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10 October 2017

I am homeless, but have struck up a friendship with some Scottish chickens

I wonder if they will let me stay in their coop for a bit.

By Nicholas Lezard

The view from my window: rolling hills, trees coniferous and deciduous, sheep, crows and, when the weather is clear, much larger hills: the fringes of the Highlands. I’m a long way from Brighton: 530 miles by car, but a mere 494 miles on foot. I am also, crucially, a long way from East Finchley.

I have always loved Scotland. My parents would often go away on business trips, and my little brother and I were mostly looked after by Mrs MacNae, a wheezing giantess (to our eyes, at least) of a woman. One did not mess with Mrs MacNae, but she was competent and kind and full of little surprises, like teaching us how to read tea leaves.

Once we went to her place in Dumfries – the trip to London was getting too much for her, I think – and on one drive in the countryside I recognised the particular bright green of sphagnum moss growing by the roadside and begged her to stop the car, because sundew plants, which eat insects, grow in sphagnum moss and I dearly wanted to see one in the, er, flesh, so to speak. She did; and I did.

People who have only seen me in an urban setting are either astonished, or simply refuse to believe me, when I say I am happy in the countryside. Linda Grant, who laughs in my face when I try to tell her I’m not actually Jewish, believes that a defining indicator of Jewishness is a hatred or distrust of the countryside. “Non-Jews want to get back to nature,” she says. “Jews want to get back to the hotel.”

Well, get this: I’ve just collected five freshly laid eggs from the chicken coop round the back of the vegetable garden. From which, but three days ago, I cut a big bagful of spinach for dinner. I was a bit worried that I might have been collecting dock leaves or something instead, and am now wondering whether the chickens should be out (although they have been every day I’ve been here, and congregate round me when I sit outside with a book, in a most amusing fashion), but you can’t deny that these are things you don’t do in the middle of London. Withnail and Marwood may have gone on holiday by mistake, but I am here very much on purpose.

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“Here” is an enormous house – not too far off being a small castle – in Perthshire. I first came to the place some five or six years ago, introduced by the divine H—, who used to step out with the laird’s son. (I don’t know if “laird” is correct here, but he did go to Eton, which I only learned the other day, and which staggered me, for in all my days I have hitherto never met an Etonian I liked or trusted. Maybe one. And they’re everywhere, like shit in a field.)

Memories of H— hang heavy when I’m here, and I miss her like hell, and feel obscurely guilty at being here without her, but the situation in London was becoming untenable. And here the atmosphere is gemütlich in the extreme: an enormous, Aga-warmed kitchen, antlers everywhere, even more books than there are antlers; a map of the area on vellum, about the size of a ping-pong table, hangs on the wall; there’s a narwhal horn in the dining room really, and there are a couple of yurts round the back that are rented out to people who like that kind of thing.

Some years ago the estate reintroduced beavers to the wild, for the first time in three and a half centuries; there’s a wind turbine and a sustainable power source (woodchips); and one of the children and I have a mutual friend in our very own Laurie Penny. As you can imagine, political chit-chat round here is very much more New Statesman-ish than Spectator-ish.

I do have to admit that a picture of me in situ would clash very much with the title of this column. “Down and out?” I hear you say. “You’re having a laugh.” But I think that, what with one thing and another, and the shit storm that 2017 has been, I’m allowed a couple of weeks’ grace. And when I leave, in a week’s time, I have absolutely no idea where I will go.

I do tend to fall in love with whichever place I find myself in (apart from East Finchley). I even liked Warsaw, for crying out loud. Well, a bit. Here, though, is heaven. If Brighton was like London but with friendly people, this is like Rivendell, or some other iteration of a friendly haven in a hostile world with dragons in it. The thought of leaving here is already distressing me. (And I’ve done so much work here! That really is staggering.) I wonder if the chickens will let me stay in their coop for a bit.

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This article appears in the 04 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer