Alarums! An excursion into reality

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Just before it was time to go to the Cotswolds, I let my bath overflow and the water set off the fire alarms. Don't ask. All you need to know is that, once the bells go off, you can't stop them until Warren the couturier comes back from his hols.

So I cursed them, left them ringing and went to the Cotswolds anyway, via a slow rattling train, wittily called "Turbo", and then a taxi, driven by a grumpy fat man who passed the 20-minute drive to the Cotswold hamlet by slagging off other motorists ("Stupid bastard. Oi'd loike to rip his throat ite"), local residents ("Bloke who lives in that hice is a roite idiot, rackon e was kicked in th'ead boy an 'orse") or, on deserted patches of road, motorists or residents long gone, dead or moved away ("Shows his face rind here again, 'e'll be done over and no mistake").

Presently, having run out of harsh words, he decanted me in the sort of village which the words "Cotswolds Village" are designed to summon up in the mind's eye of Japanese tourists or commercial artists. It was, you might say, heaven on earth, and so exactly matched to my hopes and expectations that I immediately became a better person, sprinkled with hyssop and washed whiter than snow. It was like having a soul transplant. I let myself into my thatched and borrowed cottage, lit the log fire, washed behind my ears and got an early night, rising the following day at dawn for a couple of hours' writing in peace and blissful silence before setting off across the green to investigate further.

At first sight, all was as it should be. Smoke rose from the chimneys into the cold clear air. Dogs barked, but only within reason. Children were singing in the village school. You'd not have been surprised if a damnable ghost had showed up, dragging Scrooge along to be taught a lesson. I felt the horrors of urban life draining away: the anxiety, the constant noise, the incessant drivelling ostinato of unspoken threat that comes from living with 10 million strangers, the sickening virus of envy, spite and affronted despair which comes from reading too many newspapers. If only I lived here (I thought) I would be happy, diligent and productive, disciplined and shipshape as a man in a boat.

And then there was the pub, just as it should be, the sort of pub of which generations of liverish, blackened Englishmen had dreamed as they baked under alien suns, subduing the natives and administering the colonies. Good beer, oak beams, an open fire, the murmur of conversation and the clink of glasses. No "interior designer" from a profit-motivated brewery giant had been let loose to theme the place; it had just happened, over the space of a couple of centuries. But now it had been bought, just a few weeks ago, by a distant brewery. I asked the brought-in manager - a pale, thin, urban man in a badly-fitting suit - what they were planning to do with it. "Nothing," he said. "We'll be leaving it much as it is. It's good for business. Traditions. You should see the tourists in the summer! Queuing out of the door, they are!"

Relieved, I sucked down my pint of Broadside Bitter and slunk quickly back across the green, trying to keep reality at bay. But when I went back the next day, things were on the move. There beside the bar was a big cardboard box saying TEAC ARC300 and another one saying PIONEER. A man was hammering something in the ceiling. "Music system," said the manager.

"I'm not sure that's a good idea," I said.

"Well," he said, "it does get a bit quiet in here, sometimes."

I sat down with my beer, waiting, like a cornered rat. I didn't have long to wait. After 10 minutes, there was a loud click, and Frank Sinatra's clogged, talcum-powder voice began to sing about Chicago, to the accompaniment of jittery, shrieking brass. His windy inanities filled the bar. "People have the time of their life," he gargled, "I saw a man who danced with his wife," but I wondered what this fatuous, superannuated drivel had to do with the village or its people or its past, and whether it was what people wanted to hear when they came here, and why we should have to listen to it just because some white-faced manager on a brewery salary thought it was a good idea. I told myself that to him, adrift in the present like all the children of that hellish marriage between Shirley Williams and Mr Murdoch, Ol' Blue-Eyes was as venerable an antique as the 17th-century village itself; both existed in The Old Days and there was no distinction to be made between them.

But I couldn't fool myself. I knew the truth. I knew the barman was right. I knew what was wrong with its ... getting a bit quiet in here sometimes. If it got too quiet for too long, you could no longer fool yourself that the peace and self-containment of the village was anything other than an illusion, funded by the weekenders who had "bought into" the idyll at the expense of the local people, who could no longer afford to live there. It was a film-set, peaceful in the week, rumbling and squawking each weekend with Volvos and Shoguns, with well-to-do pharmaceuticals executives and their braying, neatly-Barboured wives ("Jessica? Tell Tansy to come in now, or the polenta will be cold!"), and I was nothing more than a walk-on, fooling myself that one day I would be the star, not of the movie but of the real thing.

I sat it out for a few more days but every time I looked out on the green it seemed to have shrivelled and scorched a bit more, like a scene-canvas in a burning theatre. Eventually I got cross and sad, put a curse on the pub, rang up the grumpy fat man and headed back to the Turbo and London.

The alarm bells were still ringing when I got home, but I didn't mind. They had done their best, and given me a warning, just as they were meant to do. It was my own fault for not realising what they were warning me against. !