7 JULY 2007, Page 42

Class conflict

Roy Hattersley The garden which came with the house was far too small. Buster — clearly a martyr to claustrophobia — regularly burst through the hedge into what used to be The Hall's orchard. Then, unable to burst back again, he howled in frustrated rage until I rescued him So, in a fit of uncharacteristic extravagance, I made an irresistible offer for the orchard and the kitchen garden which adjoined it. I dimly remembered that an extortionate price — paid for a specific piece of land, because no other piece of land would meet the purchaser's needs — is called Ricardian Rent. As I made out the cheque, remembering that useless fact was a great comfort to me.

So I acquired a dozen fungus-infected fruit trees at the foot of a steep slope that was covered in feral rhubarb. Up on the skyline a greenhouse — which made the Crystal Palace look like a cucumber frame — leant against a 12-foot wall. There was also a potting shed, in which I found an old Vote Conservative poster. We demolished the potting shed, tore up the poster, gave the greenhouse away, sprayed or replaced the fungoid trees and turned the slope into steppes which a Russian kulak would have been proud to cultivate. The man who looked after my garden (now retired) determined to make the top terrace resemble the bowling green on which he spent his weekends. He would (no doubt) have succeeded had I not wanted to play rough croquet.

Rough croquet is like the smooth variety but involves less skill and more cheating. The hoops are sunk into the ground in the same geometric relationship to each other with a peg similarly stuck between them into the lawn — a word which is permissible when preceded by 'croquet', though not when used to describe the patch of nearbald earth over which my father pushed his rattling mower 50 years ago. The peg and the hoops were always a matter of dispute between the gardener and me. He did not want them to defile his sward and I did not want them taken out every time he doctored it with weedkiller or moss deterrent. We came to an agreement. Every time I put them in, he took them out. Tapping the balls through the hoops gave me hours of what I believed to be innocent pleasure — believed, that is, until a few days after I appeared on the BBC's Loose Ends a week or two ago.

The host of the show (using the word loosely, since it is usually associated with a degree of goodwill) was Clive Anderson. His interviewing technique consists of being so elegantly offensive that the victim does not realise he has been insulted until the broadcast is over. Having suffered in the past, I was determined that my repartee would be as sharp as his. So when — in the course of a question about my abject failure ever to become deputy prime minister — he began the list of pleasures and privileges which John Prescott had enjoyed, I cut him off when he got as far as 'having your own croquet lawn'. Quick as a flash, I told him, 'I already have my own croquet lawn.' I swear that I meant it to be a joke. Until I received the letters, I had no idea that owning a croquet lawn (or a stretch of grass on which rough croquet is played) was in conflict with my radical beliefs. But there are, apparently, some people who think it is a betrayal of the egalitarian ideal but wholly consistent with the class treachery of living in the Peak District.

My excuse for brazenly admitting my deviation is the anxiety I felt over Anderson's question about the dead cat. The cat, that is, that Buster killed when it jumped on to the garden table and began to drink milk from the jug. I only made light of its death because that seemed to me to be in keeping with the spirit of the programme. The story about fearing that I would have to exhume it — when the anxious owner was eventually identified — was true. But I approach the disinterment in anything but a frivolous frame of mind. Fortunately, I did not say that it was buried under my mulberry tree. The people who objected to croquet would certainly have taken exception to my possession of a tree which provides food for silkworms.

As a result of the criticism I have received, I feel that I have let down the whole village and given the impression that we are a centre of uncaring privilege. Far from it. Before the tumbrils rumble in from Sheffield let me make clear that only a couple of Sundays ago I noticed a neighbour running down Main Street on her way to attend the farewell service for our retiring vicar. When I assured her that she had plenty of time, she told me that she was skipping with delight at the thought that Tony Blair was about to follow the vicar's example and she could join the Labour party again. That will take the membership up to five — with a small majority of croquet players.

Roy Hanersley, 2007