I was talking to a man last week who works for the National Trust and asked him why everyone who knows anything about it always seems to get so cross with the National Trust. Why, even Jeremy Paxman had got hot under the collar last Monday on Start The Week while interviewing the director of the National Trust, fuming about their various misdeeds and high-handed attitudes. Why did the National Trust produce this reaction?
My friend looked round carefully and licked his lips before replying.
"Well," he said, "I think the clue to it is that not only has the National Trust inherited many of the finest aristocratic properties of England, it has also taken over most of the high-handed and dictatorial attitudes that made the aristocracy possible in the first place. Like Robert Mugabe, it is nominally answerable to its voting members, but like Robert Mugabe..."
At this point there was a whir and a thud, and my friend fell forward lifeless. An arrow was sticking out of his back. On the shaft was tied a piece of paper. I unrolled it and read the following message:
"So perish all enemies and critics of the National Trust."
Well, that was clear enough. Meddle with the National Trust and it meddles back. So I left my friend lying where he was and went on my way to think nice thoughts about the National Trust, which was obviously the secret of long life. Not that the National Trust itself is entirely sure about the secret of long life – it was also in the news last week because it had to decide whether ancient dusty books in ancient dusty National Trust houses should be dusted or not – whether, in fact, dust helps preserve things or helps destroy things. The Trust, humble for once, simply didn't know.
Some commentators predictably came up with Quentin Crisp's dictum that you should leave the dust undisturbed. "I have a message of hope for the housewives of England," he had said. "After four years it doesn't get any worse." But I have always secretly doubted the truth of this ever since learning the one vital truth about dust, which is that dust in houses is almost entirely made up of dead human skin. The way our bodies work, apparently, is to replace old cells with new cells the whole time. I once learnt from a book on science, or perhaps from Reader's Digest, that nothing in our bodies stays there for longer than seven years, and that you and I and all of us are about as authentic as those steam railway engines which have been so restored that not a single part of them is the original bit put in at Swindon in 1925.
And when the old cells drop off us, they become dust. So dust, being dead human skin, doesn't stop getting worse after four years. The housewives of England, and Quentin Crisp, when he was alive, go on shedding old skin cells in perpetuity, not just for four years.
There are other implications of this (dust = human skin) equation.
One is that when a clergyman intones "dust to dust" at a burial, he is uttering it at precisely the moment that the body has stopped producing dust.
Another is that if the National Trust is seriously worried about dust, the one sure way to avoid it being produced on site is to bar people from its properties altogether, which may be what it really wants to do, deep down.
Perhaps more worrying is the idea that whenever we get out a vacuum cleaner or dustpan and brush, the stuff we are sucking and shovelling up is us. The little flecks of grey that accumulate under the bed and round the bathroom and in the corners, used to be part of us. The stuff we get out of the vacuum cleaner bag and throw in the dustbin is dead people.
Still, this also means that the dust which lies so thickly in National Trust libraries, and may or may not help to preserve the books, is not just dust – it's the remains of the people who used to use those books. And that means a third option is open to the National Trust. You don't have to leave the dust there. You don't have to clean it off and throw it away. You can also remove it and put it in jars for sale in National Trust shops, as genuine bottled ancestor or aristocrat.
And at last there will be a realistic rival to chutney.