THE SUZI FEAY COLUMN
OVER the last four months or so, my feet have sprouted strange lumps, bumps and knobbles. This after a life spent in irreproachably sensible footwear, in Doc Marten's, loafers, trainers, moccasins, baseball boots and pumps. Bathtime meant pumice stones, peppermint foot lotion and giant nail clippers, because the vision of my grandmother's gnarled and twisted hooves was a great spur to preventative foot-care. Each big toe was slanted over at 45 degrees; sometimes her shoes had to be slit to accommodate swollen joints the size of tangerines, the legacy of a youth spent dancing in stillettos. They would probably have rendered her extremely attractive in turn-of-the-century China but to me they were a Dreadful Warning.

My feet were never a fetishist's delight, but they were at least the right shape. Now they look like Darcey Bussell's, which would be fine if the rest of me did, too. Perhaps, like Vicky in The Red Shoes (The Red Feet in my case), my bunions are off dancing while my head's in dreams, condemned painfully to frolic among the phantasmagoria of the night.

The family were quite convinced I was going to be the next Pavlova when I started ballet lessons at four. There's a dim memory of my party-turn dressed as a gypsy with shawl and tin tambourine, and a more focused one of mum cursing as she wrestled, trying to attach a strip of broderie anglaise to my red leotard. Ballet lessons, even for such tinies, are more boot camp than charm school. All that curtseying, sitting cross-legged and lining up on command while a huge woman prods your feet with her stick. Twenty pairs of big eyes would fill with tears as Madame stalked along the rows of little girls and boys. Most perverse of all was the insistence that we smile through this torture (very good training for life, this ballet). My lips were stretched back to my earlobes but I kept them clamped shut despite fierce hisses of "Teeth!"

My Terpsichorean dreams ended before I was in double figures, though after that I used to cut a dash in the gym when an accident on a shiny floor resulted in the discovery that I could do the splits. Now even this has gone, and I totter along, wondering what yoga exercises there are for bent toes and worrying about the gelatin coating on vitamin capsules. It's Spring, it's the end of the century: no wonder we all feel so unsettled. Friends are changing their wicked ways; one pal has given up his job as an accountant to become an osteopath (or is it chiropractor?). Now he's lean, glossy and shaggy, like an obscenely healthy labrador, and I bet his feet don't have bumps.

On a recent trip up country I reconnected with my tree-hugging friend, with his wild elf-locks and wise nature lore (it's like being pals with Gandalf). Filofax-less, he's the busiest lad in the land. Last year we had to book up four months in advance to spend a weekend with him, what with "sorry, climbing in the Cairngorms ... Rockies ... Lake District ... Himalayas ... walking along Offa's Dyke ... Hadrian's Wall ... camping ... bivouacking ... yomping." Then there are the girlfriends, always in impossibly far-flung locations; I like to imagine him setting out like a Knight-Errant for his Lady.

But Paradise is going pear-shaped, too. His new gig is hanging out in copses waiting for poachers. Far from the amiable "one for the pot" lurcher of legend, today's poacher relaxes from a bit of house-breaking, ram-raiding and mugging by beating badgers to death with shovels. Our friend told us exciting stories about high-speed chases, confrontations on lonely lanes, and cornered poachers piling out of their pick-up trucks flailing scaffolding poles. "Goodness, are you armed?" I trembled. "I've got a telephone. I can hit them with that," said Gandalf morosely.

Another dent to my rural fantasies came on a recent trip to Bedfordshire. With a hangover registering nine on the Richter scale on the morning the sodding clocks went back, I was reduced to pleading with directory inquiries ("Get me any minicab anywhere" "we're not Talking Pages, madam") after every number I had on me had bummed. One was answered by a toddler, one was disconnected and one didn't answer. The bus-stop outside the hotel had a number to ring for Sunday buses. That was disconnected too. Finally I managed to conjure up a cab. The jolly woman who bowled over the fields to us was an ex-Londoner; had lived, as it often turns out with these stray encounters, just a few streets from us. "It took me three years to get used to the quiet here. You need a car," she said darkly. The fare, per mile, was the same as London.

Could I get used to the unthinkable quiet? Dr Johnson's famous dictum shoulders into mind: "The man who is tired of London is tired of life." Huh! Why has this saying been accorded the status of Holy Writ? He wasn't right about Bishop Berkeley, was he? "Sir, I refute him thus" indeed! OK, Big J, cop this: the Misery Line, traffic, noise, psychotic bus-drivers, teenage tourists (no manners, hardly any money), bag-snatchers, tables on the pavement in January, yobs, bombs, caffe bloody lah-tay ... Sir, I refute him thus.

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