Dear Distant Kin or Absent Friend,
How time flies! It seems nothing like a year ago since I last snatched a few moments from my busy life to let you all have our news - but it is, isn't it?
Where to begin? The Boxing Day Hunt was a spectacular success: the Ridgebacks flushed seventeen hunt-saboteurs out of Bracey's Covert, and a Guardian reporter fell into a tiger pit the twins had dug at the edge of the wood. He was very nasty when I explained they were only playing and that anyway he was trespassing. Just as I was threatening to leave him there, Roger and Justin came up in the Jeep and hauled him out, then, as he was obviously in shock, took him to the station and put him on the express to Edinburgh, instead of the London train. We were in perfect fits about it for hours afterwards!
In January, Roger got a nice advance from the University press for his second work
Contradictions in Post–Deconstructionist Semiotics: Arable or Dairy?, which unfortunately had to go straight towards paying for Tamsin's first year at
Roedean. Uncle Igor converted the Aga to run on chicken methane, and following this up with his next project, the pheasant pens are producing enough fuel for the Head Keeper's Subaru. Then there was also a wonderful find! Joseph discovered a cache of 1797 Bual hidden behind a wall the builders were knocking down to enlarge the cellar so Charles can do his rituals properly when he's home.
News came that Julia's paratroopers had retaken the airport at San Carlos! And a fortnight later Uncle Juan flew back there to celebrate a special thanksgiving Episcopal High Mass in the Cathedral. President Almeira is a very charming man and has very kindly written to say he will be delighted to come over to Lincolnshire for some rough shooting just as soon as his provisional government is recognized by the Foreign Office –though Xavier, Oscar and Humphrey (I should say Sir Humphrey now, really, shouldn't I? Well done, Bunnykin!) say we shouldn't hold our breath.
Rain, rain, rain! The causeway was under water for three whole weeks! Justin and I had to take the dinghy to St. Martin's and rescue the sheep from the tower, where they had taken refuge. Clever things! Then in mid-month we were faced with enormous bills for repairing the hole in the roof after the Barguests left last year (I dare say you all remember what a trial that was), to pay for Rebecca's camel and Wilhelmina's sanatorium fees. So Roger and I simply had to agree that there was nothing for it but to apply for Government funding again.
Our Heritage Lottery bid had been rejected out of hand (that was their loss, and Bonhams' gain, as the stained glass fetched quite a bit over the reserve price), and to cap it all the National Trust and English Heritage had the cheek to tell us that in order to qualify for a grant we had to open up our dear lovely old home to people we don't even know!! As if having to meet some of our tenants' perfectly ghastly families at every New Year Dinner Dance at the Hall weren't ordeal enough... Roger was furious.
Then, when I finally prevailed upon him to say we could let the public in for the couple of weeks in February while we're away in Barbados, and we offered them that, they said it wasn't enough! Would you believe they actually expected us to keep open house all through the summer? Yes! We couldn't believe it. So we've had to sell the lovely gardener's cottage to some retired time share agent from Manchester. Old Gresham was very good about having to move, poor dear man, and he is now nicely settled in a little Council house in Louth, and says he enjoys the nine miles' cycle ride here and back every day. Justin very sweetly fixed up a trailer for his bike so he can bring the lawn roller to work with him every day. He was so grateful to Justin he didn't know what to say, and burst into tears. So very embarrassing, but heartwarming at the same time.
We finally got connected to the Internet! Come and say hello at email@example.com! Dear, clever Oscar 'patched us in' from where he works, and said it wouldn't cost a penny. We started off getting thousands of messages every day, from people all over the world, nearly all of whom we don't even know, in every language you can think of, and on all kinds of subjects. I suppose lots of messages are bound to go astray, what with crossed telephone lines, wrong n umbers and that sort of thing: it's even worse than the Post Office.
The Utterby St.Martin carnival was great fun as usual, not least its traditional climax when the torchlit procession down to the marshes ends with the customary ritual of 'Hanging the Frenchman'. Uncle Igor had volunteered to be the monkey this year, and looked a perfect scream in a gorilla suit he hired from Jester’s. It took six big lads from the village to hold him down (it seems he hadn't quite realized what was involved, and that no-one was going to actually kill him), and a Maria-ful of policemen from Louth to prevent the usual high-spirited horseplay from getting out of hand when Uncle Igor (who proved to have been a little bit the worse for racking off his sugar-beet sauternes that morning) grabbed the May Queen and climbed the church tower with the poor girl under his arm. Once at the top, he held her hostage and kept screaming things about having spent the entire war in Lincolnshire as a reserved-occupation farm labourer. Fortunately he was so upset he said it all in Ukranian. It took police helicopter to persuade him to come down, and free drinks at The Green Man all evening to mollify the local people. So much for ski-ing at Interlaken this year... I must say, though, that Uncle Igor is remarkably fit, considering he'll be 83 next birthday. He attributes it to plenty of turnip riesling and a physically active life undiminished since his days as a
pris farm labourer in the 1940s.
We had a surprise visit from four friends of Oscar's, who work with him in Cheltenham. Oscar wasn't at home, and they were so disappointed when we said we'd no idea where he was (you'd have thought they would have known, wouldn't you?) They asked if they could use our computer – it belongs to Oscar, anyway – and they very kindly took all the disks they said Oscar had forgotten to bring to work, and then they sat up half the night making back-up copies of everything on the computer for Oscar at Cheltenham - wasn't that nice of them? And they even installed some sort of programme to filter out all the lost messages we were getting. What wonderfully kind friends Oscar has.
The cellar extension started to grow a smelly black mould in the centre of the floor, on the ceiling directly above and on the floor of the butler's pantry above that, on the ceiling of the butler's pantry as well. I thought the builders must have bridged the damp proof course, but Roger said we didn't have one. He immediately got on the telephone to Uncle Juan, of all people, who flew over the following weekend and fixed it. Then, oddly, he celebrated Mass all by himself down there in the basement. He seemed very cross with poor Charles, which I think is rather unfair as the damp can't have been his fault. Anyway, the whole house seems a lot warmer now. I never knew Uncle Juan was good at building ventilation -well, you don't expect a bishop to know about things like that, do you?
The business of the Grey Lady running screaming down the Yew Walk last December turned out to have been poor Wilhelmina. In one of her more lucid moments she told us she had been having a recurring nightmare about all the family being bicycles and trying to make her one of them. She told us this on a visit with dear Doctor Hegel, who was delighted with her progress. Then, when it was time for her to go, Justin went and spoiled it all by lying in wait for her in the Long Gallery, leaning against the wall on his hands and knees with a glazed expression on his face and a bicycle-pump stuck through his belt at the back. He thought it was a huge joke until she retaliated by putting drawing-pins in his Wellingtons - "to puncture the bastard 's tyres," as she put it. Justin said rather nastily afterwards that if the Grey Lady did exist, the reason for her running screaming down the Yew Walk was because she'd met Wilhelmina coming the other way. What a tiresome thing sibling rivalry can be at times.
Our GM soya crop of last year produced a splendid yield - Monsanto's were delighted, and so were we. We didn't dare tell a soul until now for security reasons – what with all the dreadful trouble others have had with those well-meaning city people who don't understand the country, grubbing the crops up without a by-your-leave. After all, it's obvious that these people don't really care about nature as we do in the country, because if they did, they'd be helping to protect rare plant species instead of destroying them, wouldn't they? Anyway, this year, all the weeds within a mile of the crop haven't seeded at all, so these GM plants are really much more beneficial to the environment than people realise.
Uncle Igor couldn't resist trying his hand at GM Soya-bean lager. We'll let you know how it turns out next year.
Oscar came home for a brief stay, for the first time in months. He seemed very upset that he had missed his friends in June. Charles was even more upset that Uncle Juan had been in the cellar. He's such an emotional lad. I told him the damp wasn't his fault, but still he seems to blame himself for some reason.
Oscar's friends turned up again, very early the next morning: they must work terribly hard at the Foreign Office. They very kindly offered Oscar a lift in their car back to Cheltenham, and wouldn't take no for an answer. He is ever so lucky to have colleagues like that. Then later, when Oscar was upstairs in his room, getting ready to go with them (two of his friends absolutely insisted on helping him pack), he fell out of the window but one of his friends just managed to catch hold of his arm and haul him back to safety. Oscar seemed very subdued after his near-accident – I expect it must have been the shock. He didn't even wave us goodbye when they drove off. Such a sensitive young man. That's Roger's side of the family, of course...
And now here we are, nearly at the end of December, and the badgers are still using the dining-room carpet, so we decided to let them have it. Oscar and Justin took it down to the sett, left it outside one of the holes and the next morning it had disappeared. Such a lovely Ispahan. Now and again, though, when the dining-room is quiet in the late evening, one still snuffles in through the French windows and looks around in a confused sort of way as if looking for something, shakes his head and waddles off again.
Cook and I made the mince pies early this year. Going through the pantry, we found an envelope addressed to Xavier, which turned out to have a packet of icing sugar inside. It didn't taste quite right but, rather than waste it, we used it to dust the mince pies. I expect Xavier found a burst bag and used the first thing that came to hand, bless him!
The vicar and choir of St. Martin's came to sing carols as usual on the fourteenth, and as usual we served everyone hot punch and mince pies. I think the punch was rather too strong, because everyone started laughing and staggering, and couldn't sing a note afterwards (though it didn't stop them trying). Poor Mr. Theddlethorpe, the vicar, was decidedly squiffy. He suddenly shouted in a loud voice that his trousers were full of light. He then tried to take them off so he could show everyone, got his legs hopelessly tangled and fell over sideways in the fireplace, giggling, with the fire-dogs on top of him. It was only with great difficulty that Roger and Mr Tathwell, our new butler and Roger's chauffeur, managed to restrain him from climbing up the chimney because he said he could see the Star of Bethlehem. He hasn't looked me in the eye since. He's usually such a dignified man. I must have a word with Uncle Igor and tell him never to put any of his beetroot claret in the punch again.
The phantom bomber squadron has been seen and heard at dusk lately on the old airfield, so some national disaster is expected before the New Year is very old. Let's hope it misses us and ours!
So - all the very best for the season from
All the Kirov-Renshaws.