It’s not often that contributors to this esteemed organ receive invitations to the publisher’s country pile on the outskirts of one of the most notable conurbations on the south coast and when we do they are treated by us all as more of a summons than something with an option to decline attached.
Yesterday therefore I set off down the M23 at what I regarded as an ungodly hour, interrupted only by a bizarre interlude just after the Gatwick turn-off when, having spotted a ‘whirly-bird’ type helicopter hovering in the sky a mile or two ahead, my late-rush hour traffic rounded a long right-hand bend to see flashing blue lights at the side of the road half a mile in front of us. Suddenly all three police cars – for that is what they were – flashed out into the middle of the carriageway and, line abreast, brought our procession down to a 30mph amble.
About a quarter of a mile ahead, my vehicle now the first civilian vehicle behind the middle police car, I spied two more police cars ‘escorting’ a dark-coloured saloon and ushering it to the side of the road. The three line-abreast then rushed forward to join them and – as they did so, before any of us could accelerate – another dark (presumably unmarked police) car, with a flashing blue light on its roof above the driver, came flying up the inside run-off lane and out in front of my middle lane of three and then began weaving at speed in and out of all three lanes, plainly in an attempt to keep all three-lanes’ worth of traffic behind it by itself.
About forty seconds later it sped away again towards the other police cars – and the vehicle they had persuaded to accompany them – now stopped at the side of the road and the southbound carriageway traffic was able to resume normal service.
Approximately fifty minutes later I pulled up at the imposing gates and wall of my destination, alighted from my car and presented myself to a video phone device, pressed the recommended button and had a parley with some sort of security master control within the recesses of the main house and just about managed to establish my credentials successfully enough to pass muster.
Thereafter the gates swung open and I began my (20mph limit) threequarters of a mile cruise to the destination proper.
In doing so I passed through some of the most beautiful Sussex countryside I have seen in a long time studded periodically with flocks of sheep, herds of cattle and deer to my left and right and – nearer the house – a group of at least forty alpacas watching on with apparent keen interest.
I don’t know about you, but there’s something about extreme wealth and its owners (especially when it is worn so lightly and totally without ostentation) that renders me excessively self-aware and uncomfortably obsequious.
In that respect I noted that there were others in our little party of fourteen who were not so afflicted – not least our rather earnest and pompous film critic and two of the five female attendees, viz. the still strikingly well-preserved restaurant reviewer and the rather strident and forceful former Fleet Street journalist with the kind of low, 60-a-day cigarette-ravaged, foghorn voice that could cut through five-feet thick steel plating like a James Bond film lazer [names withheld here to protect the guilty].
At this point I shall gloss over the detailed contents of our two-hour meeting. Suffice it to say that, in a hall-type long room with ceiling-high windows looking out over the estate bejewelled with decorations and artefacts that would not have looked out of place housed within the Palace of Versailles, we first received with due reverence a lengthy oration from Our Leader on the state of the world, Brexit, the global financial situation, the politics of the Middle East and the first-half-of-the-season fortunes of Torquay United.
The business strategy of our organ was then explained, focussing upon issues and costs associated the task of both administering and ‘content policing’ a worldwide readership of 10.9 million – as was the immediate requirement that we accept a 50% pay cut for our occasional pieces submitted for publication.
Sometime later – at last released to go about our daily business – I eagerly accepted an impromptu suggestion from Ivan Conway that six of us should retire to a recommended fish restaurant in a village not far from where we had spent the morning incarcerated.
(I am bound to say that by the time in question some of us needed alcoholic refreshment more than we needed food, but that’s by the by).
I’m a great believer in the theme that ‘the glass is half full’ rather than the opposite; that beyond every reverse in life is a new opportunity; and in the adage that “When one door closes, another opens” – and when said establishment’s doors opened we embarked upon a gastronomic treat the like of which I cannot previously personally ever recall whilst carrying on a passionate and hilarious conversation on innumerable topics of mutual interest.
Starting with a dozen oysters each brought from all over the British Isles, we progressed through an exceptional menu line by line, course by course, until everyone present had ingested their fill. All this was accompanied by pink champagne, a fine selection of white and dessert wines selected by our ebullient and recently-arrived wine expert and complimentary bottles of port each to finish.
I don’t mind admitting that, having been placed upon a strict vegan regime these past six weeks by my Better Half, I rather let myself go and – buoyed by the general conviviality – both ate and imbibed rather more than I might. I was not the only one. Suffice it to say that shortly before 4.00pm, as we departed into the encircling gloom, spirits were high, confidence had soared and our collective sense of team spirit and camaraderie was touching the stars rather like Mr Musk’s Tesla car and dummy driver.
It’s the reason that we are all approaching our duties on the Rust going forward with renewed purpose and vigour, if half the reward.
It’s also the reason that the first task today for at least three of us will be to catch trains to the South Coast in order to retrieve our cars which, reluctantly but wisely, we decided to leave behind where they had been parked yesterday.