“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” is the much-quoted verdict of Dr Johnson. But it admits of some ambiguity as to the question of which comes first. I have a one-year-old who hasn’t slept through the night since he drew his first breath, and a three-year-old who sleeps like a top but will not let five waking minutes pass without a request for a rice cake, the demand for a change of outfit, or a fit of temper that would terrify the most temperamental of divas.
I look at myself in the mirror—eyes more than usually sunken, skin more than usually sallow, hair more than usually lank—and I feel like I’m peering out from an observation platform somewhere deep inside a scale model of my body, constructed with an aesthetic debt to the late Lucian Freud. Tired of life, I think. Tired of everything.
It’s at such times that one seeks refuge in fantasies of escape. The latest to grip me has to do with the country. It’s my wife Alices’s fault. I always tell her that she shouldn’t go on the internet, but learning that a friend was moving to Frome in Somerset, she made the mistake of looking on one of those property websites, and whimsically emailed me a link, saying: “Shall we move here?”
The link opened to a Victorian house on the River Mells, with decking over the water and a picturesquely ruined mill beside it. Old wooden floors, wood-burning stove, a grassy lawn photographed in the golden light of evening. I could almost taste the cool water gurgling through the mill race. I imagined myself lying down on that lawn, drifting off—oblivious to the gentle splosh-splosh as, somewhere a little way away, both toddlers tumbled into the stream.
She didn’t mean it, of course. But now I am obsessed. As things stand we live in North London’s Archway—where the Wisteria-clad houses of Dartmouth Park and the bohemian cafés of Kentish Town give way to a terminal moraine of shouty drunks and kebab shops, hard on a gyratory system round which the drivers of panel vans circulate ceaselessly, saluting each other with shaken fists and leaned-on horns. Occasionally, into the mephitic air there rises the forlorn sound of a siren.
And yet, here… I peered into the picture on the internet, and mouthed to myself the word: “Frome.” Actually, it’s…