The sadness that lurks in the green fields of England

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The Independent Online
Coming home from "the country" after the Whitsun holiday we had the usual conversation about the merits of upping sticks and moving for good to this rural generality, which has such powerful attractions for the London middle class. We'd been to the counties on the Welsh border and seen hills and cows, and swirling rivers the colour of slightly milked tea. The children liked it, I think. On the Bank Holiday, we made a trip on the preserved railway that runs for 15 miles up the Severn Valley, and then crossed the river by a small ferry with a real ferryman, charging 25p. The pasture had buttercups and the pub gooseberry wine. Steam locomotives whistled from the opposite hillside. It was as absurdly perfect as the pictures in the books of the Rev W V Awdry.

All this, and cheaper houses, better schools, less crowded roads. Work in London might (just) be managed with three long days and a bed in town, and the computer and e-mail the rest of the time. Other people manage it; the hills of Herefordshire must be alive with the muffled clatter of keyboards. Leominster looks as though it has a big enough Safeway, and how often do we go to the West End theatre anyway? So why not move there or somewhere like it?

I used to think that my answer to that was loneliness, the fear of being separate and different from other people who lived there, the hush that would fall across the public bar. Clearly, that no longer applies; these days you're probably more likely to bump into a publisher than a shepherd at Ye Olde Megabyte. My new fear is sadness; all those pretty, empty towns with shuttered shops (Safeway strikes again), closed cattle marts and bypasses, struggling to find some identity and work by marking out heritage trails and sites for small electronics factories that the next trade mission may persuade from Korea. Even the cows and sheep seem ominous. You wonder how, and how soon, they will die and what they will contain.

THE office lunch: an etiquette problem. A couple of years ago I was invited to lunch with John Birt at his Director-General's HQ in Broadcasting House. There were four at the table in all. Three of us made our way manfully through the BBC melon, the BBC chicken, the BBC trifle and the BBC white wine, with red on offer with the cheese. Mr Birt, meanwhile, was delivered a green salad by the waitress and drank mineral water. There may be many reasons to dislike Mr Birt - his old income tax arrangements, Chris Evans, the internal market - but I have to admit that, for me, all of them pale beside this display of self-denial. Whatever his dietary reasons, it made the rest of us feel gross and indulgent. Could it be that he had a proper job to do that afternoon and we had not? Were we so poor that we would think BBC chicken (yum yum) was a treat? Stephen Potter could not have devised a better form of one-upmanship.

Last week it happened again at the offices of the Spectator. Four of us accepted our main course - some kind of white fish in some kind of modish mashed potato (oily with olive oil and coloured green - pesto strikes again?) - but when the waitress tried to set down the plate in front of our host, the editor, Frank Johnson, he waved it away and asked for the cheese. Later he explained that he didn't like fish, which was a sensible aversion in this particular case, though the rest of us ate most of it like good boys and girls.

It seems to me that one of the duties of a host is to eat the same grub as his guests, or to extend the opportunity of green salad or abstinence to everyone (but think where the last could lead - food in the waste bin, tears in the kitchen). I don't know why I have come over all Emily Post about this, but it probably has something to do with an encounter with the Maharajah of Benares who, unusually among, rajahs, is a particularly orthodox Brahmin.

One day he watched me drink a cup of tea in his palace, saying that he would have his own cup later and separately. I wasn't to mind. When the Queen of England had visited him in 1961, he had refused to eat or drink with Her Royal Highness also.

I did mind, though, because I felt like an inferior pollutant - not as ascetic, not as fastidious as my host - which is one of the psychological ticks that kept the caste system in place for thousands of years and may now be a key part of the MBA course in power-lunching.

UNLIKE the Spectator's editor I like fish, and also fishing boats, fishing ports, fresh fish shops, the few fishermen I've ever met, and of course Fishermen's Friends (which if you believe the blurb on the packet, were to Arctic trawlermen what Kendal Mint Cake was to the conquest of Everest). I'm confused, however, by the right wing's sudden rush to the cause of the British fishing industry. It's apparently an outrage that 30 per cent of the fishing boat tonnage registered in Britain is in fact owned in other European countries, mainly Spain. This subverts the European Union's law on national quotas and will, when the tonnage is cut back, have a disproportionate effect on boats which are genuinely British in some old- fashioned pre-global-market way.

I thought that this was the whole point of the global free market that the same right wing so fervently admires; that capital could leap across the world to wherever it could be most profitably employed and that, globally, we would all be happier (a Utopian idea that makes socialism look pragmatic). What the Tory right should surely be arguing for is the boats to be owned in Greece, registered in Liberia, crewed by Filipinos (the fate of what used to be the British merchant fleet) and all of them trawling free of EU regulation.

Much cheaper for today's consumer, if bad news for Brixham and the long- term future of the sole, the haddock, the herring and the hake.