Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

With my book about country life still ticking over nicely at Books Books Books in Tenbury Wells, which is not quite the same as Hatchards in Piccadilly, but a fine establishment all the same, and with this column now in its fifth year, I have been imbued with a Z-list celebrity in these parts, which would be even more negligible if there were more letters in the alphabet.

Nevertheless, invitations to open things, speak at things, present things and judge things do fairly frequently plop on to the doormat, competing with our young West Highland terrier Bonnie, who also has a habit of plopping on the doormat.

Anyway, I'm enough of an egotist to enjoy being asked, while also being enough of a realist to know that an invitation to dig the first sod at a new eco-park, just outside Ludlow, is unlikely to be followed any time soon by a request to pose with my family in the pages of Hello! magazine. Still, you have to take these things seriously.

I realised that three years ago, when I was asked to give a talk to the Ludlow branch of the Women's Institute. The rather fierce secretary called to ask what my fee might be. "Erm, how about a cake?" I said. "A cake?" she said, in exactly the same tone of voice as Dame Edith Evans once said, "A handbag?" It was clearly most irregular to ask for a cake.

"We don't just make cakes, you know," she said, indignantly. "Oh, I know," I said. "Well, what sort of cake?" she asked.

"Erm, how about a chocolate cake?" I ventured, rather timidly. "A chocolate cake?" she said, still in Lady Bracknell mode.

When the call came for me to cut the new eco-park's first sod, the boot was on the other foot. "A sod?" I said, wondering also what an eco-park was, but not quite daring to ask.

"Yes," said the cheerful woman at the other end of the phone. It turned out that the sod-cutting ceremony was to be the culmination of the "Magnalonga", a walk inspired by an annual event in Ludlow's twin town of San Pietro, near Verona.

The idea is that the walkers, of whom there were about 500 this year, stop every now and then at points along the way, where they sample local produce. It all fits in nicely with Ludlow's status as Britain's first representative in the international Slow Food movement, a reaction to fast food, and a campaign I wholeheartedly endorse.

Replete not only with local raspberries, Little Hereford cheese and Butford Farm cider, but also a sense of my own importance, I prepared a little speech to make while standing with my foot on the ceremonial spade.

I was going to say that I hoped the honour of digging the first sod might entitle me to consider myself the honorary "First Sod" of Ludlow.

That, I felt sure, would get a nice titter, and perhaps even a round of applause. But with no microphone, and participants in the Magnalonga arriving in dribs and drabs, it quickly became clear that my First Sod joke would be lost on the breeze.

Moreover, nobody was the slightest bit interested in some eejit digging a small square of turf - not when they'd just walked six miles and worked up a serious thirst. I wasn't even the only one cutting the sod. The Mayor of Ludlow had also been invited, and had arrived looking most distinguished in his splendid ceremonial robes, which is how it came to pass that one man looking like an 18th-century alderman, and another man in a battered waxed jacket and wellies, stood with a foot each on a spade while a boy of about 10 years old took their photograph with a disposable camera.

I'm still not sure who the boy was. I don't think he was with the Shropshire Star. Perhaps he was with the mayor.

Whatever, about three weeks later I was invited to present a prize to the winner of a short-story competition, which I had already helped to judge, organised by the estimable committee of the Ludlow Food Festival.

Again, I arrived with chest puffed out, ready to make a short, pithy speech. Again, my pith was not required. I wonder what it's like being a Y-list celebrity?

'Tales of the Country', by Brian Viner, is out now in paperback (Simon & Schuster £7.99)

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