Just before the general election of 1997, I interviewed Tony Blair for The World This Weekend on Radio 4. Afterwards, I totted up the list of facts I had extracted from him about the likely impact of a Labour administration. In retrospect, the most revealing part of my discussion with the Labour leader was what he said about himself as we walked out of the studio and down the long, grey, coffee-stained carpet back to the lift.
"How's your sister?" he asked. He knew that she had been a journalist on the Mirror Group training scheme in the 1980s because her fellow novices included one Alastair Campbell and a certain Fiona Millar. I told him that Emma had recently moved to the country. "Oh," he said dreamily. "I'd love to live in the country, but Cherie never would."
I realise now that the Prime Minister had the first onset of "male, mid-forties, rural bliss syndrome". You'll have seen sufferers at the larger garden centres, clustered round the chicken pens, clucking happily about the relative merits of the Transylvanian Naked Neck and the Rhode Island Red. Women in their thirties get broody about babies, men in their forties get broody about egg-laying. It's known as bird flu, and the symptoms include pupils that dilate at the thought of having chickens of your very own, cheeks that flush at the mention of organic vegetables and a reckless desire to chuck it all in, in favour of open skies and a muddy field. I'm married to someone who is an advanced case.
In my experience, it takes eight years from the first hesitant suggestion - "Wouldn't it be great to live in the country?" - for it to take on a real, insistent urgency. It was around 1997 that Tony Blair told me that he'd like to live in the country. I'd heard the same words from my husband in 1995. Cherie, you'd better watch out. For the past two years, the view from my desk has been of fields, fields and yet more fields. The poor postman now appears at the door very tentatively, knowing I'll drown him in a torrent of conversation to blot out the sound of the silence.
A treat for me is to feel tarmac beneath my feet and a good healthy scent of carbon monoxide in the air. I prefer art galleries, theatres, London stores, city parks and streets to village shops, meadows and gambolling cows. Although I know a few women who suffer from rural bliss syndrome, the vast majority of victims are men. They are the very same men who wake up one morning and pledge to recapture their youth by buying a motorbike. Ministers are apparently so worried about the rise in motorcycle deaths among older riders that they're preparing a national campaign to tackle the problem.
Moving to the country may not be so life-threatening as getting a bike, but those who plan to move should still have a few lessons before they take their test. Learning the vocabulary is a good start. People arriving in the countryside for the first time are either outsiders or townies - or both. No equivalent insult exists for traffic in the opposite direction. Those who want to move to the countryside are desperate to "put down roots" because, apparently, it's impossible to put them down in the concrete terrain of a town or city. Couldn't roots just be the tiniest bit overrated? Speaking for myself, I no more want roots in my feet than I want roots in my highlights. I was brought up thinking that to stay longer than 18 months in one place was dawdling around a bit.
I've always liked that I don't really come from anywhere. Friends with roots often don't like the ones they were born with anyway, but once lumbered with them find it genuinely difficult to wrench their legs out of the encircling clay. We would all be so much nimbler, so much more adaptable without a past. You can accuse me of taking this way beyond its logical conclusion but, looking to the much bigger picture: don't the animosity and venom directed at immigrants stem from the roots of one and the rootlessness of the other? If we downgrade the status and value of "coming from somewhere", wouldn't we all be a happier, more integrated bunch?
The balance between insider and outsider is shifting all the time anyway, irrespective of the feelings of those whose instinct is to say "we got here first". In 1997, about 1.7 million people "downshifted", a change of gear that often included a move to the country. The figure rose to 2.6 million in 2002 and is forecast to reach 3.7 million by 2007. With such a large shift of population in one direction, the boot may eventually be on the other foot. In the meantime, however, while the lines are still drawn between insider and outsider, one fundamentally important tip to those newly arrived in the countryside is: don't die too soon. An old friend of mine, a rural church warden, was attacked by local churchgoers for sanctioning the funeral and burial of someone from outside the parish. Not so much a case of "not over my dead body" as "not over your dead body".
However unwelcoming the reception when you get there, it is hardly surprising that people should yearn for their very own Month in the Country. After all, the sales pitch is so very good. "Martha moments" or "Fearnley-Whittingstall idylls" are so beautifully wrapped, it's no wonder susceptible people want to upgrade to the deluxe version of the real thing. My own favourite "Martha Stewart country moment" can be found in her Menus for Entertaining. It's a gloriously ridiculous recipe for ham baked in fresh-cut meadow grass and will go straight to the heart of anyone who craves a country life. "Locate an area in advance with tender, young, organically grown grass that has not yet been cut." Got that so far? "It is best to cut it very early in the morning while the dew is still evident." Tricky to achieve in south-east London but, presumably, just as tough to pull off in rural Shropshire - unless you fancy nitrates and sheep droppings as a garnish. Once you've located your grass, line your pan with it and bake the ham for five and a half hours. Simple.
My other favourite rural myth is to be found in the Lakeland Limited kitchen catalogue. You can find it on page 109, marked the Farmhouse Fragrant Pot Rest. "Protecting surfaces has never smelt so good! When hot pans or dishes are placed on this pretty, padded pot rest, your kitchen will be filled with a soothing aroma of cloves and barley." And at £15.45, it's a hell of a lot cheaper than moving to the country, and less harmful than ham and droppings.
Then there is "the Aga". It's the object that those with rural dreams most crave. But like the Farmhouse Fragrant Pot Rest, the sales patter is more appealing than the performance. In a recent issue of the New Statesman, Andrew Martin renamed this cooker from hell the "Arrrgha". I always think of it as the Aga Khan't. Khan't cook, won't cook; Khan't decide whether it's really a glorified radiator with large fuel bill attached; Khan't be relied upon to be the same temperature from one day to the next. But like delegates at a Sing-Along-a-Sound-of-Music convention, devotees of the Aga, waving their Mary Berry cookbooks gently above their heads, can be heard singing happily together:
Drop scones and pancakes,
Crumble and strudels.
Rhubarb and casserole,
Kidneys and noodles.
Browned legs of best pork loin
Tied up with string . . .
These are a few of my favourite things
The other day, I was queuing to pay for petrol and got talking to the woman in front of me. In the way total strangers will tell you their uncle has haemorrhoids, I had the inside track on this woman's rural life within one and a half minutes. "We can't go anywhere without getting in the car. All my children come out of school at different times, but there's never enough time to get home in between. I'm having a PlayStation and a DVD installed in the car to keep everyone quiet while we hang around in the dark. They already have their breakfast and their tea in the car anyway, but at least this way they'll have some fun."
Phew. What an insight. Sell your house in the city and move into an even smaller one in the country - your car.
I've been conducting a private test on a publishing executive I know. Like Blair, he harboured rosy dreams about life in the country, although in his case he acted upon them. Two years ago, he and his family moved to a large country house with acres running into double figures. I gave him three years, four at the outside, before he changed his mind. He's lasted 23 months. The reason why the acres and the Aga have lost their gleam? Because he hoped that by escaping to the country he would be escaping himself. All he's discovered is that he's the same, driven control freak in the country that he was in the city, but with a green backdrop instead of a grey one.
Which brings me back to where I began. Tony Blair. Things must be getting serious when Sir Cliff Richard starts saying how worried he is about Tony's health. It's like a spry senior citizen standing up and offering the PM his seat on the bus. Yet if Cliff is right, perhaps now would be the perfect time for Blair to start planning for his life of rural bliss. But Cherie, you're not going to like it.