IT’S turned midnight and stars are burning. There’s a smell of autumn in the grass and draughts stir the flysheet. The summer isn’t quite dead but it’s fading. In the deep shades of night, lying still as a stone in a sleeping bag with my eyes to the stars, it’s easy to imagine the first fall of leaves and the bite of frost . . .
If I’m giving you the impression I’m camping on a star-lit hilltop or in a secluded dip between wild ridges then I apologise. I’m in the back garden drinking gin and tonic in a tent purchased last week at a garden centre in the village of Blofield, near Norwich, where my wife was born. Tonight I’m back in the North-East observing bright stars. I don’t know much about astronomy but I think one of those distant heavenly sparks is Seamus Heaney.
So we were walking though this garden centre, which has a large camping and leisure section, when I was attracted – like a moth to a heavenly spark – to a Vango Force Ten Nitro 200 two-man backpacking tent reduced from a stupid amount of cash to £199. Certain people have since argued that £199 is still a stupid amount of cash.
There was even a demonstration model pitched in a field along with all manner of party, barbecue, beach, picnic and inflatable tents that people like me could crawl into and inspect. So I bought it on impulse. I don’t do many things on impulse, so I’m pretty chuffed.
And if I’m giving you the impression that this might turn into a gear review – it isn’t. Gear, so far as I’m concerned, is one of the mysteries of life, which probably goes a long way to explaining why so many of my expeditions end in disappointment.
But I’ll tell you this. I had no trouble pitching it. Except while I was poring over the instructions one of the chickens escaped from its pen – Scary Mary the white leghorn – and declined to be captured. Chickens always run in the the wrong direction when you’re trying to herd them. Are they thicker than us or on a higher cerebral plain? That’s one I intend to think about.
[STOP PRESS: There’s a story in this morning’s papers about a University of East Anglia study that claims women should have multi-partner relationships if they want strong and intelligent children. The research is based on the lifestyle of the ancestor of the domestic hen. So that’s answered that one.]
Another thing I’ll mention is that the five alloy pegs that secure the guy ropes have an “X” cross-section. They are undoubtedly very effective in a force ten gale, but if you step on one in your stocking feet you feel you’ve been nailed to a cross. I’m not saying they inflict blinding pain, but I was expecting to open my tightly-screwed eyes to see John Wayne in a centurion’s outfit standing by the greenhouse.
Anyway, Seamus Heaney died a few days ago so I was rereading his translation of Beowulf when I turned off the lamp to gaze at the stars. Back in the mid-1990s, my wife and I had the honour of sitting in a packed auditorium at the University of East Anglia (there’s an unhappy coincidence) listening to a Heaney recital. Heaney was introduced by Andrew Motion, who shortly afterwards was elevated to the position of Poet Laureate. Funny how things happen in Norwich.
Another reason I’m camping in the garden is because the house is full of strange people – including grandchild No 2 who is only a fortnight old. I’m still trying to get my head around this. Little blokes pop into the world at one end, blossom, make their mark, then grow into old men and pop out at the other.
So I raise my gin and tonic to the bright star that looks like it should be called Seamus Heaney. David Frost’s probably up there too, and David Jacobs. And I toast the conveyor belt of life and the human race. Because despite all the international doom and gloom, to produce such gifted and enchanting people we must be doing something right.