Living The Country Life: Comic relief in the vet's waiting room

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The Independent Online

Last weekend we were in London, staying with our friends Ali and Chris. During the preparation of Sunday lunch I'm afraid I did something pretty weird. As Chris was scraping the vegetable peelings into the bin, I asked whether I could take them home. For our compost bin, obviously. Even so, my wife Jane thought I'd gone mad, carefully decanting someone else's unwanted broccoli stalks into a Sainsbury's bag, then clutching it tightly as we said goodbye, like a toddler leaving a birthday party. But that's what having a compost bin does for you, or at any rate what it does for me.

Of course, we could have had one when we too lived in London, except that it would have taken up a quarter of the garden. Here in Herefordshire, we have two enormous bins tucked away in a remote corner of the orchard: one for pony poo, the other for kitchen waste. A local reptile expert has excitingly told us that we will probably get slowworms wriggling around in them, so I am even able to interest my sons in the business of composting. They would love to find a slowworm.

We might as well add reptiles to the menagerie; we seem to have most other forms of animal life about the place. Again, this is in stark contrast with our former existence in London, when replacing the water in the goldfish bowl constituted a hard morning's mucking-out.

For the record, as well as for Mrs Bell of Highgate, who from time to time sends me decidedly unfriendly letters, let me state that I am not obsessed with comparing my 15-year life in London with my life in the sticks. But sometimes it's a hard comparison to avoid, especially when we've been back to the city, staying with friends who live in our old street.

That is a truly eerie experience, and a potent reminder of the things we left behind, like shops. On Sunday morning in London N8 I strolled round the corner to buy a newspaper and some fresh croissants; here, our Sunday delivery service has just been discontinued, and if I set off for some fresh croissants I'd need a stout pair of walking boots and a compass. And they'd be stale by the time I got them home, around mid-evening on Tuesday.

So there are pros and cons to moving away from a metropolis, pros and cons even within the pros and cons. For instance, there is no doubt that living in the country extends childhood. This can be a positive thing; our children play happily for hours in the fields and woods. And there is accordingly less acquisitiveness in the country; with dens to make and streams to dam, the allure of the Sony PlayStation diminishes. But there are negatives too; until our kids can drive they will be almost wholly reliant on us to get them anywhere. And the pleasures of den-making might recede when they hit their teens. I hope so, anyway. I don't want Davy Crockett for a son.

As for the real rites of passage, I imagine they happen at roughly the same age, wherever children live. Our 10-year-old daughter Eleanor came home from school today fretfully demanding to be told the truth about Father Christmas. So we told her, on the understanding that she doesn't spill the beans to her younger brothers. But if there are any spilled beans, they're going straight into the compost-shredder that I very much hope Santa brings me.

Step forward, Mr Meaty

Speaking about pros and cons, taking pets to the veterinary surgery is full of them. There are the bills, which is a big con. But there is also the comedy, which is a huge pro. I sometimes wonder why there haven't been more television sitcoms set in veterinary surgeries.

The excellent Simon Nye wrote one, as I recall, but it was conceived for an American network and never really took off here. Nor for that matter, did it really take off there. It was about a vet who hated animals and Nye told me once that he had sent the scripts to Los Angeles, only for an NBC producer to call saying, "We love it, but we'd like him to be a guy who really likes animals."

In a similar vein, I interviewed John Cleese and he recalled having a three-day meeting between American TV executives who were working out how to adapt Fawlty Towers. Eventually one emerged to tell Cleese: "We've decided to take the Basil character out."

Anyway, as far as telly is concerned, maybe All Creatures Great and Small extracted all the comic potential from a vet's life in a small market town. I don't think so, though; Jane rarely comes back from the surgery in Leominster without a funny tale to tell.

Last week she took along our kitten, Sooty, for his vaccination. She registered him with the receptionist and sat in the waiting-room. Eventually the vet emerged, checked his list, and called out "Sooty Viner". Jane glanced around. The other customers were not remotely amused. Nor was the vet.

Apparently, the tendency to treat a pet as a member of the family right down to the surname is a relatively new development in veterinary customer relations. Until quite recently, the vet would call out the name of the owner, not the pet, which confused our friend James, who thought he was being asked to identify his cat when the receptionist said "name please".

"Meaty," replied James, and duly spent the next 45 minutes as "Mr Meaty". Perhaps he should have introduced the cat as James.