Magazine article The Spectator

My Family and Other Animals

Magazine article The Spectator

My Family and Other Animals

Article excerpt

Singular life

Farmers, apparently - at least 27 of them - have received millions of pounds in compensation for losing herds as a result of foot and mouth disease. Burning a cow or a sheep must now be the most profitable growth business in the British Isles.

When I was a child my father had a flock of sheep. Jacob sheep, to be precise. He owned a house in Wiltshire. Beyond the lawn was a large, unoccupied field. One day, gazing out of the bow window of his study, he said to my mother in tones of barely disguised disgust, `This field is empty. Why is it empty?'

`Because there is nothing in it,' replied my mother with irrefutable logic. This set my father's mind on a train of thought. `Animals or art,' he repeated in a ruminative manner. He owned an exceedingly tall column with a stone eagle on top. I think it was Napoleonic. Anyway, into the middle of the field it went.

This did not satisfy the hungry aesthetic maw, however. The effect was altogether too bleak. It was time for some Rousseauesque untrammelled rusticity. The hedges flanking our field were beginning to sprout their first green shoots. A notion lodged itself in my father's mind. He decided to advertise for something called an ornamental hermit. Apparently, ornamental hermits had been all the rage in the 18th century, when it was felt that nothing could give such delight to the eye as the spectacle of an aged person with a long grey beard and a filthy robe doddering about the acres of one's estate.

My mother took Horace Walpole's dimmer view. Walpole had though it `ridiculous to set aside a portion of one's garden for a stranger to be silent and melancholy in'. But my father decried this worship of bourgeois convention. He spent hours cogitating over an advertisement that he proposed to place in a local paper.

It was heavily cribbed from one such notice composed by someone called Charles Hamilton during the reign of George II. The final version, of which my father was inordinately pleased, ran:

Wanted. Male between 50 and 75 years of age. To live on the grounds of Conock Old Manor, near Devizes. He will be provided with a wooden shelter in case of bad weather, a Bible, a comfortable chair, a pair of glasses, and food and water from the house. He must wear a beige or grey robe, keep his hair and nails long, and on no account address anyone without permission. …

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