It is a clear, cloudless early December afternoon on the Runton Hall Estate, in the untamed interior of rural East Anglia. This is a flat region, and from the second floor bathroom of the Old Servant’s Quarters, where I am adding some trademark finishing flourishes to the grouting around the sink, I can see Moscow. Happy noises glide through empty air from outside. Joe is persuading two of our donkeys onto a trailer – it is a busy time of year for animals associated with the Nativity – while Becka and their numerous children are selling tea and coffee to the film crew from two urns on a trestle table. Business appears to be good. I can eavesdrop on all this agreeable industry because despite being a de facto plumber these days, I refuse to listen to commercial radio while I work. Instead, I have Pulitzer prize nominated The Glorious Cause*, a military and social account of the American War of Independence, on Audible. Or rather, I do until ‘Anton’ arrives to work in the next room, when I download Piss Whores In Training** instead. It’s the kind of thing he will enjoy, and I am working in a bathroom, so it seems an appropriate compromise. Then again, it’s five and half quid and goes on for an hour, and when compared to The Glorious Cause – twenty seven hours long and obtained with a free monthly credit – seems poor value indeed. We listen to Piss Whores In Training for a few minutes before it occurs to us that Nicky Delgado’s stoic narration will also glide through the empty air amid the agreeable hubbub of the Runton Hall Estate. We turn it off, thus making the world a slightly better place, and work in silence.
Well, not entirely in silence. As the splintering yawn of ‘Anton’ crow-barring floorboards mingles with the ambient burble from outside, I declare the quickest way from Euston Square to Cally Road to be up Euston Road, past King’s Cross, left onto York Way, through the lights, and over Regent’s Canal. In return, ‘Anton’ points out that to avoid the Holborn Viaduct on the way to Hatton Garden you need to pick up Ave Maria Lane from High Holborn, straight off Cheapside. Since jointly working on the Old Servant’s Quarters we have found ourselves doing this sort of thing often, in what I believe to be an abstract expression of homesickness, as even the names of streets in that unhappy city chime in our grubby Cockney chimney sweep ear flaps. Also, we know more London street names than most, because we are former Knowledge Boys***, an apprenticeship we hampered somewhat by leaving town three years into the projected six year timescale for full Knowledge absorbtion. Incidentally, when you see someone on a moped in London with a clipboard on the handlebars, that’s a Knowledge Boy putting some work in. Myself, I was a cycling Knowledge Boy, zipping hither and yon amid the traffic with directions flapping from my handlebars on cardboard luggage labels. It’s an enjoyable way to earn your spurs. I’d love to go back and finish it; sadly, rural East Anglia is a long way from Charing Cross – when you see the distance to London on road signs, the numbers are in light years – and I fear it may be some time yet.
Apart from that, the only obstacle to my becoming a licensed taxi driver is the fact that I cannot legally drive. This is due to a common ocular complaint, keratoconus, which renders my vision atrocious. It’s a condition, rather than a disability, so we don’t get our own Olympics like those look-at-me landmine people. Then again we’d wander in front of the hundred metres by mistake and cause a pile up, so perhaps it’s for the best. In any case, you can’t keep a good man down, so I fight adversity by driving illegally instead. Concerned road users may rest assured that I have never driven on the public highway, limiting myself instead to private roads such as those surrounding the Runton Estate, teeming with dead wildlife mown down by Joe, Becka and delivery vehicles of every description. It was briefly suggested that instead of letting glampers hunt their own food with Graham’s dogs as discussed elsewhere, we let them have the roadkill as a form of freeganism. I discussed this briefly with our survivalist/glamper tent wholesale agent Beggar’s Canyon, who has occasionally accompanied Becka during food raids on supermarket bins in Norwich – Beggar’s Canyon because she is a freegan, and Becka because she has so many children to feed. I rather like freeganism. It strikes me as a positive way to deal with a disgusting issue. Sadly, freegans are even more tiresome than vegans, and although I like the idea of turning Runton Hall into a freegan glamping experience, the only way it could be enjoyable is if no freegans turned up. Tricky.
*Robert Middlekauf, Oxford University Press, 2007
**Kathryn Pissinger, Author’s Republic, 2017
***The Knowledge is the required qualification for a licensed black cabbie. It entails learning all of the twenty five thousand streets within six miles of Charing Cross, how and where they intersect, and every possible route between any two points therein, including the pubs, churches and other landmarks en route, what is headlining at major theatres, what footie is on, and so forth, so that you can take anyone anywhere without hesitation or recourse to satnav. You certainly need to apply yourself, but people successfully manage it every year.
Main: Hippy washing line at Runton. They get issued with proper clothes in the building at the end.
Inset top: Impressive almost-finished carved owl in the Runton woodland. Owls are a big thing for the conspiracy people, being symbols of the Illuminati and so forth, so I’m amazed the Flat Earthers haven’t gone nuts.
Inset middle: Joe in the Compleat Angler, Norwich. It’s a difficult pub to love, and the staff are so slow that they seem to be making a stop motion film, but it’s friendly enough and good for the footie. The riverside terrace downstairs, which no one ever uses, is lovely in the summer.
Inset lower: Joe’s wheelbarrow. He is the only person from White City to have ever seen one.