Glossy Review: It's a frog's Life across the pond
I was having a froggy day when the publication piqued my interest: a flick through The Australian had revealed a quartet of green tree frogs accompanying the 'Take the Challenge' general knowledge quiz (FYI Frank Forde succeeded John Curtin as the Prime Minister of Australia; the collective term for frogs is actually an 'army'; and five countries share borders with Bolivia).
While this issue was produced a while ago, before the royal wedding sent us all atwitter, the magazine gives us a good entree into the life Kate and Wills might live. The magazine's recent list of 39 skills Britain's youth should have outside the academic sphere in order to sustain a fulfilling, well-rounded life include skinning a rabbit and using a bow and arrow (as you do).
In British rural society, hunting, shooting, horse riding, antique shopping, hosting dinner parties with aplomb and the buying of historic mansions are apparently the favoured pastimes, but an undercurrent of sexism keeps things decidedly antiquated, much like the mid-17th century mansion advertised for sale by Carter Jonas.
Still, it appears the readership is rolling with the times. According to a recent survey by the magazine, "a majority of British landowners are prepared to leave their estate to their daughters despite ancient common law allowing sons to claim full inheritance to family property."
This is good news for Miss Lara Rebekah Harvey.
The centrepiece (yes, centrepiece) each issue is a pretty lady whose debut via Country Life would no doubt have her parents in raptures, a quaint concept whereby daughters of old-money folk, the cream of the crop, are to be admired for their fine form and academic credentials. Miss Harvey, aged 18, we're told, "was educated at Millfield, where she was a music and drama scholar" and will "join the Royal Northern College of Music in September as a mezzo soprano" (she has her own website, www.lara-harvey.com). This month, she will be giving a recital at Hatfield House.
Each issue leads in with sprawling real estate pages, which are complemented by a 'Property Market' section where the words "immaculate", "sumptuous", "acclaimed", "inspirational", "agreeable" and "charming" appear with abandon, and the homes have wings, sitting rooms, orchards, halls, chambers, kitchen/breakfast rooms and moats.
The title, published by IPC and launched in 1897, is edited by Mark Hedges, who writes of Lent and a sombre economic mood in this edition's lively editorial, 'Stop the world: we want to get off':
"The great Brown boom, that time of frolic and excess, is over, and now the fashion note is more sackcloth and ashes than bling. The high priest of exuberance, John Galiano, would have had to go, even if he hadn't turned out to hold some odious opinions. Hectic expansionism has been replaced by doing without, but the self-denial is hardly voluntary. Libraries and bus passes, arts funding and garden waste collection – the smouldering bonfire of cuts has begun to burst into all-consuming flame.
Our natural buoyancy has, for the time being, gone; into its place have crept the introspection and uncertainty that haunted Renaissance Italy after the Sack of Rome. It is as if we figuratively keep a skull in the bedchamber, to remind ourselves that, however gorgeously apparelled, we return to dust. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity. Couldn't we do without more of the same in Lent?
No, Lent may be exactly what we need. It can't be coincidence that all the great religions regard periods of fasting and self-denial as part of the spiritual life. They are the natural antidotes to the human tendency, if left unchecked, to overdo it, consuming too freely and acquiring too much. This would seem to be as much a cycle as the economic one. Lent is a time to take stock, reorder our existence, return to discipline. We may not all enjoy, figuratively, going to the gym, but we feel better for it. This year, which has brought material difficulties for many people and readjustment for all, 40 days of reflection may just be what are needed to help sort ourselves out."
Unencumbered by excess baggage, "those superfluities which 'never would be missed'" and the modern need to be "always on the go", it is suggested that readers take more time to marvel at the countryside in spring, "the pleasure of which comes free". And Country Life is ready to help you with obtaining this visceral pleasure.
Hedges and editor-at-large Clive Aslet assume nom de plumes (Hedges, 'Country Mouse'; Aslet 'Town Mouse') in a dual-authored illustrated column recounting their recent respective activities in, you guessed it, town and country. In another editorial, 'Don't be afraid to eat well', which aims to stave off the "food miseries...out to get us to eat less red meat", we are told, "Life is for living, and most of these food fascists don't look any too healthy or happy themselves". Not a happy chappy: painter Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), who had a preference for drawing from "naked and semi-clothed models with two friends and amateur artists, the Comte de Caylus and Nicolas Henin". Martin Gayford describes him as sombre, bilious, timid and caustic; gloomy, irritable and withdrawn outside the drawing room.
The 'Notebook' page features 'Quiz of the Week' ("Which English general won the Battle of Blenheim?"), 'Unmissable Events', 'Good to know' (Oakham Castle), '100 Years Ago in Country Life' and 'We love...' (this week, it's husband-and-wife design team Isabel and Neil Banks of Ruby+Ed, which "originally specialised in luxury slippers, but now sells everything from toys to hot-water-bottle covers and umbrellas" and has just appointed a brand manager).
Elsewhere, Roy Strong argues for a return to the canon of texts (Chaucer, Spenser, Sidney, Milton, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Austen, Dickens, Eliot) that form the "touchstone of the identity of England" within the education system "eroded by multiculturalism"; Pippa Cuckson reports on renewable energy projects "thrown into jeopardy by the Government's early review of Feed-In Tariffs"; field sports groups rebut an attack on gamekeepers' "bird-of-prey persecution crimes"; Rory Stewart writes of the establishment of the national Institute of Afghan Arts and Architecture in Kabul; Felice Hardy follows the tracks of the Flying Grannies of Klosters "clutching this season's widest and sexiest powder skis"; and Libby Purves takes her seasonal defective disorder out on the daffodils: "Up, damn you. up, you idle narcissi. Get out, grow up, get yellow!".
'Guess who's coming to dinner' introduces us to the magazine's 50 most-wanted guests from all-walks (as "it is refreshing to meet those outside one's realm of experience") who are to dine with you in the dining room or the library, the drawing room or the hall ("Whatever we may be told by life-stylists, being forced to watch some ersatz Nigella at work [in the kitchen] is attention seeking on her part, and makes everyone else feel inadequate and restless").
Before introducing the guests, Kit Hesketh-Harvey implore us to employ a "skivvy" in the kitchen (teenage children will do), banish sickening smelly flower arrangements, place some candles, dress up, add placements ("husbands next to wives is, frankly, common; it leaves no notes to compare in the car"), offer sherries, buy time with canapes and source food locally. To the guest list (a select few)...
- Diana Anthill, "one of the shrewdest publishers of all time, the nonagenarian has a wise cheerfulness that you could listen to forever";
- Joan Bakewell, "the original 'thinking man's crumpet' is well informed and disarmingly frank, which can only make for amusing conversation";
- Bill Clinton, "whether you approve of him or not, he's not short on social graces or intellect, and you'd feel as if you had his full attention";
- Jilly Cooper, "one of those life-enhancing people who just cheers you up, she has an inimitable charm and an endearing way of laughing throatily halfway through her own jokes";
- The Duke of Edinburgh, "we enjoy the bon mots of this remarkable man of many interests";
- Stephen Fry, "even the wittiest brains share mundane concerns – in a recent tweet, he posted the fairly non-intellectual gambit: 'Why does no kind of hat suit me?';
- Prince Harry, "an admirable and refreshing ability to make an effort without being sanctimonious";
- Jeremy Irons, "one of the few English actors to achieve true film-star status without selling out to Hollywood";
- Keira Knightley, "the graceful actress is known to have a sweet nature, which should help to paper over any sticky moments during dinner";
- Nigella Lawson, "one of the few beautiful women liked by both men and women, and at least you won't be embarrassed to ask for seconds";
- Joanna Lumley, "gracious and humorous";
- Emma Thompson, "as compelling off-screen as on...good for a thought-provoking night";
- Germaine Greer, "a great antidote to the pomp and circumstance that can arise over a cheese and Port at the end of a long night."
But back to the frogs. John Humphreys meets Mr. Jeremy Fisher and his friends, "who remain cheerful despite a life full of booby traps", in 'Froggy went a' courtin''. Laments Humphreys: "The frog is a figure of fun, the subject of rude jokes and an insulting nickname for a Frenchman, which is sad, because Rana is an interesting, harmless little chap with much against him. Many creatures eat him and his babies, from fish, newts, grass snakes, ducks and herons to rats – I've even seen blackbirds taking tadpoles from a garden pond – so that of every batch of 2,000 eggs, the frog will be lucky if five make it to adulthood. Then there are climate change and pesticides – life for the frog is one long hop and a booby-trapped path."
After educating us about the frog's habitat, breeding and lifestyle preferences, Humphreys concludes, "The frog is a colourful, cheerful and blameless creature, an important part of the countryside and should be treasured. Garden ponds now are his nursery, as, in the wild, his habitat is diminishing. To lose Mr. Jeremy would be a body blow. Without him, who would princesses have in order to find a prince?". Hmm.
Despite the lingering sexism, and middle-class elitism, all 'round the pond, I've had a jolly good time.
Girl With a Satchel