On the first evening, as I went to retrieve something from the car, I spied an alarming figure emerging through the trees. It was our host, a mild-mannered philosopher, the gentlest chap you could meet, and he carried a gun - a .22 rifle with telescopic sight, night-beam and silencer. A sniper's gun, a ghastly, violent object whose sole purpose was the imminent dispatch of living things. He had, he said, been shooting rabbits which were vermin. Rupert, I said, I'm appalled. How could you - a humanist, a neoPlatonist, - even contemplate...?
So we argued awhile about the ethics of firearms (he said banning handguns would solve the problem; rifles didn't count) and went to dinner. Lots of Chateau Lynch-Bages '68, port, odiferous cheeses, coffee in the drawing room and Andrew said: "It's midnight. Coming for a stroll? We could take the rifle if that's all right with you...." Grudgingly I joined in, but purely as the voice of liberal-humanist decency. I represented the Rabbitist tendency. I was only there to see fair play.
It all changed in 15 minutes. Not 200 yards across the greensward, I said, "Let me have a look at that," and was suddenly clutching the noisome firearm like Robert de Niro in his woolly hat. The telescopic sight focused in and out of small brown bodies playing jump-the-daisies. The cross-hairs beckoned. A hunter's moon obligingly fingered the trees. "Just round this corner," hissed Rupert, "there's always stacks of the little blighters." I flattened myself against a tree, brought the sight to me eye, switched on the night-beam and swung round: "Eat lead death, motherf******s."
When the smoke cleared, I had fired 10 viciously explosive shells in a deadly salvo, missed 128 rabbits, ricocheted off a gate, a "Keep Out" sign and a Dutch barn (at least I hit that), sent a cloud of cordite like an Independence Day shadow over the whole county, woken all the slumbering brigadiers of Nottingham and lost all credibility with Friends of the Earth. I stood, stricken with remorse. Yesterday I was St Francis, now I was the greaseball in Desperado. What was happening to me?
It got worse. A week later I was in Hastings on a family seaside jaunt. My son, who is five, said he wanted to look at a lovely bow and arrow in a shop window. Ah, bless him. And where was this little toy shop? Just down this street... but it wasn't a toy shop. It was the Hastings Arms Company, a spectacular arsenal of knives, swords, kung fu flails, axes, archery equipment and crossbows. In charge was a vast and threatening goth called Bill, whose bald head and forked beard marked him out as the obvious model for a dozen Sword and Sorcery book-jackets featuring a chap called Tharg from the planet Zorbo. He introduced me to the range of swords, bloody great things with nicknames: "Barbarian", "Claymore", "Excalibur", "Lowengrin", more worryingly, "Terminator" and less worryingly, "Alfonso" (in homage to a famously violent Italian waiter?). "Seen these, 'ave yer?" Bill asked abruptly, waving a catalogue whose pages were filled with crossbows, bristling with bolts and quivers. Suddenly I was back watching William Tell played on television by Conrad Phillips when I was Max's age, entranced by the post-Christian image of a lethal crucifix. I must get one, I thought, I simply must. There's no harm in them... Then I looked up. The fantasy- comic Bill was brandishing a metre-long, twin-bladed battleaxe and bringing it down, very slowly, on his forehead, for the amusement of local bikers.
I left the shop. Jesus, that was close. Another mid-life crisis narrowly averted.
`His plays are elliptical," says Michael Billington of Harold Pinter, whose biography he has written. "They require his audience to use their imagination." So do his obiter dicta. A recent profile of the Great Pauser quotes the observation: "Any writer who pops his head over the trenches and dares to speak in this country is placed outside the pale." Now there's a whole smorgasbord of mixed metaphors and allusions - battlements, parapets, trenches, Oscar Wilde, Cromwell, western Ireland, colonial rule, Jewish ghettos.... a miniature history of conflict and injustice in 21 words.
The neighbours are up in arms in my Dulwich backyard, where Railtrack, owner of the railway at the end of our garden, has started chopping down trees. Fearing an autumn of crap excuses about "leaves on the track" it has decided to total any arboreal flora up to 10 metres from the line. Dulwich Estates, normally the most intrusive throng of local bureaucrats outside a Swiss canton, say they're not bothered. But the prospect of having to look out on a denuded embankment, hear the clash of the Paris- bound Eurostar without a softening baffle of trees, and witness the destruction of beech, ash and sycamore is too much for sensitive types like us. So we're lobbying Tessa Jowell, the local MP, and trying to get the Railtrack villains to talk to us before they send in the chainsaws. The whole thing is pure Chekhov, but the spirit of Les Miserables hovers weirdly overhead. To the barricades!