Diary

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The Independent Online
Sitting in a deckchair under the damson trees, I declare this spot of shade a politics-free zone. And tuck into my weekend treat, the special fiction issue of the New Yorker.

This is the first product to bear the imprint of Bill Buford, the American- born ex-editor of Granta, who recrossed the Atlantic to become the New Yorker's literary and fiction editor in April. He is expected to encourage a new school of American writing into existence. But with stories from Jeanette Winterson, Ian McEwan and Paul Theroux, the magazine has a distinctly British feel - Granta in glamorous Manhattan exile.

Even one of the best pieces by an American, a description of an eight- year pursuit of Saul Bellow by his would-be biographer, James Atlas, is rooted in that ambitious little quarterly: Atlas showed his journal to Buford several years ago, who told him the courtship was much more interesting than any conventional book would be. Indeed, what makes this issue of the New Yorker special is the way it distills Buford's Granta insights into what makes writers tick.

So I ring up Bill in New York to see how he's settling in.

"Do you miss England?"

"I do. Being in America is strange. I'd reached the point after 17 years that I was more comfortable in England than here. This was a summit I didn't think I'd have to climb." A sigh. Then a chuckle. "Joining the New Yorker is like being on a spectacularly powerful luxury liner, instead of slapping around in a row-boat."

He means that the magazine takes the business of writing very seriously; and he has lots of space to fill. "This place is an editor's paradise, there are so many people just to serve you. Someone to sort out contracts, someone to do the line editing, they're most brilliant. All to ensure that the sentence is as perfect an expression as it can be. Most people in British journalism are very well educated, but a certain sloppiness can creep in."

He says that while he thinks British writers have an edge, he's been busy contacting Americans, telling them about the magazine and trying to woo them to start writing stories for it again. And he has real patronage: VS Naipaul has been dispatched to spend six months travelling from Indonesia to Iran, recording the journey in a four-part, 80,000-word account, while a new writer, Phillip Gourevitz, has been sent to sit it out in Rwanda and find out more about what is really going on than anybody else. "Except that Gourevitz is desperate to see his girlfriend. She's in Sarajevo. But they can't ring direct. So we have to keep organising telephone sex through a conference service via New York." Buford chuckles again. "God, he's very randy."

Would you define yourself by the possession of an enamelled metal object that stays hot all night? I hope not. But Midland Independent Newspapers is about to launch a glossy magazine devoted to owners of Agas. The editor, John Lamb, says there is a clubby feel to owning an Aga: it apparently means you are part of an up-market, green wellies, Range Rover set, and advertisers are just desperate to get on to your farmhouse table. With starting prices around pounds 3,000, new Agas are not cheap. But there is a downside to these cookers that the myth-makers don't tell you about. I cook on an Aga in Wales, where there is one in my mother-in-law's kitchen. We actually have an electric cooker alongside it for convenience, to grill (try making a creme brulee in an Aga) or do things that require exact temperatures (pork crackling). It also has four rings for boiling, compared with the two hotplates of the Aga. Agas are comforting because they keep kitchens warm and cosy in damp climates, as well as doing good bakes and roasts. But believe me, you can have a perfectly fulfilling life with an electric cooker. Still tempted? Well, the smartest Aga people know you can pick them up second-hand.

Old strawberry plants are on the mind of Dr David Pennell, director of the National Fruit Collection, at Brogdale, near Faversham in Kent. He and his band of devoted gardeners are waiting to see whether the Sir Joseph Paxton strawberry, one of several old varieties, has been rediscovered. Some 15 years ago, in a cost-cutting exercise, the farm's collection of strawberries and raspberries was ploughed up and destroyed (it was then owned by vandals disguised as the Ministry of Agriculture, later rescued by charity). An appeal in Country Life produced all sorts of strange strawberry cuttings, which are being coaxed into production (old country house walled gardens are an obvious source of lost varieties). Dr Pennell says that cultivated strawberries date mainly from the late 18th century, and that the Victorians went (understandably) berserk about them. I asked how his experts would identify old varieties. "You compare what is in front of you with any old descriptions or botanical illustrations. But that is the trouble. It is very subjective. It's certainly not the taste." In fact, he says modern strawberries probably taste better than old varieties. "We tend to forget how bad they used to be."

Next year he hopes to rebuild the raspberry collection. So if you happen to buy an old house with a neglected garden, look at any brambles before you send in the Rotovator.

The day of the Heal's sale arrives, and I'm drawn like a moth to a flame. But I dress with care: these are not shopping trips but social events: I always run into someone I know. Years ago, as I sat exhausted on a sofa, Richard Gott, now improbably outed as a KGB informer, but then a Guardian newspaper executive, swept past, airily remarking: "Ah, how the middle classes spend their Saturdays."

I took my nine-year-old daughter, to buy her a cut-price bedroom chair. She rejected the cosy wicker Lucy chair and all pine or wooden offerings, alighting on an austere, if elegant, black metal affair that would not look amiss in a warehouse conversion. One more example of the Kids Getting Old Syndrome. At the exit I see an old friend sitting exhausted on a sofa with a giant bag of bed linen. How working mothers spend their Saturdays.

Can't sign off without any politics after all. I've been thinking about the name John. Now this happens to be one of my favourite names, simple and biblical - I gave it to my son. But I know no other baby Johns. The name is deeply unfashionable, possibly because of its association with Fifties reading schemes: it does not appear in the Times's annual top 10 names, outgunned by Charles, James and Oliver. The question is, will the current overexposure bring a revival or - as I fear - complete extinction? Who would call a child John now?

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