They are at it as I type, out there, yelling and cursing. Tweet tweet. Whipple-whipple- whipple. Dawn barely up off its rusty knee-joints and the birds are roaring from Box Hill to Reigate Heath. Peep. Toot.
And what are the pretty birdies saying? They are saying: "Sod off!" "Oy!" "Says who?" "You and whose army?" "Mine!" "Yeah?" "Mine!"
Something must be wrong. Nothing else wakes up in such an instant, filthy, retributive mood. Lions don't awaken with their mouths open in a roar. Sheep greet each dawn with stupefied astonishment that, yet again, the sun has risen. From my window I can see rabbits, squirrels and deer, wandering around the lawns in peaceable morning affability. It's only birds that hurl themselves direct from sleep into maximum aggression.
I know how they feel. I am down here for some peace, a little freedom from people offering me work and people after my money and people trying to inquire into my affairs, catch up with me and have me thrown into chokey. And peace is what I am getting, here in this Thirties stockbroker-Tudor mansion on the edge of the North Downs. A good and generous man endowed it as a bolt-hole for writers, artists and musicians, and may the earth lie easy on his grave.
He was a remittance man, so I have been told, banished around a century ago from the family blue-bag empire - those things you used to put in the washing to make it look whiter - in Hull. The suggestion is that he was expelled for being ... well, a man's man. Musical. So. But perhaps he was simply sent away for not being a man for whom a subfusc life of Hull and blue baggery was quite enough. It's impossible to be sure. He doesn't figure in the obsequious family hagiography, and it doesn't matter. They settled some money on him and probably assumed he would head south to Rhodesia, but they were wrong. He indeed headed south - you wouldn't need much encouragement to head in any direction from Hull - but he stopped at Rickmansworth, where, in 1905, he opened his first artists' retreat. After he died, he left the house and an accompanying fortune in the hands of a Board of Trustees, who moved down here in 1964, seeking peace and seclusion from the bright lights of Rickmansworth. And last week, I came here to write.
It's a good place. You get your three square meals per day and early- morning tea to make sure that you haven't died in the night. It's quiet. You get up in the morning and go to your writing-table knowing that it will be quiet: a sheer miracle, after living in central London.
There are only two rules. Rule number one is: you must come down to breakfast. The people are congenial. Since I arrived, there has been, among others, a publisher of magic books; a distinguished music critic; a man who was once one of Europe's golden boys, now a Zen Buddhist and master of le ridicule; a man who I haven't seen for 25 years, brought up in the house next to my grandfather's; a celebrated biographer; a tiny, stone-deaf artist who takes his hearing- aid out to paint ("I can't hear the telephone. I don't care. I do the telephoning"); a famous octogenarian radio playwright; a historian-of- cartoons; and the haunting Dr Fredk Grubb, a poetical Hampstead litterateur in a pink patterned jersey and a fake-fur hat, who, like all true eccentrics, believes himself so conventional as to be almost invisible.
But there is a serpent in this Eden, in the form of the terrible rule number two: No Women. It's written in the deeds of trust and cannot be broken. No Women. There is, it's true, the enchanting Viennese housekeeper, and her staff; but they are behind the scenes and keep mostly to their domain. It is essentially a society without women, and their exclusion, while in some ways refreshing, also makes me feel insubstantial and strangely diminished.
This is nothing to do with sex. All my working life, there have been women. This newspaper is edited by a woman; I send in this column to a woman. The publisher I am down here writing a book for is a woman. Most of my editors have been women. Most of my friends are women. I married a woman. Hell's teeth, I fathered a woman. My days are filled with women, and even after just two weeks, even in the company of these congenial men, I miss them painfully, so that I long for even an hour in the company of someone, no matter what her age or shape or profession or anything else, who has more than just the one X-chromosome.
The odd thing is that working, as I do, in a delightful, intelligent, staunch, humane gynocracy is an experience that simply wasn't available to this house's founder. Men lived among men: soldiers, bankers, priests, dons, miners, men. I used to envy those days, with the strange inexplicable nostalgia that you only get for something you never knew. Now I don't. Now even the old sillies all a-twitter over the new woman canon at St Paul's seem to me desperately sad, like stiff, bitter little children who won't unbend and join in the fun.
Perhaps I have said this before, but it seems to me that, when they come to write the history of our strange, tormented century, our greatest achievement will be that we managed to begin the re-uniting of the two halves of the human race, and redress one of the most profound and stupid injustices of our mad, malevolent past.
In the meantime, there are enclaves of resistance; and here I am in one of them, working hard in rural peace, the wildlife arseing around on the lawn, the men chatting amiably at the dining-table, the sun breaking through over the Pilgrims' Way; yet each morning the birds go off like nasty gelignite and I am with them. Peep! Tweet! Geroff! Wheep-wheep! Yeah? Pip-pip-pip! Everything in the garden is rosy, but please send some women! Now! !Reuse content