Alex James: The Great Escape

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The Independent Online

It was about 15 years ago. I was tearing around Manhattan in the middle of the night with the keyboard player from Blondie and a lady with huge bosoms. It was just another day at the office of rock'n'roll. We'd all met about an hour before and now we were going somewhere in his car, very fast. He was enjoying the empty streets, squeaking the tyres, driving with purpose and glee.

"How come you've got a such a crap car, Jimmy?" I said. I had to ask. I thought he'd have a helicopter.

"Look at me," he said with a huge grin. "Look at me when I say this. Don't do what I do, do what I say. Buy land. Buy buildings. They don't go away."

I don't know why I ignored all the professional advice and took my cue from a man who'd sold 100 million records and yet was driving a back-firing banger, but when we first looked at buying this farm his words came back to me and we spent all our money on it, on land and buildings.

Why buy land? What is a field anyway? It's a blank canvas, really, anything you want it to be. It's an inkblot that reflects the beholder.

I knew I could trust Jimmy. The price of land has gone up. It's as if people have suddenly begun to recognise the infinite beauty of the English landscape and want a piece of the action. It stands to reason, a chunk of land is a slice of the ultimate cake. It's a "passion investment".

Actually, that's not what's driving the price up at all. It's got more to do with inheritance tax not being levied on farms. The countryside has become a kind of tax haven for dead people. It's fast becoming a zombie state directed from beyond the grave.

Despite regular grants from Brussels, and what amounts to a lump sum when you die, it's hard to make money out of owning land. It takes time. For me that's been the good thing about it. The way we spend our time is more important than the way we spend our money.

Living here has given me something to do, something that absorbs me, and after 20 years in the rock'n'roll fast lane, I was going to take some absorbing. I can't help thinking that those who are buying land to make their deaths tax-effective have missed the point of life.

My wife and I have been coming at it from a different angle. We've been pretty skint since we arrived here. I work harder than ever. There are always at least three emergencies, two traumas and a leak in progress, and usually a chicken unaccounted for. I am always worried about something, but existential angst left me the day we got the keys.

You've got to live a little before you die. I think that was Jimmy's message. Although he never said it, it was implicit in the late-night Manhattan safari, and his smile. I've decided to buy a three-wheeler.

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