Clotted cream, cooing pigeons, vengeful croquet – I’m living the English summer dream

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

So, I am enjoying a pot of Assam and a scone heaped with jam and clotted cream, on the terrace of the tearooms at Hidcote Manor Garden, Glos, and, as so many men in similar situations do, idly and with no serious intent whatsoever, I’m checking out the talent.

It’s a Monday afternoon, so we have a mainly senior set of visitors around us. It occurs to me, with a mild shock, that apart from the Beloved, her twin sister and her paramour, I am by some measure the youngest person here, if you don’t count the staff. (The man at reception was older than me, though, and had a manner about him that strongly reminded me of Pickles, the louche long-haired posho who used to prop up the bar of the Coach and Horses and deliver withering verdicts on your personality in exchange for the odd drink. Could they be the same person? The receptionist at Hidcote is far nicer but still has a way of talking that makes you feel as though you are sitting in the cheap seats and have been caught picking your nose. The Americans buying tickets are positively writhing in pleasure.)

This new-found youthful feeling is rather pleasing, if a little unsettling. The only time I could ever imagine being the youngest person in a place would be if I stood in a graveyard, and even then it would be touch and go. And yet here I am. Relatively young. But not as young as the B and her sis, even though today they are officially a year older, as today is their birthday. Quite a few years – enough to insert a young person of voting age – separate the B and I but circumstances have contrived to make her seem as though she has come from an earlier stage of British history. Growing up in a household too poor to afford a TV, she and her sisters had to learn to make their own entertainment. I always suspected that the notion of doing without telly and “making your own entertainment” was bogus and intended to make people my age feel guilty about watching Wacky Races but it turns out it wasn’t bogus at all, and when I’m with the B it can feel like I’ve been catapulted back to the 1930s. Not only can they all play about five musical instruments each, some of them pretty arcane ones too, they are expert and inspired at making up games, and on the train to Banbury, where we are to be met, my book is confiscated and I am commanded to give the B my full attention.

The first game is Hangman, by way of easing me into the whole concept of mutual conviviality. There is a small boy sitting next to us who starts taking an interest and offers “danger” as a suggestion to the word I am thinking of, but when the B works out that the word’s first letter is a W and its fourth is a K, she confiscates the piece of paper and we move on.

“Guess which one of the colours in Joseph’s Amazing Technicoloured Dreamcoat I’m thinking of,” she says. “How will I know you’re not fibbing?” I ask, although this is the least of my worries, as I have not seen the musical since my children’s primary school forced an audience of stunned and disbelieving parents to endure a loose performance of this work about ten years ago, and not all of us were giving it our full attention. She scribbles a word down on a piece of paper and hides it, and after about 20 minutes, and several clues, in which I name every gaudy colour I can think of, I correctly give the answer “ruby”.

But then we have a pub lunch and pétanque and then off to the National Trust’s Hidcote Manor. “Are you Trust members?” asks the man who looks like Pickles. “No,” says the B’s sister, “but our mum’s on the cover of your leaflet” – and fuck my old boots but there she is, along with the B’s older sister and her husband, busy admiring some lupins. I have landed, it would seem, bang in the middle of the most English family in the world. Being technically only a quarter English myself, I find this extraordinarily thrilling.

We enjoy a delightfully rancourous and vengeful few games of croquet on the massive lawn (to play the game croquet properly, it is important to suspend every generous and sporting impulse you have). I retire to smoke a crafty jazz cigarette under a massive pine and watch the others race around in improvised croquet-related games while the sun blazes down. The wood-pigeons coo in the trees; we virtually have the place to ourselves. After a while I beckon the B over and whisper in her ear. “Sorry to bother you,” I murmur, “but isn’t heaven meant to be rather like this?”

A woman playing croquet, 1930. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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How austere will Philip Hammond be?

The Chancellor must choose between softening or abandoning George Osborne's approach in his Autumn Statement. 

After becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond was swift to confirm that George Osborne's budget surplus target would be abandoned. The move was hailed by some as the beginning of a new era of fiscal policy - but it was more modest than it appeared. Rather than a statement of principle, the abandonment of the 2019-20 target was merely an acceptance of reality. In the absence of additional spending cuts or tax rises, it would inevitably be missed (as Osborne himself recognised following the EU referendum). The decision did not represent, as some suggested, "the end of austerity".

Ahead of his first Autumn Statement on 23 November, the defining choice facing Hammond is whether to make a more radical break. As a new Resolution Foundation report notes, the Chancellor could either delay the surplus target (the conservative option) or embrace an alternative goal. Were he to seek a current budget suplus, rather than an overall one (as Labour pledged at the last general election), Hammond would avoid the need for further austerity and give himself up to £17bn of headroom. This would allow him to borrow for investment and to provide support for the "just managing" families (as Theresa May calls them) who will be squeezed by the continuing benefits freeze.

Alternatively, should Hammond merely delay Osborne's surplus target by a year (to 2020-21), he would be forced to impose an additional £9bn of tax rises or spending cuts. Were he to reject any further fiscal tightening, a surplus would not be achieved until 2023-24 - too late to be politically relevant. 

The most logical option, as the Resolution Foundation concludes, is for Hammond to target a current surplus. But since entering office, both he and May have emphasised their continuing commitment to fiscal conservatism ("He talks about austerity – I call it living within our means," the latter told Jeremy Corbyn at her first PMQs). For Hammond to abandon the goal of the UK's first budget surplus since 2001-02 would be a defining moment. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.