‘Dreich’: the word Rosanna used as we opened the curtains this late January morning was perfect: the Scots expresses the dourness, the glumness, the greyness of a day that is neither cold nor warm, just dull, still, sitting on your spirits, with even the woodpigeons not bothering to tell each other, ‘My toe hurts, Betty!’ I chose not to go down the Fen on a doolie day like this for my pre-breakfast walk, and so set off up what they call a hill round here – though to a man brought up in sight of the fells and moorlands up north the word does still seem optimistic. Still, from its 35 foot summit you can see for miles – at least, you can on a clear day – even to the tower of Cambridge University Library, and Addenbrooke’s hospital, and Ely Cathedral. But not on a day like this.
Going up the track with the lime and chestnut trees on one hand and Michael’s new yew hedge (growing nicely now) on the other, it was so hard not once again to grieve for dear Hector the Labrador, who would always choose this start to his busy walk if I gave him the choice. I do miss that tail waving a few paces ahead, and the important look on his face as he chose the place for his first squat. There has not been a lot of rain, but the slight frost is coming out of the marly ground, and where a tractor has run along – Andrew, I guess, going up to see to his portly Dexters – the soil is sticky. I get into a nice rhythm in the wood, which is ideal for going into deep thought and a sort of half-awareness of one’s context. I find that useful when I am trying to sort out an intractable problem. The one that preoccupies me at the moment, almost obsessively, is how to structure the new book I am writing, what to call it, how to focus its themes. My agents, A. M. Heath, who have handled three books of mine, say they love the writing but it crosses so many marketing categories they will have difficulty getting a publisher to take it. (I quoted to Bill what old Mr Bertram Foyle said to me the first day I joined his publishing firm: ‘Forget all that fine writing, dear boy, just remember that books have to sell, just like frozen peas. Your poor wife can’t buy nice clothes on fine writing.’ Bill nodded, sadly.) As the book is at present, it’s a travelogue, a memoir of many things, place and people, a pilgrimage of sorts to some sort of acceptance of what we are as humans: both the glorious and the vicious are in each and every one of us. It goes from the amphitheatres of Rome to the gulags and the Holocaust – via the glory of Bach, the vision of Dante, the wisdom of Plato and Gothic arches aspiring to the uncreated light – and the fellowship and friendliness of food shared by a southern sea, and wine pressed on a guest who did not share their language and was born of their ancient enemy, in a little gasthof somewhere near Dachau.