Living the country life: Kenneth Grahame in a flat cap

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People don't pop in any more. When I was a child, friends and neighbours were forever popping in. Now, the pop-in seems to be a thing of the past. These days, coffee and biscuits with a friend or neighbour is almost always prefaced by a phone call, if not several, and a complex set of hieroglyphics on the kitchen calendar. It doesn't help that for most of our friends and even our neighbours, we are a car journey away. A car journey requiring snow tyres, in some cases. There's not much spontaneity in the countryside. But then there wasn't much in the city, either. I suppose the pop-in is a casualty of frenetic modern living.

The one person who does pop in is our friendly local pest control guru, Maurice O'Grady. I use the word guru calculatedly. Maurice is the Maharishi of pest control. He exudes wisdom, not to mention witty anecdotal evidence in favour of storing chicken-feed in a metal rather than a plastic dustbin.

Some of the more enjoyable mornings I have had in the past 12 months have revolved around Maurice's pop-ins. Jane calls me down from my office with the happy news that "Maurice is here" and we sit around the kitchen table drinking tea and listening to his tales of rat, mole and badger infestation.

He's like Kenneth Grahame in a flat cap. Last week he told us about a woman in a house near here - although not too near, I'm pleased to say - who heard splashing coming from the bathroom. She had just run a bath and assumed that she had forgotten to turn the taps off. But it turned out to be a rat doing lengths.

Anyway, I asked Maurice if he had had a nice Christmas and New Year, and he told us that he and his wife had spent two weeks at a five-star hotel in Tunisia, and had a wonderful holiday. Was it the food he enthused about? The service? The spa facilities? No, it was the cockroaches. There was an abundance of German cockroaches there, apparently, and he had a fabulous time watching them. He cheerfully pointed them out to the holiday rep who must have cursed her luck at having Maurice in the party, especially as the German cockroach, to the untutored eye, looks like a common fly. "She didn't seem to want to know," he said, ruefully.

Who took home the village idiot?

Apart from a cup of tea with Maurice O'Grady (see above), one of the most enjoyable ways of spending a morning hereabouts is at Leominster's venerable auction house, Brightwells. Last Wednesday, Brightwells conducted an auction of toys, dolls and bears. I had hoped to go but in the end had to be elsewhere, the cause of considerable regret, as I had identified in the catalogue a piece I very much wanted. It was item 328, described as "a village idiot in smock and carrying stick, very good condition". The estimate was £40-£60, which seemed like a bargain for a village idiot in very good condition. I hope he went to a good home.

School ... the best years of our lives

Our 10-year-old daughter Eleanor has just been offered a place at a school in Hereford, for which she had to sit an exam and be interviewed. Some of her old school mates in London have also been doing the exam-and-interview thing, but being London, it is intensely competitive and therefore much more rigorous. One girl was asked what she thought of the Iraq war. Should 10-year-olds be expected to have a coherent view on the Iraq war? After all, it is beyond quite a few politicians.

Eleanor, I'm pleased to say, was asked more sensible questions, such as one about the book she was reading. The book I'm reading, to go off on a tangent, is The Most of SJ Perelman, a collection of writing by the late American humorist. One series of articles concerns the move he and his family made from New York to the backwoods of eastern Pennsylvania, where he spent most of his time pining for the city, and wrote: "A corner delicatessen at dusk is more exciting than any rainbow."

I might eventually succumb to the same longings, but for now, I favour Herefordshire's stupendous rainbows over corner delis at dusk. And it is a relief not to be overwhelmed by the angst about secondary education that grips the London middle classes. We have had our moments of angst - not least when Eleanor was revising for her entrance exam and some of the maths questions stumped us as much as her - but on the whole it has been a painless process.

Which is more than be said for the interview I endured when I was 10. Though they could scarcely have afforded the fees, my parents put me down for Merchant Taylor's in Crosby. I passed the exam and was then interviewed by the headmaster, more Severus Snape than Albus Dumbledore. He invited me to select an object from a table and talk about it for two minutes. I chose an orange. "An orange is a fruit with pips," I began. "And what are pips made of?" asked the headmaster. I was silenced, and silent I remained. A place was not offered. The emotional scars finally healed about three years ago.

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