10 FEBRUARY 2007, Page 4

SALLY EMERSON Since my two children have dispersed

SALLY EMERSON Since my two children have dispersed to Hollywood and gap-year Sydney, I spend a great deal of time at home with the individual who needs me most: my house — mean, moody, magnificent, prone to upsets if left. Its tanks conveniently overflowed when we went away to Los Angeles at Christmas. That'll show me. Today yet another painter came to inspect the damage and I thought I heard the pipes gurgle a little, as if with laughter. This house used to be the Chinese military attaché's, and we still receive letters trying to persuade us to buy used fighter planes. Once we had an invitation to a party on a Thames river cruise to discuss buying submarines, but I didn't think I'd get away with turning up and getting out my cheque book. In the attic we discovered a menacing picture of Mao, and the neighbours relate stories of the lawn being mowed by a row of Chinese in suits, one pushing the mower, the others walking beside him in a regimented row in the spirit of old communism. We also had various soundproofed rooms. God knows what they were for.

T see the Blairs have been increasing their 1 property portfolio. The first house my husband and I ever sold was to Tony Blair and Cherie Blair, in Highbury near the new stadium; Number 10 Stavordale Road, in 1986. That house played its tricks too. We'd never had any problems with our boiler or roof, but they did. Indeed, when we saw them some years later, during their first visit to 10 Downing Street when Bill Clinton was visiting and John Major was prime minister, Cherie's first words to us were `F***ing Stavordale Road'. Sweet.

urious that 14 February, when we're still bundled up in sweaters and blowing our noses, should be chosen as a day of love. In honour of the day I'm rereading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. Few of us in this climate think at tea time of `the ephemeral splendour of another afternoon that would never return' or that 'his reveries left nests of dark swallows on the balconies and the sound of kisses and the beating of wings in the stillness of siesta'. You could only feel and write that in a hot country. Swooping through poetry for my new anthology about love, Be Mine: An Anthology for Lovers, Weddings and Ever After, I studied the love poetry of the Chilean Pablo Neruda for the first time. It fills the cracks of your life in the way of great literature.

perhaps there is such a fever to leave the United Kingdom not just because of Blairdom and because the houses in Cape Verde or wherever are cheap and have partial sea views, but because they promise a whole new exotic way of life where at last you can, like Marquez, be aware that `the silence was diaphanous in the four o'clock heat'.

The Latin countries devote at least 365 days to love compared with our one Valentine's Day. In the Dominican Republic you can hardly travel a block without seeing a 'love motel' where rooms are rented by the hour. They are fully booked on Secretary's Day, with bosses taking their secretaries out to lunch. When I informed our guide that Britain didn't go in for love motels he retorted, 'But supposing you are driving with your husband, wife or lover and you want to make love?' It was as if I'd told an Irishman there were no pubs in England. 'But supposing you want a pint of beer?' Maybe our own grand hotels should hire their rooms out by the hour especially for Valentine's Day.

This week I visited a new local restaurant, X0 in Belsize Park, and ate dim sum for lunch with a director interested in making a film of one of my novels. What I love most about new restaurants is the wonderful fresh loos, with their gleaming taps and tiles. Within months it'll be different More disturbing was a visit to the Mandarin Oriental in Hyde Park for lunch, where I was showed the spa menu as well as the food menu. I don't understand it. I genuinely want to experience the Shiatsu Inspired Ginger Ritual, whatever that is, I really do, but I cannot bring myself to pay £250 for it. They don't even call them 'treatments' any more. They call them 'rituals' or 'journeys'.

But if global warming is accelerating and the poor polar bears are anxiously stranded on melting blocks of ice because of our greed and selfishness, it somehow doesn't seem right to rush to enjoy Ginger Rituals. I wish there were some way we could get back the belief in progress — that the future will be better. This week I'm planning my visit to Jersey, where time doesn't seem to have moved on from the hopefulness of the 1950s. It's like stumbling into a forgotten childhood world, hedgerows brimming over with cow parsley and pink foxgloves, pheasants running shimmering down the lanes, and every now and again the white rump of a little rabbit hopping over the road. Yet a visit there can also do some good. The director of Jersey Zoo some years back warned us that not only was global warming destroying the habitat of animals at an alarming rate, but it was also affecting their immune systems so that they were becoming prey to more and more illnesses. The zoo is an ark as well as a zoo, somewhere which breeds endangered animals (the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust). Visit the zoo, pay the entrance fee and maybe a little more and that helps conservation programmes in far-flung places like Montserrat and Madagascar. It's a lush, romantic zoo. The shy tamarins who breed here and nowhere else in captivity clearly feel it to be a suitable love motel.