Another country: The grass is greener - in the big city

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The Independent Online
When I think about returning to London, there is one image that comes to mind. It is the scene from Hitchcock's Rear Window where the entire apartment building with all its inhabitants going about their different businesses is laid out for the James Stewart character and the audience to observe. In one of the apartments, a lonely middle-aged woman is going through her lonely middle-aged routine. Recalling this image as I scan the property pages and estate agent details, I imagine myself as a tiny cog in the huge machine that is London and it scares me.

Until four years ago, I had lived in London virtually all my adult life, which is why this fear of being lost in the vast city is somewhat absurd. Most of my friends live in London or other big cities. I am perfectly able to cope with an urban jungle and country life, for all its satisfactions and pleasures, has ultimately proved too dull to sustain.

It is a myth that village life is any more intimate. People peer through your window, note your comings-and-goings - I could set my watch by the morning and evening dog-walkers - but I suspect that it takes years to become part of a village community. This year, however, two things happened which have gained me a degree of local acceptance.

First, I lost my Tonkinese cat for three days. She is young and very skittish and, one heady day in spring when the highways and byways were choked with baby rabbits, she disappeared into the woods opposite my house on a hunting jag, and no amount of calling and weeping elicited any response. The villagers, except for one miserable old bugger who told me, with evident relish, that a fox would 'have had her, torn her limb from limb, I wouldn't be surprised, were sympathetic and helped me to search.

When she turned up, unrepentant and unscathed, everyone seemed pleased and when one Sunday she followed me to church and remained for the service, mewling loudly and climbing all over the pews and the organ and washing her bottom in the aisle, the old ladies who make up the congregation could hardly contain their delight. But it was her, not me, they had taken into their hearts.

The other thing was my stint as the fortune-teller in the village fete. I suppose they thought that, as a writer, I could use my imagination. I sat for three-and-a-half hours in a green and yellow nylon tent, dispensing advice to a stream of unhappy women - which was all I could manage in the way of clairvoyance. As a result, I have acquired a degree of notoriety. Since the schools broke up, no afternoon goes by without a posse of small boys banging on the door and asking if there are any odd jobs. Last Thursday three turned up, one of whom looked familiar. I said: 'Don't I know you?

'Yes, he answered, 'You're Madame Zelda.

I moved to the country for a variety of reasons: I was going to write a book and I didn't think I could afford to go on living in London on what I would not be earning; I wanted to try country life; I wanted to change my life.

The seal of approval to my plan was given, unwittingly, by V S Naipaul's novel, The Enigma of Arrival, in which he described going to the country to write. His descriptions of the changing seasons are, predictably, exquisite and the book filled me with anticipation. What was good enough for Naipaul would certainly be good enough for me. And in many ways, it has been. I have written two books, I have tried country life and I have changed my life. Now I want to change it again.

There are many good things about the country: nature (trees, grass, birds, fields, hills, wild flowers); peace and quiet; spring and the first snowdrops; ecstatically happy cats massacring the local wildlife; free-range eggs from the place down the road; ferret racing at the village fete.

And there are a number of bad things: nature (slugs, worms, the unremitting grey of the Oxfordshire countryside between November and March); ecstatically happy cats massacring the local wildlife and leaving their owner - literally - to pick up the pieces; the complete absence of any interesting social and any - interesting or otherwise - sexual life; the unswerving Tory views of most of my middle-class neighbours; an eternity of one's own cooking - no little restaurants to pop out to; no cinemas, galleries or rock concerts; having to drive everywhere.

Television and gardening loom large. And, though I love television with a passion and always did, I realise now that it is the garden that I like, not gardening. Recently the relationship between the two - cause and effect - has become horribly apparent. I can't get rid of the ground elder; the lawn, after a summer-long diet of deluge and drought, is devoid of grass and full of thistles and dandelions, and the roses all have blight or greenfly. In the country, every silver lining has a cloud.

So roll on the bars, the Indian restaurants, the petrol fumes and the throb of the city at night - like a vast animal waiting to pounce.

(Photograph omitted)

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