I awoke, and the world was a different place

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The Independent Online
I WASN'T so much on holiday last week as asleep, in a health farm in Bedfordshire. It was boring but restorative and I drove back to London eager to face the world, only to find it had gone mad. My mother, my friends, my colleagues, my next-door neighbour, even the Guardian newsdesk only wanted to talk about one thing. On Radio 4, angry emotional people called Nick Ross to swear on air; not that I mind, but I can think of dozens of other subjects, from homelessness to nuclear testing, which are on the face of it more likely to provoke people into saying "shit" on a live national radio network. Even the editor of the Sun called up to give his readers' reaction.

"Did you see it?" people asked excitedly on Tuesday morning, obviously forgetting that I don't have the necessary equipment. A friend went on another programme while the broadcast was happening to give the feminist reaction; psychologists and therapists offered their professional opinions. My mum was so affected that she got stomach pains and hasn't felt entirely well all week. The word "crisis" appeared in headlines and billboards and a junior government minister was warned to shut up, a unique example of John Major recognising a lost cause just before his government became inextricably associated with it.

I felt a bit like Rip Van Winkle, emerging from a pleasant nap to discover that everyone and everything had changed, apparently overnight, out of all recognition. Talking to people was like floundering in emotional soup, having to choose my words with care because the entire country was in a tearful and precarious emotional state. I won't say what political conclusion this leads me to but it's a revealing insight into the state of the nation's marriages.

"Everybody is happily married and they don't want to see [divorce] being introduced," burbled the postmistress on the island of Innisbiggle, Co Mayo, this week as the local postman struggled five miles on foot to deliver the ballot box containing votes in the Irish referendum.

Not in Britain they're not, not after this week's bizarre display of partisanship; the only sane explanation is projection, with viewers taking sides according to their own or their friends' experience of rejection, hurt, silence and all the other things that go with being stuck in a fractured relationship.

ON THE other hand, a few sensible people came down on one side or the other according to how they felt on the important question of eye-liner. These are not matters that should be taken lightly, as I tried to explain over lunch one day this week when a group of Oxford academics expressed astonishment at the notion of anyone going to a health farm.

Why, they wanted to know, hadn't I just stayed at home and left the answering machine on? I pointed out that my house, delightful as it is, has neither a swimming-pool, restaurant nor a resident masseur, all of which I was feeling in urgent need of. Their response to this was something of a non sequitur, since they seemed to feel I should have rented a country cottage or gone on a retreat. The trouble with country cottages is that they are, by definition, in the country, which I can't abide. And I'm not aware of any convents that offer facials or Eastern scalp massages.

The health farm, although its location was undeniably rural, was so large and well equipped that you didn't need to go outdoors. The best thing that happened all week - in one of the brief moments when I was awake - was having my eyebrows shaped and dyed. They're naturally fair and unruly, an awkward combination and what they needed was the ministrations of a Sister of the Immaculate Eyeliner and a nifty pair of tweezers. I felt so much better when she'd finished.

THE atmosphere at the health farm was a bit like a convent in that there were lots of notices asking people to be quiet. The other guests talked about diets and exercise plans and there was a strong feeling that we were united in avoiding sin, which consisted of butter, sugar and cigarettes. When I mentioned, after a nutritious but not very exciting meal, that I was going back to my room to eat chocolate, fellow diners reacted as if I'd announced I was going upstairs to break at least three of the Ten Commandments - adultery, say, followed by a bit of theft and idolatry.

But I hadn't gone there to lose weight and I can't see any point in unnecessarily excluding fat and sugar from my diet. The other admission which caused consternation came when a new arrival asked what she should wear for a full body massage. Nothing, I replied briskly, whereupon there were sharp intakes of breath.

Health farm etiquette, it seems, involves keeping on your bra and pants and possibly, for all I know, your socks. George Best had left by this time so I wasn't able to ask him what the men are supposed to do.

THE OTHER thing I came back to in London was an officious letter demanding to know why I haven't got a television licence. The printed reply is worded like one of those competitions where you have to complete a sentence to win the holiday of a lifetime: "I declare that I do not need a television licence for the above address because..."

Tough one, that. Because I am Swedish? Because I'm allergic to rabbits? Actually, the real reason is that I don't want to watch the person who appeared on Panorama on Monday evening. The trouble is that, in the present climate, such an original answer might well win. And although Howard Dougall, who sent the letter, doesn't specify the prizes in his intriguing contest, what if one of them is a television set? Then I'd never escape her.

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