The six of us (us two, two Americans, an Australian and a Zimbabwean) were en route from the airport to a B&B in sleepy Wiltshire – close to Bath – for a meeting. We were picked up from the train station by, interestingly, a South African taxi driver. The South African and the Zimbabwean immediately lamented (almost competitively) about the chaotic state of their countries. We were about to enter a different type of chaos – one that we loved.
We pulled into the B&B to the sound of seven dogs barking and sprinting round the corner like it was the end of the world, followed by the huffing and puffing and shouting of their owner.
COME BACK HERE NOW YOU LOT! OI! POPPY – SHUT UP!
Out of the shadows, emerged a large dog which looked like it had a disco wig on its head, galloping at breakneck speed in my direction.
ELENOR COME HERE!
With it’s long snout, this four-legged disco-kamakazi creature lunged itself into my groin. In disbelief, I looked down at this odd bobbing wig and snout combo, sniffing me. “What the hell is this,” I blurted.
“That is a French Hunting Poodle.” – The owner barked in his cut glass accent. “Pedigree. How… – POPPY, RUPERT, FOR GOODNESS SAKE BEHAVE. Sorry about this. How do you do.” The owner was a short, stout man in his late sixties – wearing a fisherman’s woolly jumper and a red flowery cravat.
“How do you do.” I replied – a reply I hadn’t said for years.
“Come on in, why don’t you! What will you have – tea?”
Proceeded by a pack of dogs jumping over eachother, we walked into the kitchen which was ram-packed like an antique shop full of trinkets, china plates, pewter mugs, novelty teapots, cushions and pictures of the Queen Mother.
“Now look here. Help yourselves to absolutely anything you want in this kitchen. Make yourselves at home. We’ve got ALL sorts of tea from Darjeeling to Lap Sang Souchon. What will you have?”
“Ah, why not, I’ll have a Lap Sang, please.”
“Help yourself. Blue box at the top. NO that’s turquoise. Blue box. Other one, LEFT.”
As if it wasn’t evident from his accent, demeanour and sheer volume, the owner was a retired Colonel and after a life time of fighting people in foreign lands, he was now, together with his wife, peacefully and merrily hosting whoever in the world turned up at his house.
I thought back about the crackpots and eccentrics I missed and longed for whilst living abroad and looked admiringly at this prime example, in action – displaying all of Britain’s glorious eccentricities in the simple action of shouting at anything he wanted for whatever reason he wanted.
We stood talking around the kitchen table, taking tea, and in the midst of the chaos and pomp and circumstance, he spent a lot of time shouting at the dogs.
Presumably, after a lifetime of shouting at naked, young recruits in the showers he probably needed that outlet.
I thought back about my own school days (a strict ‘boy’s only’ school) which was for all intents and purposes run like a military academy. I teleported back to the shower room scenes after the sports – being shouted by the sports teachers – “GET INTO THE SHOWERS NOW AND REMEMBER TO WASH YOUR FORESKINS YOU VILE RUNTS” – Memories I thought I had successfully suppressed and erased and which were now remerging as I was listening to the Colonel shout incessantly at the brainless canine recruits who were now chasing each other round the kitchen.
“Of course,” he suddenly announced, bidding us into the dining room, “when the Queen Mother comes to stay – came to stay – rather, I do beg your pardon – we bring out all the silver crockery. Don’t we, dear? Now – you lot have only got the bronze crockery because you’re simply not special enough, are you!”
We stood looking at the dining room table. More trinkets and pictures of Royalty alongside pictures of the Colonel saluting for the cameras in various locations around the world.
Even in the corridor and up the stairs were more pictures of the fathers and grandfathers dressed up in military gear, dripping with medals, saluting. Pictures of the Colonel in combat gear with face paint, pointing a machine gun, presumably at some poor sod, with the caption – “Northern Ireland 1979”. In the toilets the reading materials were school boy comic books of “Sergeant Dave” and the lads giving those Krauts and the Japs ‘a bloody good hiding’ and playing cricket in the trenches despite gun shot wounds and bandages over an eye. It was absurd but somehow charming and strangely forgivable.
Once we had unpacked, settled in and retired to the living room, the talk, inevitably, turned to the British Empire of yore and the current American imperial power – an hegemony unlikely to be questioned for at least another hundred years. We talked about Syria and Afghanistan (some of us in the room having been or worked there) and all key areas in the ‘grand chess game’ America is now playing.
“Americans? WHO DO THEY THINK THEY ARE? This house has door knobs older than that country.”
We talked about Edward Luttwak and the military strategy of doing the least efficient think possible to confuse your enemy.
After a while, I moved over to the fireplace and relaxed into a flowery antique sofa-chair. Outside the rolling hills were in darkness. It was a cold, clear winter evening – silent and still, when chimney smoke rises vertically to the stars.
Inside, the fireplace roared and from one of the numerous piles of books I picked up a copy of ‘Goodbye to Berlin’, a revealing account of Berlin in the ‘30s. On the other sofa, one of the border terriers was curled up and briefly opened an eyelid to check who I was. Another smaller, rat-like terrier was curled up by the feet of a life sized model Beefeater, but instead of protecting the Queen, this Beefeater was ossified in the act of pouring a cup of tea. Nice thing to have in the living room, I thought – but double-checked to make sure I wasn’t imagining it.
I continued reading through the book and kept an eye out for the French poodle who was eagerly trotting around, looking for something to get ’stuck into’.
I paused and stared into the fire: After the evening’s talk of war (and work) I pondered about work and value in life. I thought about the military strategist Luttwak’s quote that “everything that we value in human life is within the realm of inefficiency – love, family, attachment, community, culture, old habits, comfortable old shoes.”
I thought about the colonel. I looked again at the Beefeater and the border terriers next to a roaring fire. The trinkets, carpets and doorknobs. Everything was wonderfully inefficient. I started gently dozing off.
In the background, I could hear the shouting emerge yet again from the kitchen: “Now who doesn’t want their eggs poached for breakfast? Off. OFF! YOU! Get OFF THAT chair. Shoo. Sorry, dear, now did you say wanted poached or scrambled eggs?”
Bloody hell, old bean, I missed you.
Machiavelli Of Maryland (Article about Edward Luttwak)