Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

We have just moved back into the house I grew up in. It's at Sissinghurst in Kent and my father lived there until his death last September, or at least in one part of it. The whole house and garden belongs to the National Trust, but when my father gave it to them in 1967, part of the agreement was that he and any of his descendants 'however remote' could live there for ever and a day.

It is a slightly strange experience. The house, of course, is overwhelmingly parental: his furniture, his books, his files, his pictures, his whole habit of being. In one or two of the files, there are little yellow Post-Its stuck in significant places, put there, I guess, in the early 1980s. I catch myself tidying up, not because I mind the mess our family creates but because he would have. Boots in the hall, old cups of coffee, dog beds, last night's washing-up: all of this would have summoned from him that particular, half-audible, rather sibilant under-the-breath whistling, usually a tune from My Fair Lady, which was the signal of contained rage. A shift into Lilli Marlene was not good: major dissatisfaction. So I tidy up to avoid the whistling. And then, terrifyingly, I find myself whistling too. 'Why are you whistling under your breath?' my daughter Rosie asks. 'Because I like the tune,' I say, exactly what my father would have said, and equally untrue.

Of course, we are a nightmare for the National Trust. Instead of a single self-contained octogenarian, they now have on their doorstep a family consisting of two untidy grown-ups, a Land-Rover that leaks oil all over the National Trust cream- and caramel-coloured tarmac, two daughters with bikes that get leant against yew hedges, three dogs which need to do what dogs need to do, two adult rabbits (brother and sister, let it be whispered, but that surely has a Bloomsbury touch to it?) and their six babies, which are currently smaller than the mesh of the wire we have put up to enclose them. None of this is within the National Trust guidelines. It must be like having the Grundys move in. The rabbit run we have created looks like something on the back edge of a run-down housing estate outside Swindon. But what can you do if that is the sort of family you are? I am sorting through my father's immaculately organised photographic archive, trying to find pictures of Sissinghurst in the 1930s and 1940s to show just how rough around the edges it was then too. A speech is being prepared for the next time the dogs think a National Trust lawn has been mown for their convenience, in the way maids in hotels tuck in the leading edge of the roll of loo-paper. Its provisional title is The Spirit of Sissinghurst'.

Lunch in Moro with three friends. It amazes me sometimes just how powerful a sensation friendship can be. There is nothing, in the middle of one's life, which has a greater ability to make it all seem OK. In Dr Johnson's Dictionary, under 'Love' there are two definitions. The first we still use: 'to regard with passionate affection'; the second has fallen out of use but we should revive it: 'to regard with the affection of a friend'. That's what love is, rare and wonderful.

The New York editor of a book I have written, Marie Estrada, rings up perplexed. She is the sort of sophisticated, levelvoiced, Martini-drinking New York woman you might hope for as an editor, sagacious, witty, serious. …

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