WILL SELF: Multicultural man... on Cotswold kitsch
- Credit: Tim Graham/Getty Images
WILL SELF ponders whether he will bump into former prime minister David Cameron while in the Cotswolds.
Standing on the village green at Bledington in the Cotswolds, I watched as a man wearing green waterproof overalls, riding a tiny 'tractor-style' lawnmower, crossed paths with another man, wearing a brown Barbour jacket and leading a miniscule Shetland pony by its halter.
Oh to be in middle-England on a Saturday morning, now that the dank summer is here! As a determinedly multicultural man, it behoves me to examine all cultures with a forensic eye, so, this week I undertook a field trip to reacquaint myself - after many years spent in the far-flung realms of London - with the mores of the middle-Englanders.
Bledington, a mere lawnmower ride away from Chipping Norton, the epicentre of the so-called 'Cotswold Set', seemed the ideal location for me to make camp - who knows, I might catch sight of our former prime minister, David Cameron, putting the finishing touches to his long-awaited memoir in his wheeled - yet immobile - shepherd's hut. My own lodgement - from which I would observe the comings and goings of the waxed-cotton-wearing tribe - was to be the King's Head. This venerable pub was - one of the staff assured me - originally a cider house, built in the 16th century; and, with its flagstone floors, low beamed ceilings, and wooden settles warped by generations of moleskin-clad arses, it certainly looked the part. But then there was the pub sign: blank, apart from a Van Dyke beard and some cavalier hair floating in space.
What is the semiotics of this weirdness? Do the owners - who also run the Swan, at Swinbrook, of which more anon - wish to signal that they are crypto-republicans, who want the king's head to be annulled? Or are they Jacobites, awaiting the return of some king-over-the-water? (Who, in all probability, is a Belgian dentist with a mail-order certificate locked in his filing cabinet.) At any rate, with that morning's Telegraph announcing: "A group of senior Tory ministers is acting behind the scenes to ensure that Boris Johnson will be crowned leader of the party without a series of divisive votes…" the pub sign appeared at once monitory - and minatory.
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Johnson is, of course, a sort of human skeuomorph - a skeuomorph being a formerly utile object that has been repurposed as merely decorative. There was a perfect example of this phenomenon - which arguably proliferates during periods of rapid change - in our bedroom at the King's Head: the wallpaper above the headboard had been carefully cut away in an oblong shape, to reveal an ancient wooden beam. The trouble was that the room was in fact in a modern annex - so the beam had been implanted in the wall deliberately, as a signifier of venerability to which the building really couldn't pretend. It's the same with Johnson - in who has been implanted a fake heart of Churchillian oak.
The wallpaper patterned with twiggy trees, the bizarre 'four-poster' that yet lacked a… canopy; the ghastly sub-Clooney espresso machine… And outside a terrace, a loggia, and honeyed stone in wild profusion: this was Cotswolds cliché of a very high order indeed - a mutated simulacrum of immemorial Englishness, out of Hollywood by way of Notting-fucking-Hill. The gaff was cluttered up with tourist trash, and the sort of 'locals' who wear pink and even mauve corduroy trousers while discussing house prices with the fervour mystics have for the sublime.
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I tried to explain to my French partner that the beautiful cottages and elegant houses clustered around the green filled me with the most dreadful sense of uncanniness and claustrophobia - but to her they were merely quaint.
It wasn't until we crossed that green and peered in through the windows of Gilbert's Farmhouse (currently being marketed by Knight Frank, for the frankly knightly sum of £1.65 million) that she began to feel my pain.
The humungous breakfast bar, the freestanding bath, the acres of fitted carpet - all the garish finishing which suggests a soi-disante 'interior designer' has been at work - all of it betokened a bucolic dream cross-fertilised again and again with the urban nightmare of w**ker-bankers with exponentially more money than taste.
Still, it was ever thus. The Swan at nearby Swinbrook is themed not by some absent monarchy, but the once-resident squierarchy: namely, the Mitford sisters, whose parents had the nearby Asthall Manor between 1919 and 1926. There are photos of the six Mitford sisters plastered all over the pub-cum-boutique-hotel, while outside the Windrush River purls between soft and reedy banks. This is the bucolic scene that, in part, forms the setting for Nancy Mitford's snoblit - and her ashes are buried in the graveyard of the local church, where lie also the remains of her sisters, Diana and Unity; the former Oswald Mosley's wife, the latter Hitler's would-be girlfriend. All of which is by way of reminding you, dear reader, that even in the misty fruitfulness of middle England the serpent worm lurks.