On Christmas Eve we drove through a dark and windy Sussex night to a tiny 13th-century church in a spot which time (and most of humanity) has hurried past, leaving it without power, without a cellphone signal, and with a whitewashed interior of utter simplicity.
“One of the loveliest interiors in England,” writes Nikolaus Pevsner in his guide, with no exaggeration. “Atmosphere is perhaps something which ought not to have much to do with The Buildings of England, but at Up Marden the atmosphere is as tangible as any moulding, the slow, loving, gentle accretion century by century until it is something as organic as any of the South Downs views around it… It is incredibly moving whether one… is religious or not.”
A white-haired vicar straight out of Barchester Chronicles led a service of carols made charmingly ramshackle by the fact that two different versions of the old songs were being sung from two different hymn sheets, both being deciphered by the light of wonky candles. Three tone-deaf young men, who very probably made their way straight to church from an all-afternoon pub lunch, bellowed We Three Kings wearing golden paper crowns. For 50 minutes, a small congregation was transported.
It’s an odd thing, going back as a stranger to an area you’ve known since childood. We were lucky with the weather through much of our British Christmas week (though it never fails to amaze me how much colder even the sunniest seven degrees feels in the UK than it does in Italy: is this psychosomatic?) and we had wonderful walks along shores and up hills near Chichester.
The South Downs are, objectively speaking, superb. And the light all that way further north has a quality which in Italy you find only on the most brilliant days swept clean by a northerly tramontana wind. But there’s something about Sussex’s winter colours that makes me sad. Many decades ago a visiting Parisian friend of my father’s described it as ‘barbed wire grey and concentration camp brown’, a phrase that stuck in the family vocabulary. It’s what I see.
Colour palettes make such a visceral impression on me. I used to thrill to the sear burnt landscape of the summer hills around the house my parents had near Nerja in southern Spain – despite the horrors of holiday-complex developments for beer-swilling Brit travellers. The extreme minerality of the Ladakh moonscape made me feel as disorientated as the lack of oxygen – until I acclimatised to the latter and found the rivulets of condensed green running through the former. What Italy gives me – and I can’t think of a single place I’ve been in this country where this isn’t true – is a colour balance in line with my desires. It makes me feel at home.
Fiumicino airport welcomed us back by delivering about two thirds of the bags (not ours) from our flight, then leaving us watching a circling empty carousel for about 40 minutes before the screen flashed ‘completed’ and the carousel screeched to a halt. Luckily the wait at the lost luggage office was long and one passenger wandered off, locating our bags on a distant carousel. The baggage handlers had clearly decided to save themselves a trip by going back to the plane for a second load then lumping ours together with cases from a Moscow flight. “Paese di merda,” shouted one infuriated passenger and at that particular moment, late at night, I almost agreed with him. Almost.
But we have returned to an Umbria painted its best winter colours by the aforementioned tramontana. It’s crisp and cold and wonderful, and the hiccoughs seem immaterial.
For the time being, I’m even feeling indulgent towards my builders in town who have done more or less nothing in the week that we were away. My forgiving state of mind may not last long. Christmas being on a Sunday, it was almost a full working week. If they don’t make up for lost time the moment the new year has arrived, I’ll be less than thrilled.
Before leaving I helped the electrician spray-paint the exact position of sockets and switch boxes on walls.
“Where do I put the TV and phone?” he asked me on the second floor.
I guess I’m forced to give in to the eventuality of a TV on each floor, though anyone wanting such a thing in my putative rented accommodation will have to request it specially because I have no intention of making it a normal thing. But a phone socket? Who needs a phone socket? I pointed out that one centralised phone point for the modem would suffice; and anyway, I told him, hardly anyone has landlines any more.
The law now states, however, that any living or sleeping room over a certain number of square metres must have both TV and phone sockets.
“It’s about making things easy when you sell the property on,” the electrician said.
But if the law has changed since we finished straightening up our house in 2005, we were already well on the road to landline-extinction. How long does it take for legislators to catch up?
Mind you, how long does it take me to catch up with things? In the in-flight magazine en route to Gatwick, I was fascinated by a retail opportunity called ‘Photography Fluid’ – a kind of foundation you can plaster on your face to make yourself selfie-ready with “a wide array of light refracting prisms, tone and hue correctors and topical photo-finishing technologies.” Basically, you’re Photoshopping yourself even before you press the shutter release.
I mentioned this in amazed tones to my 15-year-old niece as we ate a toe-numbing lunch seated outside a restaurant (my sister brought their dog with her so we couldn’t eat inside) after a post-Christmas walk, and she gave me a withering ‘er… duh?’ look. It’s not only legislators who are behind-hand, apparently.