I’m always being told I should travel more and go to foreign parts but crikey, I’ve just spent a week in Devon and it doesn’t come foreigner than that. I went to stay with the Times art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston in her rambling old farmhouse up on Exmoor. The view is beautiful and so is the house but, as a lifetime townie, I can’t get used to all the animals wandering into the kitchen. One morning we are hit by tragedy when the goose dies and the gander bustles into the kitchen to bellow his grief. Apparently geese can’t bear to be alone, so Rachel spends the morning chasing round her friends and comes back with four new geese. The widower’s grief is assuaged.
That evening she takes me to the local pub, the Poltimore Arms in Yarde Down. It is the social centre of Exmoor and all the lanes around are jammed with Range Rovers, BMWs, tractors. It is not a beautiful building, and it has no mains water or electricity, but it does have a much-loved landlord, Steve Cotten, who tells me he set out to fail at everything but couldn’t even fail at failing because the pub is such a success. He is partially sighted so he seldom leaves the pub but sits at a table in the front yard and holds court, while customers bring him drinks, cigarettes and all the local news. There is much talk about D, the self-styled “richest woman on Exmoor”, who everyone says is drinking herself to death.
Suddenly someone shouts, “Has anyone lost a ferret?” and I see a pale golden ferret with red eyes darting under the tables. Nobody claims ownership but someone says there was ferret-racing yesterday in South Molton and it must have escaped from there. Poor thing, it must be starving, Steve decides, and the barmaid brings some cat food. The ferret eats while Rachel goes in search of a cardboard box to put it in. She says she thinks she has a cage at home so we depart, with the ferret in a rather flimsy box on my lap – it stinks to high heaven.
When we get home we find a battered estate car with four flat tyres parked skew-whiff in the yard. “Oh God!” Rachel exclaims, “It’s D!” And sure enough, we find a large, drunk woman with bruises all over her face mumbling on the sofa. Apparently her sons let the air out of her tyres to stop her driving, but she has driven down a steep two-mile track to get here. They have called the police. Two very young fully armed policemen arrive quickly. They recognise D on sight. “Can’t you arrest her for drunk driving?” I ask. We do, often, they sigh, but it makes no difference. They drive D home, send a tow-truck to collect her car, while Rachel finds a cage for the ferret and drives it back to the pub. On the way, she is stopped and breathalysed because all local police have been told to look out for a drunk woman driver. Luckily she is sober.
Food shortage in the south-west
So that was Exmoor, but from there I went to stay with my daughter’s family in a rented house near Ilfracombe, and Ilfracombe is amazing in a different way. Not only does it have the extraordinarily ugly Damien Hirst statue of Verity on the quay, it has a shop selling spaghetti ice cream. I tried to bribe my grandsons to eat some but they refused. Food is problematic on the north Devon coast. The staple diet seems to be fudge, which you can buy in any village, but if you want more exotic fare like milk or bread or eggs you have to drive to the supermarket. One more thing. A gay friend came to lunch and told us he’d been warned not to go on Exmoor: “They don’t like your sort up there.” See what I mean about foreign parts?
The meaning of qapik
Earlier this summer, Scrabble changed its official word list, and my online Scrabble gang is still reeling in shock. The press made a fuss about all the trendy new terms that were added – agender for someone of no fixed gender, antifa meaning anti-fascist organisation, etc. But it’s the sneaky little two- and three-letter words that have completely changed the game. Ew is now a word, as is ze. We regulars were familiar with zo (a Tibetan breed of cattle) and za (slang for pizza) but we used to sneer our heads off at anyone who tried ze. No longer. And zen is now a word, which it wasn’t before, and OK is suddenly OK. There is also a new u-less q word – qapik – which is apparently a type of currency in Azerbaijan. Words that have q without u are always precious – qi, qat and qadi above all, but also qanat, qibla, qindar. Oh, don’t ask what they mean! That’s always the mark of a Scrabble amateur, wanting to know what words MEAN. We serious players just learn the list – but now we have to start all over again.
Men of God with words of cricket
A couple of weeks ago I went to a friend’s funeral in a beautiful country church. Everything was perfect – wicker coffin, familiar hymns, a brilliant eulogy by her elder son which exactly captured Jude’s mischievous wit. And then the vicar gave his sermon. He opted to talk at length about cricket. Apparently England had just won some major tournament, which he recounted in detail before urging us all to “Rejoice!” Jude’s passions were horses and dogs. I never once, in all the 50 years I knew her, heard her mention cricket. Obviously the vicar didn’t know Jude but surely he could have found something more appropriate to talk about. How about God?
But there seems to be a rule now that vicars are not allowed to talk about God. I hear vicars talking every day, because I listen to the Today programme, and invariably get trapped into hearing “Thought for the Day”. Vicars on that slot will talk about anything under the sun except God. They particularly like talking about sports fixtures or Strictly Come Dancing because they think it makes them seem like ordinary blokes. But they are not there to be ordinary blokes – they are there to be specialists and their speciality is meant to be God. We don’t expect weather presenters to talk about EastEnders, or sports presenters to talk about gardening, so why should vicars think they can talk about anything they fancy? Air time is precious. Stick to God.
This article appears in the 14 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy