I am in a cosy place: a self-catering cottage next to the small castle/large house I was staying in last October. There is a wood-burning stove to my left, warming the place up, as well as the teapot placed on top of it. Outside, the fallen leaves have carpeted the ground with gold, but above it is grey, cold and rainy as only Scotland can be, and at 2.40pm the evening is beginning to draw in, thus only serving to emphasise my cottage’s Gemütlichkeit.
I am reminded of that locus classicus of childhood comfort, Mr and Mrs Beaver’s home in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and by an amazing coincidence I am but three minutes’ walk from one of the first colonies of beavers to be established in this country since the 16th century. (I was disappointed to learn that, unlike the beavers of CS Lewis’s imagination, beavers do not eat sardines, or marmalade on toast, and neither do they operate sewing machines. You would also not want to visit their homes, which are basically half-flooded.)
Isolation in the north strikes me as the only sensible option these days. One looks at the news from points further south and despairs. No wonder one wants to retreat into a warm, safe haven. (Is “safe haven” tautological? Do write in.) London, I hear, is haemorrhaging professionals of all kinds these days, especially doctors and nurses; it has also lost me, and I thought I was going to be there for ever.
I could imagine living somewhere else but only in the sense that I could imagine making love to Beyoncé, or, to pick a more plausible analogy, driving a pick-up truck. That is, something doable in theory, but unlikely to become a permanent habit. I would dream of moving to Paris, or New York, or Venice, then realise that one day I would wake up and say to myself, “But this is not London,” before going back.
As it is, the only thing tying me to London these days is the youngest son, the last of my brood to retain a permanent foothold in the city. And for how much longer, I wonder?
The other day, we went on an open day to the University of Birmingham, where he is thinking of studying maths. It struck him, even after I’d suggested he spoke to the professor of mathematics called Sergei (everyone should speak to a charmingly wild-eyed professor of mathematics called Sergei at least once in their life), that he did not perhaps need to go on the next scheduled open day, in Sheffield, on the grounds that maths courses across the land are pretty similar, and he did not think that shelling out for two adult returns to Sheffield constituted a wise investment. Smart kid. Anyway, he’s probably going to go to Leeds, like his mother did.
“But Leeds is in Yorkshire,” I said. (Such English roots as I have are in Lancashire.)
“I know,” he said, sadly. I hope I have not complicated matters for him.
Meanwhile, back to my little cave. I am paying a reduced rent because I have been given some duties to perform here. The chief one is warming up the yurts. Yes, you read that correctly. There are a couple of yurts in the next field that the owners of the estate rent out to the kind of people who like yurts. Yurts are designed for the somewhat drier climate of the Mongolian steppe, as opposed to Perthshire and Kinross, where it has been known to rain a bit, so keeping them warm and dry is a priority. As the ancient Mongolian blessing has it: “May your yurt never grow mouldy.”
I’m not sure a yurt is for me, though. Have you ever been in a yurt? Of course you have, you read the New Statesman. But I hadn’t, not until today. There’s a strange smell to them I can’t quite identify and they’re awfully round. Are Mongolian children badly behaved because they cannot be ordered to stand in the corner? The doors to them are rather low, too, and I banged my head on one of them and said a rude word, but not in Mongolian. (Interesting fact: you cannot say “cockwaffle” on the Mongolian internet; or not, that is, without getting into a certain amount of trouble.)
Anyway, I look forward to my new duties. Maybe one day they will reward me with a permanent position. Then I can change my name to Bert, so people will be able to say to me, “How are your yurts, Bert?” Or I may be known, after the fashion of the Welsh, by my occupation, as in Bert the Yurt. This is how one’s mind works in the countryside. There is an awful lot of time for idle speculation.
This article appears in the 29 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world