Tales of the Country: Am I marching?

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The Independent Online

Hardly a day goes by here in rural Herefordshire without someone saying to me, "Are you marching?" The reference, of course, is to Sunday's extravaganza in London, the subject of fierce placards up and down the A44 and doubtless elsewhere, exhorting folk to "March for Liberty and Livelihood!"

Hardly a day goes by here in rural Herefordshire without someone saying to me, "Are you marching?" The reference, of course, is to Sunday's extravaganza in London, the subject of fierce placards up and down the A44 and doubtless elsewhere, exhorting folk to "March for Liberty and Livelihood!"

But nobody ever says, "Are you marching to save countryside pursuits?" or "Are you going to the big Liberty and Livelihood march in London on Sunday?" They just say, "Are you marching?" And after Sunday they will say, "Did you march?" No elaboration is needed. Which reminds me of the year I spent living in the American Deep South, meeting heroes of the civil rights movement, such as Xernona Clayton, who one morning drove Martin Luther King to Atlanta Airport to catch a flight to Memphis, a trip from which he never returned. Those people talked in the same way. They didn't march for civil rights, they just marched. Or in Clayton's case, didn't. "I never marched," she told me. "I was the bail bondsman. I used to get Dr King and the others out of jail. All the others marched, but not me."

It might seem melodramatic to compare Sunday's march with the civil rights marches of the Sixties, but not to those pulling on their waxed jackets and tweed caps. To them, civil rights is precisely what it's all about. "We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream," declared Martin Luther King, in his "I have a dream" speech in Washington DC. Rousing rhetoric like that will not be deemed over the top by Sunday's corduroy army. If Iain Duncan Smith wants an ovation in Hyde Park, he just needs to pick some evocative countryside metaphors, suggesting perhaps that the river of righteousness has burst its banks, and they are being carried along on the flood water.

So you can imagine how I feel when I have to say no, I am not marching. I feel as though I am betraying my new brethren, and I can't even claim to be their bail bondsman. I tell them – courting accusations of weedy complacency from both sides of the great wellied divide – that I simply can't get that worked up about fox-hunting. And they, in turn, tell me that it's not about fox-hunting.

Or so I learnt on Friday, when we went to our first Herefordshire dinner party (requiring our first Herefordshire baby-sitter; disappointingly, the rates are just the same as they were in north London. I had been entertaining happy notions of paying £2.50 an hour, possibly supplemented by a generous plate of Wagon Wheels, but ended up shelling out the usual 30 quid). Our hosts were my old university friend Rupert (who as a student was known only as Bill, and is now known only as Rupert, which gets very confusing for me, but that's another story) and his lovely wife, Louise, who have been immensely kind to us since we moved up here, and wanted to introduce us to their friends.

One such was Nick, an engagingly garrulous old Etonian, who inevitably asked me, "Are you marching?" He then explained that he's marching not in support of hunting, but as a protest against the Government for its singularly inept handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis. I said that as saddened as I was by foot-and-mouth, I didn't have desperately strong feelings about that, either. Quite rightly, Nick looked at me as if I'd passed the port in the wrong direction.

So I have given myself until the next dinner party we go to, to develop a robust opinion about a rural issue. My worry is that I will choose an issue that nobody else gives a toss about, that I will be hammering on the table in indignation at the really quite appalling practice of stapling labels to bullocks' ears, bearing an impersonal number rather than a nice name like Bartholomew, and everyone will stare at me in bewilderment, before turning to their neighbour, saying, "So, did you march?"

Nights on the town

When we lived in London, Jane used to go out for a meal every month or so with her good mates Rebecca, Kirsten, Andrea and Ali. These are attractive women of great style who, on nights out and very possibly nights in, wear only black, with an occasional reckless foray into dark grey.

Together, they look like a convention of glamorous cat-burglars, which is the image that comes to mind whenever urban friends poke fun at the countryside dress code, asking whether I have my Barbour yet, my green wellies, my flat cap? I am as capable as anyone of making glib generalisations about clothes (see reflections, left, on Sunday's march), but let no smug metropolitan assume that predictable attire is confined to the country-dweller.

On the other hand, certain of our friends' preconceptions about country life have come to pass. Rebecca, Kirsten, Andrea and Ali knew that even if Jane started going on girls' nights out in Herefordshire, they would not be as raucous as theirs. So how fitting it was that last Wednesday, on the very night that the Crouch End girls went out to celebrate Andrea's birthday in no doubt rollicking fashion, Jane was invited by Mrs O – from whom we bought our house and who is delightful, young at heart, and only a tad past her 60th birthday – to an Aga cookery class in Ledbury.

She came back, if not as squiffy as after a night at Pradera tapas bar on Hornsey High Street, at least brimming with excitement at the possibilities of the Aga. The woman who gave the demonstration – a home economics teacher from Cirencester – showed how you can fry an egg directly on the hot plate, eliciting a gasp from her audience when she then closed the hot plate lid over the egg.

I'll return in future weeks to our Damascene conversion to the Aga; our friends Dominic and Linda have always sworn by theirs, but we were never convinced, not even when Dominic recommended a short burst in the lower oven for a still-breathing frozen baby robin dragged in by the cat.

In the meantime, never mind tapas and copious Rioja, an Aga and a home economics teacher is all you need for a cracking night out hereabouts. And for the record, Jane, obviously feeling liberated, wore red.

Crying fowl

The Ludlow Food Festival at the weekend was everything we had hoped it would be – lots of restrained middle-class merriment and excellent chutneys. We snapped up some interesting specimens for our herb garden, including mint with a hint of lime and rosemary with a hint of ginger, sold to us by Basil with a hint of Old Spice.

We also came very close to buying a few speckledy hens at £7.50 apiece, except that we had the dog with us and didn't want the journey home to turn into a scene from Apocalypse Now. The woman selling the hens assured us that each one would lay an average of 260 lovely little dark-brown eggs a year, and added that speckledys (speckledies?) are mild-mannered creatures that are ideal for handling by children.

So we have started checking out hen houses, including the Chatsworth and Castle Howard of the hen-house world, sold by a company called Animal Arcs, with whom we may have to arrange some sort of mortgage. But we are fairly determined to bring some speckledy hens into the fold. All we need now is for our children to turn into mild-mannered creatures ideal for handling by adults, and our rural idyll will be just about complete.