tuned.