For my money, Wendy Cope is the natural heir to John Betjeman and Philip Larkin. Like Larkin, her output is sparse, but blessed with perfect pitch for Englishness. Poets’ Corner in West-minster Abbey is never the same after you read Engineers’ Corner:
We make more fuss of ballads than of blueprints?
That’s why so many poets end up rich.
While engineers scrape by in cheerless garrets
Who needs a bridge or dam? Who needs a ditch?
Of course, the Wendy Cope poem that everyone knows is the one that begins
Bloody men are like bloody buses?
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear.
Read ‘anniversaries’ for ‘men’ and that’s the poem that came to mind a couple of weeks ago when the Editor called to tell me that this issue celebrates the 110th anniversary of Country Life. I could hardly believe it. Nothing to celebrate since the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, and then three celebrations in a row.
The house is still decorated for the 70th anniversary of the Abdication (December 10, 1936). For this occasion, we brought out the small wooden box that contains letters that the (then) Prince of Wales wrote to my husband’s uncle when they were at Oxford. We draped winter jasmine over the photograph of the two of them sitting on a bench at Magdalen and, as Wallis Simpson was famous for introducing the Prince to American cocktails, we raised our Manhattans to toast ‘The Woman from Baltimore who saved the Monarchy’. All week long, I read excerpts from Harold Nicholson’s diaries, ending with his encounter with Stanley Baldwin minutes after the Prime Minister delivered the Message on the Abdication to the House of Commons:
‘You see,’ the shaken PM tells Nicholson, ‘the man is mad. MAD. He could see nothing but that woman.’ Mind you, a woman who writes a pre-nuptial note to her prince’Dear Lightning Brain, I don’t know what English papers you take in, but you never seem to know what’s going on’ and who quips during the long lull of married life ‘You can’t abdicate and eat too’ had qualities that didn’t show up in photographs.
For our next celebration, we drank our last bottle of Krug. On December 31, we toasted ‘To The End of Debt’. Not our farm overdraft, but to the final payment of Britain’s Second World War debt to America, the loan known as Lend-Lease. The economist John Maynard Keynes and I thought it was churlish of the Americans to demand payment for equipment needed to fight a war on their behalf, but my husband insists that it was a post-war loan to help Britain recover. Still, it’s never seemed fair to me and I seem to spend my life apologising for the awfulness of America’s political leaders.
And now my third celebration in a row. Country Life at 110. Like my friends who become more radical and ripsnorting after they have passed 70, so is Country Life as it stomps into its second century. In these times of infinite terror, the great temptation is to see country life as a safe hole to hide in. But not Country Life: it keeps its head out of the hole, defending the territory the meadows, the lanes, the rivers, the fields, the farms. Once more, I raise my glass this time it’s sparkling Moonshine: Happy Birthday Country Life. Long live country life.