I hadn’t realised quite how much I’d come to hate my job until I lost it. Rather than plunging deep into ‘how do we pay the mortgage’ anxieties I found myself literally dancing round the garden. It took me a full week to come down from that euphoric high.
That’s not to say it didn’t put a major dent in our finances, one we’ve never fully recovered from. All those wannabe writers out there who occasionally email me asking for advice? Working as a freelance isn’t easy, especially when you find you’ve morphed from being a highly-paid radio and TV rent-a-gob into a self-identifying food and features writer. Hint: do NOT ask me who will publish your work unpaid. That is taking the bread from my mouth and I never react well when deprived of food.
I was prompted to write this after reading an article by Helen Cullen in the Sunday Times magazine, describing how she and her partner coped when they abandoned London for life in a chilly borrowed cottage in the Irish countryside. They only lasted a year but she finished her book before they hot-footed it back to the UK capital.
Of course, they had the option to move back to the metropolis. Most people (I’m not counting MPs and bankers) who shift to the country sell their London houses to buy something bigger and/or cheaper elsewhere and can never, ever afford to move back. Brexit and the new rules governing buy-to-let landlords may have softened the London housing market, but rest assured, property is always going to be more expensive there than pretty much anywhere else in the country. Moving out is a one-way ticket.
We bought a ramshackle old house in Suffolk and for a while shuttled between that and our home in Islington before realising that the cost of running two places was going to break us. So we moved full time to Suffolk, my husband’s natal county, and let our London house. Now we’re in the process of selling it. So that’s it. We are officially country folk.
Do I regret it, this big move from what had been my home for so many years? Some of my more urban friends were appalled when I told them we were leaving London and at one time I would have agreed with them unthinkingly and wholeheartedly. Leave London? Are you insane? No galleries, concerts, theatre, ballet, opera? Well, actually, we have all of those to some extent in East Anglia but the truth was we didn’t really use London to its full potential when we lived there. It was more the fact that we knew all that cultural malarkey was there if we needed it that provided the comfort blanket.
I miss my old friends. I know they’re only an hour or two away but I can’t just pick up the ‘phone and nip out to meet them for a movie or simply a drink. I have to book train tickets and try to cram as much into a 24 hour period as possible. Dentist? Check. Hairdresser? Check. Coffee/lunch/supper/a film/a heart to heart with someone who’s known me long enough to get my sense of humour and overlook my character flaws? Check.
I miss being able to order the occasional takeaway when I don’t feel like cooking (Deliveroo has never heard of Suffolk) or nipping out to a restaurant that doesn’t involve a 40 minute drive each way. I miss London’s huge wealth of ethnic food shops. I can get the same stuff here but I have to order it via the internet. My husband has taken to telling people I know all the delivery drivers by name. Not true, I only know Oliver that well and I frightened him one day when I suggested he may as well just move in. No, really, Oliver, I’m not that sort of middle aged woman. It’s Mrs Portly, not Mrs Robinson.
I have made new friends. This has taken time and requires effort, especially when you work from home and don’t have kids. No water cooler conversations, no meeting other parents at the school gates. And though people in Suffolk are generally kind and friendly, moving to a traditionally Conservative county when I’m a died-in-the-wool pinko hasn’t always made for the easiest dinner party conversations. I did mention I used to live in Islington, didn’t I? And was a member of the chattering classes?
‘I think I’m an endangered species,’ I told one woman at a neighbour’s table.
‘Oh really, dear, why’s that?’ she said.
‘Because I’m the only Labour voter at a table full of card-carrying Conservatives.’
‘Oh yes, dear, I think you are.’
I tend to avoid politics now as a conversational gambit, if only for the sake of my own blood pressure. I have connected with people in different ways and I have friends here now who I know I can rely on and for whom I would jump through burning hoops (only if pushed, don’t try me too hard).
I’ve reinvented myself work-wise. In my younger days I was a hard news reporter in TV, covering death, doom and disaster (murders, politics, the occasional war and sometimes skateboarding ducks) before ending up in that much-loathed job as a business reporter at the World Service. I mean, come on, I can’t even balance my own cheque book AND they insisted I work 12 hour overnight shifts. My sleep patterns still haven’t recovered. Nice people though, if you’re reading this, former colleagues. Formidably intelligent, too. I liked you, I just didn’t like the job. Do you think it showed?
I fell into my current work almost by accident. I’d set up Mrs Portly’s Kitchen as a bit of fun and it led to an offer of a column from the editor of Suffolk Magazine, for whom I still work. I owe her a lot (thank you, Jayne) because she set me on a new path.
That led to me building a network of friends and contacts among the region’s food producers and writers, a return to print journalism and this year to the launch with Catherine Grassin Hart of our new business, Made In East Anglia. We aim to provide photography, recipe development and web design to the region’s food and drink producers and it’s taken off very nicely, thank you.
The house is still ramshackle but it’s improving bit by bit as we bleed money into it. My husband, known on these pages as Him Outdoors, is outdoors as I write, slaving away in the kitchen garden. It’s three times the size of our London allotment but he still complains that it’s too small. In the summer, at least, we are pretty much self-sufficient when it comes to fruit and veg and it’s a boon to be able to cook and eat our home grown produce. We keep hens but he draws the line at pigs or goats, the spoilsport.
One London friend joked a while back: ‘Whatever happened to the Linda who used to wear red suede stilettos?’ The answer is that she lives in slippers and wellies and as a consequence her feet have apparently spread and she can’t wear high heels any more.
Nor does she want to. These days I’m built for comfort, not speed, not that I was ever very fast teetering along London pavements in those heels. I have become something of a country bumpkin. I was honestly appalled at the rudeness and aggressive stupidity of London drivers when attempting to navigate my old patch in a hire van the other day. My mouth occasionally falls open when I sit at a pavement cafe in central London and watch the passers-by. I may have to get a straw to chew on and start wearing a smock.
But do I regret moving to Suffolk? Not for a blinking minute. Now, pass me those garlic scapes, I’ve got Londoners coming to dinner.