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Sober Life
by Sinclair Newton



Sober Life

Peggy’s coming! You remember Peggy who was frightened off by what she called “Hoof and Mouth Disease” last year?

Well, she’s picked up the courage, or whatever it is they have in Boston, Massachusetts, and is bringing her husband with her this week.

It’s one of those people I haven’t seen for twenty years, which have ravaged my life, so at least I know how I look . . . If only I’d known I was going to live this long I’d never have had that large one in November ’89.

I’m just glad I don’t have to meet her on licensed premises, looking silly with a glass of sarsaparilla. And then there’s the sobering thought that I think she’s hardly ever seen me without a drink in my hand.

She’s already emailed me about the little shops she thinks are still there in England. I can tell you now she’s in for a big shock about how American everything has become.

Once upon a time ago I was introduced to this couple in their eighties in Ibiza. From their finca up a mountain they could see San Antonio Bay, high-rise hotels all around. They had watched it grow from when it was a few wooden fishing huts, yet she had never been there ever and he had been once for a funeral some decades ago.

I have often pondered on what they would think if they went down there one Midnight, but then realised that I didn’t know what it was like in an African jungle at dawn.

Peggy shouldn’t feel too strange though because she will be able to find all kinds of things in the supermarkets her ancestors invented - like cheese in a squeezy tube and soap you can wash your hands with without any water.

And at least she’s going to stay near a village called Hope somewhere in Derbyshire. They’ve rented a holiday cottage over the Internet, a bit like you might in Ibiza really, though whether you’d be taking sturdy boots with you is a different tin of dubbin.

Peggy was anxious about just where they were going, so I went for a sneak preview and thought you might like to read my advance travelogue:

Dear Peggy

Hello there. Been there. It's perfect! It’s a little hamlet nestling at the end of a lane and there’s a gate into a field about twenty feet from your front door saying “Footpath.” You couldn’t get any closer or be more in the English countryside if you fell off the back of a hay-bailer in the middle of harvest home.

It looks as though some real people live in the cluster of cottages there, too - though we couldn’t say if they were on holiday, they were having a good time just talking over the tumble-down stone garden walls. It’s all higgledy-piggledy farming property. I’m guessing you are staying in one of the row of stone cottages each named after a bird of some kind. Plover or Sparrow hawk or something. One of you opens the five-barred gate while the other reverses the car in. They look brilliant and we were quite excited for you.

From here, you go through your nearest town, over the winding Snake Pass, which is looking lovely amidst the purple heather today, turn right after a big reservoir where people were fly-fishing, and right again in the middle of a little village - impossibly called HOPE! - opposite a rather imposing old stone church which is full of it. It's about thirty miles from here, or maybe a bit less.

Your local village has a handful of little shops, one of which sells just walking and camping stuff. There are two tea shops, one called The Woodbine Café (David will no doubt be able to remember the post-war cigarette brand), a deli, doing European cheeses and pate, and a baker's and two little art galleries and a sort of 8/11 (?) mini market and drinks shop open till 10pm every night and a petrol station. The quaint Post Office didn't have the New York Times today, but obscurely they did have the Yorkshire Post amongst the racks of English newspapers and magazines and - wonder of wonders - real milk in real, glass, pint bottles. They had pasteurised stuff as well, but this is from a farm where cows eat grass and don’t have sixteen hormone shots a day.

When you leave that metropolis (there are three or four rustic pubs, one with a sort of beer garden) you go up a very English open-fenced lane for about four miles. The fields are full of fluffy, white, lambs gambolling around and there are great views of craggy Derbyshire peaks everywhere. And the sun is shining. And I’m sure it still will be when you’re here. And you’ll be fine.

It has been pointed out to me that some of our younger readers might not know quite what sarsaparilla is. It is an extract from the roots of a prickly plant grown all over Central America and in Jamaica and adds a bitter tang, but nothing else, to soft drinks. Spanish readers will have no such difficulty, recognising the words “zarza”, which means bramble and “parrilla,” little vine. That’s what the Conquistadores called it when they first arrived there, though they thought it was good for you as well. I just know it as a kind of distinctive fizzy pop you used to be able to get as an alternative to large ones, but only in milk bars and the younger readers won’t know what they were either.

Sinclair Newton