THE END OF A JOLLY GOOD LAUGH
Elisabeth Dunn argues that the death of
Weekend Man, heralded in these pages, will leave the countryside devoid of its biggest joke
West Milton, Dorset NEWS OF the demographic trend which is keeping the cultural leaders of the nation in London over the weekend — I refer to Nicholas Coleridge's cri de coeur (`Time to end this motorway madness', 11 June) has been received with mixed feelings in the sticks. We shall miss the managing director of Conde Nast and his friends now that they have given up their country cottages. We shall miss that dangerous whiff of metropolitan life they bring with them, that privileged sense of inside knowledge which they share so loudly with us in the bar, the amazing rents they are prepared to pay for the pastoral idyll. We shall miss our little jokes about the plastic mud with which they accessorise the Dis- covery bought from the Land Rover dealer in South Kensington. The death of Week= end Man is a sad blow.
We cherish the memory of Black Thurs- day, the night preceding a May bank holi- day some years ago, when every weekend cottage in our village — one-third of the housing stock — was systematically bur- gled. The elegant Georgian farmhouse next to us was done over and, while not yielding much in the way of loot to the thieves, afforded much innocent merri- ment to the rest of us. Not, you under- stand, because we are naturally vindictive, but because the burglars had unearthed a supply of imaginative pornographic mate- rial in amongst the Country Lifes and Horse and Hounds, and had laid an exhilarating centrefold on each tread of the sweeping staircase to enliven the lot of the investi- gating officers on the case.
Weekend Man brings life and wealth to the soporific hills and valleys of west Dorset. He is immensely generous in his support for institutions like the village hall and the church roof appeal. He buys yards of raffle tickets regardless of the prizes and of the convention that once you have won you return subsequent winnings to the draw to give the poor people a crack.
He is as vigorous and watchful a steward of the countryside as any farmer or landowner. He has, after all, acquired his patch of rural England and he has no intention of allowing his view to change. He combs the local paper for news of planning permissions, and should the cor- ner of a corrugated barn overlap the edge of his horizon, he is circulating protests from his Apple Mac in London to anyone who will listen, parish council or John Gummer. One of our Weekend Men was recently invoking a judicial review over the bulging village school's proposal to put a temporary classroom in the playground.
Cone-lagged as he is, Weekend Man deserves his rural peace. He has little patience with the dairy farmer who switch- es on a whining cooling plant at 5.30 in the morning, with the heifers which defecate so thoughtlessly outside his gate or with the silage trailers which, at this time of year, hold him up on his way to his out-of- town hypermarket.
In truth, we find Weekend Man's driv- ing habits a little trying. He does not like to damage his gleaming paintwork by driv- ing close to a thorny hedge. He tends to think of passing places as viewpoints, parking his BMW restfully in a gateway while we, in our burly old pick-ups, lock wing-mirrors trying to pass each other on the narrow bit. He is unversed in our hyp- ocritical habits of waving thanks to each other over the most insignificant highway courtesies; he stares fixedly ahead when we have reversed a hundred yards to let him by.
Psychologically, of course, he is spending his weekend in another country and there- fore the normal rules of engagement do not apply. He can, and does, get roaring drunk in the pub on a Saturday night and, to the encouraging whoops of his guests, he breaks up the furniture. This he puts right by autographing a large cheque for the damage, secure in the knowledge that country pubs don't do much business on a Monday and, by Tuesday, gnarled old craftsmen will have repaired the breakages.
He takes up hunting, runs his horse at a gate which it can't manage, damages its knees and returns it to the stable with instructions to call a vet. The vet prescribes complete rest but Weekend Man's blood is up and he is hot to get back on the horse. Which he does, despite the animal's knees looking like grapefruit. £2,000 worth of surgery later, the horse is still limping painfully.
In his quest for tranquillity, Weekend Man puts on stout boots and roams the byways. He returns trumpeting the cussed- ness of farmers who fail to keep footpaths clear for him, oblivious to the trail of chaos he leaves in his wake — the open gates, the wrong turnings taken across private land, the dog turds in the hay.
Impatience is his hallmark. He wants the honeysuckle round the door and the wild garden on the edge of the orchard as seri- ously as he wants a seat on the board, and he wants it while he is still young enough to enjoy having it all. He does not have the time to sow the seed of a snake's-head frit- illary and wait 18 months for a single blade of grass-like leaf to raise itself out of the grit then and another two years for it to flower. He must have it now, so you see him with loaded trolley at the nurseryman's, Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane, with a fully grown, instant gar- den. Which, of course, will die, untended in the drought of the summer months while its owner is away at the office.
That Weekend Man has chosen our stretch of countryside as his preferred place of relaxation marks us out as special. We are privileged that he should drink deep of spiritual refreshment from our par- ticular well-spring. Now that the Discover- ies are being loaded up for the last time, we are experiencing a sense of loss which might have to be treated with counselling.
We have loved to see Weekend Man and his progressively educated children enjoy- ing a long Sunday lunch, the little ones playfully toppling the glasses on adjacent tables as they gambol joyfully about the restaurant. It is a source of great sadness to us that we are losing them to the tavernas of Notting Hill Gate. Our foxes and bad- gers will miss the left-over polenta stored in bin-liners by the gate from Sunday until rubbish collection the following Thursday. We shall all feel as if the circus has left town.