Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Two Different Worlds

My summer trip to England is nearly over and five weeks in another world and without Cat has seemed a very long time indeed. I’ve been keeping busy and enjoying seeing friends but it’s a funny sort of life filling in time and going round in circles.

On getting back to Anna and Will’s in Petersfield after a week away in the West Country, I opened my Hotmail and found two new pictures of the wooden house that my hyperactive young wife is currently building in the garden, back in our village in the rice fields. She tells me all about it on the phone but there’s nothing like seeing the pictures. She says it’s been going well but the heavy rains have made it difficult to keep working at times.

At the start of my trip away, I stayed for a few days with Peter, my old Thailand friend, at his lovely period house in the Tamar valley in Cornwall where as usual it rained and rained. Peter now feels more at home in Si Saket where he lives a short drive from us with his wife, Laylai, and so is now in the throes of finally selling the house in Cornwall. It should sell well as the village of Chilsworthy is pretty and has spectacular views, though it strikes me that it's almost devoid of people. Apart from the occasional car the street is deserted, a huge contrast to Thai villages which are always vibrant with life.

Leaving Peter, I went on to stay with Nigel and Katharine in their classic thatched cottage in Devon. With its roof of straw and built of cob, the rammed earth construction that lasts for centuries, it’s very old world. Nigel is recently retired and together they farm the acres of steep meadow and cider orchards that they always dreamed of owning. I admire them immensely as it’s tough work maintaining the land in all weathers and raising a small flock of sheep. Several of the sheep were lame and I watched as Katherine wrestled them onto their backs and administered an antibiotic spray.

The parallels with farming in Thailand were fascinating, as this too is hard unremitting work that’s not worth the candle if you want to earn a proper living. A sheep’s fleece sells for a pound, less than the cost of shearing it, and a lamb’s carcase for peanuts. All the while the farmer is entangled in mindless regulation and red tape that can only be efficient for the largest of farms. After the last outbreak of foot and mouth disease, the officials got a roasting so the usual knee-jerk reaction has been massive over-regulation that now overwhelms the small farmer.

My next stop was with Diana and Michael, my sister and brother-in-law, who have a cottage in the picture perfect Cotswold village of Oddington. Full of spectacular stone houses many of which, like theirs, are owned as second homes by Londoners, it was certainly not short on prettiness and honeysuckle round the door.

A visit to Hook Norton Brewery, a small family affair still powered by the steam engine that was installed over a hundred years ago was reassurance that not everything has been swept away by the modern tide of mergers and creeping urbanisation.

We also went to the ‘Dovers Olympick Games’ that take place every year on the hill above Chipping Campden, which was also refreshing for its earthy, rural feel. When the tug of war and the shin kicking contests were over and the sun had flamed down into the far distance, with the huge bonfire blazing and the fireworks hissing up into the night, there was a sense of excitement that was almost pagan.

The crowds of young people milling round wide-eyed and expectant reminded me strongly of village events in Thailand where the lads come out to see the kick boxing, to eat and drink, to be deafened by the music and eye-up the local talent. This too was a real rural crowd and it’s refreshing to know that these still exist now that the land is intensively farmed by machines and the city people have moved into the surplus farm houses.

Of course times move on and the countryside has had to adapt quickly as the source of wealth shifted from the land to industry and then to services. This was to be very apparent that day. We walked from the village past the ancient church with its fourteenth century wall paintings and across the Daylesford estate, now owned by Tony Bamford, the industrialist of JCB fame. It was Joe, his late father, J.C. Bamford who first engineered the use of tractors as diggers and together they built a rare success story in British manufacturing. The father’s initials have now entered the language and I even once had a pair of JCB socks.

The Daylesford estate, formerly the home of Warren Hastings is now the reward, the land well managed without regard to the cost. We visited the so-called farm shop, a palace no less of chic foodie consumerism which makes Fortnum and Mason in London look almost down market. A triumph of cool modern design, the shop is housed in fine old stone farm buildings and is worth a visit if only to stop and gaze in shock and awe.

Under the walnut tree as you leave the car park, scattered on the manicured lawn are several stone walnuts and the model of a dog that’ll never cock its leg. First you enter the food hall, a temple to organic food faddists and assorted nuts, offering delicacies that have never seen a farm, the atmosphere reverently drizzled with balsamic baloney.

Might not organic gulls’ eggs if laid by scavenging gulls be contaminated with the worst possible residues from rubbish tip and scattered bin bag? The magic Chinese goo-goo beans and the Tibetan nanga-nanga pulses could be perfect for a periodic detox though, and now’s the chance to neutralize our urban allergies and free radicals while we take our daily coffee enema and sweat off some excess cash.

In the airy and elegant designer clothes shop in the next barn, a little white bodice like the ones my grandmother used to knit is priced at four hundred and fifty pounds. A child’s rocking horse is a snip at four thousand five hundred. A garden trowel for digging organic vegetables has a handle of deer horn from organic deer and is somewhat more expensive than B&Q. Meanwhile as the clientele discuss their carbon footprint while eating organic gulls’ eggs with extra virgin olives, Tony Bamford leaves the office and flies home for lunch in his private helicopter.

But please don’t get me wrong. I hugely admire the JCB enterprise and the design flair of those who have created the ‘farm shop’ and I wish them every success. I only note that there are now two worlds in the countryside subsisting side by side… this showy new one and the simpler world of the muddy kneed swains in rugby shirts I watched by the light of the flames courting stocky farm girls under the stars that night on Dover’s hill.

Meanwhile, back in another other far away world, Cat works like a mad thing building our new wooden house in the garden, cutting back the bamboo to deter the cobras, preparing the timber, driving the men on to greater efforts and juggling all the demands of family and daily life.

On local wages, life in Thailand is expensive but it strikes me that our new house is cheap by western standards. Built of quality hard wood, it has three bed rooms, a kitchen and shower room. It’ll be comfortable enough for us to live in if we want to... but it’s going to cost me less than a ladies’ outfit bought at the farm shop on the Daylesford estate in the rural pastiche that is the English Cotswolds.

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