Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

A few weeks ago I got a long letter from a man I'll call Mr Owen. He had read my book, Tales of the Country, about our first 12 months of family life out here in north Herefordshire, and started by saying how much it had made him laugh, so I settled down to read the rest of his letter with a smile.

It's always nice to have your ego stroked, especially on a cold January morning. It quickly became clear, though, that stroking my ego was far from Mr Owen's intention. He had some grievances to get off his chest, the most nagging of which concerned our decision to send our children not to the primary school in the nearest village, three miles away, but to another primary school, 11 miles away.

It was no wonder, he thundered, that rural communities were losing facilities such as schools and shops. People like me were to blame, wanting to live in the country without being of the country. His letter got nastier and nastier, as if in the process of writing it he got increasingly worked up. Heaven knows what sort of letter he'd have written if my book hadn't made him laugh quite so much.

I replied straight away. If you don't reply to unpleasant letters immediately, I have learnt, then you find yourself composing responses at all hours of day and night, when your mind should be on other matters. "Dear Mr Owen, thank you for your letter of January 18," is not what you want to be thinking when you are helping your children with their homework, for example, still less when you are enjoying a romantic moment with your wife. You can get into trouble if you start muttering something about a Mr Owen.

Anyway, I reiterated what I had already written in the book, that we would have liked to send our kids to the nearest school - not least for our own convenience - but, having taken them out of a large urban school in London, we felt that it would intensify their feelings of dislocation suddenly to find themselves at a tiny village primary with only 60 pupils and a span of ages in each class. Therefore we looked for somewhere bigger, and were lucky enough to find a fine school, another state primary, with places available.

They had been extremely happy there, I added, not that I felt inclined to justify our educational choices to him. But of course you can't have your cake and eat it; it's not nice when strangers are judgmental about you, but if you write a newspaper column about your life, and subsequently a book, then it's an occupational hazard.

Whatever, I thought about Mr Owen again the other night when we took the children to the Assembly Rooms in Ludlow to see March of the Penguins. He had also expressed some agitation because in my book I had written about going to the cinema 20-odd miles away in Worcester. Was I not aware, he wrote, that there are cinemas in Hereford and Tenbury, closer to where we live? The more I think about his letter, the more I think he might be slightly deranged. Why should it matter to him where we go to the cinema? As it happens, Ludlow is our favourite place to see films. In the Assembly Rooms there is a most genteel man selling ice-creams in the auditorium. It's very civilised.

As for March of the Penguins, I confess that I didn't think it any better than any old Survival Special or Wildlife on One, although it was nice to have an excuse to watch a wildlife documentary from beginning to end, without various members of the family drifting off to make a cup of tea or have a go on the latest PlayStation game. The worst thing about it is Morgan Freeman's commentary, which is sugary and sanitised and altogether too American for those of us who know that penguins don't really fall in love, at least not with a 40-piece orchestra in attendance. Nor do Morgan Freeman's penguins die, they simply "fade away". And sex is another unmentionable. I wanted to know where the male penguin's penis was, and I'm sure David Attenborough would have given it to me straight.

Still, it was sweet to see how much care penguins take of their young. And they get to do so without any other penguins bawling them out for making the wrong educational choices, lucky creatures.