Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

It was our friend John H's 70-somethingth birthday last week, so he and his partner, John C, took a bunch of us out to celebrate. I've written it before, but it bears repeating that shortly before we moved from London to Herefordshire, a friend who had emigrated from Chiswick to a hamlet near Stroud told me that in the country we should expect to become part of a much less homogenous social circle. Her friends in London had all been more or less like her, she said, whereas in rural Gloucestershire she had friends of all ages, from farmhands to knights of the realm, from fellow former city-dwellers to born-and-bred country folk for whom the ugly spectre of relentlessly frenetic urban living was exemplified by Cirencester.

Our social life has followed precisely the same course, for which we give thanks on a regular basis, not least at the Venture In restaurant in Ombersley last Tuesday, where we assembled for lunch with the Johns.

We had journeyed across the Worcestershire border to Ombersley because it is the delightful village where John H grew up, and he wanted to introduce us to the Venture In, which he knew during his wartime childhood as Mr Morrison's bicycle shop. Apparently, local children got an ice-cream there once a week on a Wednesday, although that was far from the sweetest of John H's wartime experiences in Ombersley, as we shall see.

Whether the curious phenomenon of getting ice-cream from a bike shop was something to do with there being a war on, I'm not sure. As was pointed out by another guest, Brian (Johns and Brians rather confusingly constituting two-thirds of the men around the table), he gets his fruit cake from the butcher and his socks from the farm shop. It's a country thing, as much as a war thing.

Very much a war thing, however, was the presence in the stables at Ombersley Court, home of Lord Sandys and the locality's big house, of Britain's ceremonial state carriages. They had been moved from London for safe-keeping, but if the people in charge of re-locating them had known what was to become of them at Ombersley Court, they might very well have chosen to risk whatever the Luftwaffe could throw their way.

John, who lived above the stables because his father was chauffeur to Lord Sandys, told us that he spent much of his boyhood playing in the carriages. "I had my first sexual experience in Queen Victoria's funeral coach," he added, in a stage whisper that might have been heard in Droitwich. "The interior was all black and purple, I remember. And I still get excited when I smell mothballs."

John, who has had not one or two but three successful careers - as an actor, a teacher and a highly respected member of the clergy - is not a man to relinquish attention that he has grabbed so thrillingly. He went on to tell us that he bears no resemblance whatsoever to his late father, but has the distinctive features of one of Britain's most prominent aristocratic families. Apparently, there is a portrait of the Earl of X - who was a friend of Lord Sandys and on whom John's highly attractive but rather flighty mother used to wait at shooting parties - which could easily be of John.

It was at roughly this point that three elderly people at an adjacent table asked to be moved elsewhere because they couldn't hear each other speak, although if I had been them I would have been delighted to eavesdrop. Nor was it only John who had stories worth hearing. The subject of the carriages reminded Shelagh, another of our dear septuagenarian friends, of the story of the state banquet during Harold Macmillan's time as Prime Minister, at which he and his wife were seated alongside General and Madame de Gaulle.

"If there were one thing in the world you could have, what might it be?" Lady Dorothy Macmillan asked Mme de Gaulle, in a rather desperate conversational gambit.

"A penis," replied Madame de Gaulle, at which the table fell silent, and appalled glances were exchanged.

"Non, non," said General de Gaulle, correcting his wife's pronunciation. " 'Appiness!"