The moment lockdown restrictions eased, my wife Anna booked up trips to Europe, to visit houses and villages I thought I’d never see again, such were the initial predictions about the zombie apocalypse. I’d not been to Barenton, Normandy, for example, since last autumn, but that hadn’t stopped the plumber and the builder from sending me regular bills. It is in this decaying granite villa, stretching over four floors, that the accumulated junk from the Herefordshire Balkans has been shoved — thousands of books, crates of manuscripts and letters, the children’s toys, even the children. Oscar, the middle son, spent time here, depleting the cellar after he broke up with a girlfriend. He ran back to England terrified when a mouse leapt out of an oven glove.
The trouble with the plumber and builder is that they won’t do what they are told. I am trying to restore the wooden shutters, install art deco sinks with chrome taps, generally conserve the original features. The French have no sympathy with this. They think the taps will leak, that wooden shutters are inferior to nice plastic ones, and original features, marble fireplaces and 19th-century silk wallpaper are what go in the trash. Only the new commands respect, so not for the first time I realized how everything I love is dying — my taste for heavy, dark furniture, mottled mirrors, dusty velvet curtains, silver cutlery, which to me belongs with order, elegance, style.
But I enjoyed having a big place to spread out in, a garden that is like a park, which costs an arm and a leg to maintain. I was beginning to get very settled, in fact, when it was time to go to southern Italy, where a few years ago, for reasons I can’t recall, I acquired a donkey hut in the Molise, thinking it may make a nice vacation home. It may very well one day be one of those, especially if I live to be a thousand, as after all this time the builder still hasn’t managed to get further than cladding the place in scaffolding. I own the most elaborate lightning rod in the Mediterranean. To get even that far required paperwork and rubber stamps from officials in every office east of Naples. My wife and I spent a full week trying to find the right people to switch on the electricity, then a similar period for the gas.
Regarding the water, we had to have appointments with the mayor and his confederates, who made us sign heaps of forms in triplicate and took photocopies of our passports and birth certificates and marriage certificate. The mayor then reached under his desk, and with a big flourish handed over a box, which contained a spanking new water meter. We then waited about all day for the builder and the plumber, who when they finally arrived presented us with a huge pot of honey.
It’s a beautiful part of the world, almost unspoiled, though nasty little cars have replaced the donkeys. It was also as hot as a furnace, and the fan in our bedroom was like an airplane propeller. We had something of a scorpion invasion, and I was always trepidatious, putting on shoes or standing in the shower.
What I dislike about Normandy is that it is so full of British expatriates, the actual French are thin on the ground, the France of Proust lost to time. The Molise, by contrast, is so unvisited that the locals have never met anyone from abroad, have never heard English spoken. They stare at us openly in the streets, like we are aliens — and they invite us in for drinks and cakes, full of curiosity.
It doesn’t end there, I’m afraid. When 20 years ago HBO filmed one of my ravings, I bought a house in Canada, realized immediately it was too far to get to for a weekend, and switched it for a place in Austria, which has similar lakes and snowy mountains. So, after Italy we went to Salzburg and ten days in Bad Ischl, where, because Britain has left the EU, they have very sweetly imposed extra property taxes on us, which they call a Freizeitwohnungspauschale. Why does every Germanic word look like a declaration of war?
The populace is always friendly, however, courteous and formal in the ways I appreciate. In Bad Ischl, where Franz Lehar is played on the bandstands, social changes are resisted. They unabashedly wear traditional national dress, for example, lederhosen and hats with big shaving brushes for the chaps, the chapesses in dirndls.
It was only when we were finally flying back, we found out Austria was now on the blacklist, and we’d have to go into quarantine for two weeks. My least nice dwelling is the one in Hastings, Sussex. It is the size of a phone box, situated in the slum district, and overlooks a yard with immigrants’ laundry. Here I am currently under house arrest, a fugitive from justice if I so much as take the trash out.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s November 2020 US edition.