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Sober Life
by Sinclair Newton



Sober Life

I HAVE an American friend who had been contemplating coming to Europe this Summer and has been made anxious by the publicity to do with hoof and mouth disease and I thought it might be helpful for anyone else in this situation to see the email I have sent her.

It goes on about familiar things, like how's the star-kissed daughter in Los Angeles and the price of a cup of Starbucks in Massachusetts, and then I said:

ENGLAND is all still here, you know. I know because I live here. Apart from the signs there are no signs anything is lurking in the undergrowth, or wherever the disease sleeps at night. There are signs saying "Footpath Open" where I didn't know there was a footpath.

There's no danger to human life. That means you and I cannot catch anything. Perhaps, if you are a New Labour supporter (though surely it cannot be "New" four years later) you are obliged to say this because there is an election on.

Perhaps the whole country is rotting under piles of diseased animals being burned in pyres like something out of a Biblical nightmare and maybe the water's not fit to drink because the toxins in the animals that were not burned but simply buried could be affecting the something-or-other table.

Well, I sat in a little café yesterday with the sun playing outside and had a brace of lamb chops with a great big pile of fat chips fried in dripping (none of your nancy-boy olive oil here) and a dribbling pot of tea, and afterwards I strolled with my elderly mother across the old market square in the village of Hartington in Derbyshire where they've been making Stilton cheese for a hundred years with milk from the cows all around the place and they were still doing it and there was not an American tourist in sight because they've been frightened away.

There are lots of rose-rimmed cottages and beamed bedrooms in 16th century stone houses and they're all to rent. The Post Office, with Victorian pillar box, has closed because there's no-one wishing to send "Wish You Were Here" cards and Ye Olde Cheese Shoppe isn't doing much trade in Stilton and Double Gloucester and Wensleydale with Apricots. The English are also missing, preferring the Sanctuary of Sainsbury's.

We drove a further twenty miles from Buxton through the High Peak National Park, with manicured farms and caravan sites (they were busy, parked two feet from one another) past pubs with names like "T' Bull I' T'owd Shed" offering "Good Home Cooked Food" - as though they'd advertise bad, factory-made slop - and came to a small, cobbled town called Ashbourne where a band from Ecuador was playing in the little space outside the pub.

ECUADOR? One of them was blowing into some hollow wooden pipes and producing a melody that has haunted me ever since. Apparently they were there because one of them lives in an old stone house nearby and her friends were visiting before a local folk festival soon.

Four men with washed-out tattoos jammed onto a bench clutching pints of warm beer and it never even struck me that I could have had a drink, too.

We bought gingerbread biscuits from the sixth generation of one family in the village baker's and two "savoury ducks" - a concoction of minced pig's heart and liver effused with sage - from the white-smocked butcher with a jolly, red face looking the way all butchers should look.

How could you not wish to be in an England that welcomed a folk troupe from Ecuador and offered gingerbread and savoury ducks to take home?

If you want to support the British National Party, ask yourself where you think the ginger came from all those generations ago…

We parked on double yellow lines by the open-air market (Mum doesn't walk so well nowadays and they don't sell leg pills at the apothecary any more) because I didn't believe there would be traffic wardens in Ashbourne and I was right.

My Mum reminisced how she had last been here decades ago when my sister was going through a bit of a crisis and they had found solace in a little bit of England where nothing much changed except the price of gingerbread.

There are still gardens cascading with pretty flowers and amiable cows at the side of the road munching contentedly in fields with buttercups and daisies spread like a carpet.

People were happy to show us where the gingerbread shop still stood (it's a smart café now, too) after all the years my Mum remembered and no doubt they were the same people she remembered from decades ago

And that's nothing. No doubt in their hearts they were the same people from hundreds of years ago.

I apologise for not being funny this week, but I feel a bit like John Major, a former Conservative Prime Minister of ours, who was laughed at years ago for saying there would always be an England where vestal virgins pedalled on their bicycles past the village duck pond in the dawn mist of a Sunday morning for Communion at the village church.

There is a duck pond in Hartington and I swear a woman of a certain age winked at me as she cycled by.

Sinclair Newton