I never believed that sheep could lull you into the land of nod. Sheep are notoriously hard to count and such frustration is not soporific. Although I claim to have the sleeping capacity of a labrador, I do know the odd bout of sleeplessness, but over the years I’ve discovered a failsafe remedy: the World Service. I find it remarkable that no one has done a study of the effectiveness of the hypnotics called benzodiazepines in comparison with the programmes that come on after the Shipping Forecast-Bridget Kendall’s The Forum, Stephen Sackur’s Hardtalk, Peter Day’s Global Business. I feel certain that if GPs gave their sleepless patients Roberts radios with rechargeable batteries instead of sleeping tablets, the NHS budget would return to health overnight.
Admittedly, the side-effects are similar. After passing the wee hours in the company of Bridget, Stephen and Peter, I’m a bit hazy the next day, with foggy memories of cheesemaking in China, the struggles of textile businesses in Lancashire, the problems of an ageing population in Japan.
These stories tear at my heart, but in plain daylight, I can’t recount any of them with reliable clarity. It’s like trying to learn a language by listening to tapes in your sleep; you arise with vague recall, but you can’t buy a train ticket. I have another remedy for sleeplessness. I list my regrets. Not for me that defiant Je ne regrette rien. I have quite a few. I wish I had taken myself more seriously at university. I wish I hadn’t rejected science completely by the age of 16. I wish I’d learned birdsong, Italian, carpentry, Bach piano pieces, iceskating. I wish I answered letters.
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Those are just the first tier of regrets. I have others that I keep in reserve. For instance, I wish we’d bought Bill Morley’s land when it came up for sale 20 years ago. It was good land that marched alongside our farm, and the old mantra ‘always buy land next to yours because you only get one chance in a lifetime’ was imprinted on me at birth. We got pretty close. The Agricultural Mortgage Corporation (AMC) gave us the okay.
Our cautious accountant didn’t say no. Day after day, we walked the fields, nearly 200 acres, and evenings, we redrew boundaries on the ancient maps of our farm.
The price was high-£2,000 an acre-but we knew the land and we knew the yields. And then we panicked. We’d be paying off the loan for the rest of our lives and passing down the debt. While we hesitated, the land was sold to a German industrialist famous for the combine harvesters that bear his name. I look at those fields every day. Last summer, they were covered in linseed and when the wind blew, it looked like the sea. I wept at the beauty of it. And now, sitting in front of me are the particulars for another farm for sale: ‘Productive arable land, 112 acres.’ Once again, this is land that adjoins our farm.
Planted with sugar beet and oilseed rape, it’s arable prairie land without a hedge or a copse on it, but my first instinct is we won’t make the same mistake again. The arguments are persuasive: interest rates are low, world food stocks are at rock bottom, the old ‘land-they aren’t making it anymore’ line. Then, in one of those hellzapoppin moments, we realise that the price for agricultural land is now £7,000 an acre. Although we’ve been here in Suffolk the whole time, not flitting off to exotic places, we don’t know when or how this happened.
This time, we haven’t bothered the AMC and we’ve only walked the fields once. We’ve just embraced the belief that there is enough uncertainty in life without adding to it. In the days ahead, as droughts and floods increase and wheat prices soar, we may regret our decision. But I won’t lose sleep over it. I’ll just tune into Sailing By.