AFTER the last quarter of a century of fairly frequent globetrotting, but managing not to set foot outside any British airport since 1984, Iâ€™m now on my third visit to the â€œDisunited Kingdomâ€ in 19 months.
I had to come in mid-2007 to my sonâ€™s wedding in the historic but bleak, chill, grey North Sea resort, hometown of golf, St Andrews, Scotland. In fulfilling that pleasing parental duty, I â€œdiscoveredâ€, en-route, my only grandchild in rural Oxfordshire.
A giggling, gurgling, grinning grand-daughter, Siena-Rose, still not three: curly blonde-haired, cornflower-blue-eyed and as delightful a tot as you could meet, was the main reason â€œOupaâ€ Miller returned here Christmas 2007 and the principal point of booking Air Zimbabweâ€™s newly re-instated Friday flight from Ha-ha-ha-rare (Africaâ€™s fun capital) to London Gatwick the Friday before this festive season.
(Previously a non-stop, direct flight, we refuelled in Lusaka. Late take-off plus a planned 45-minute diversion delayed us two hours. No train smash for me: thereâ€™s an Oxford bus each hour, but folk with connections gnashed teeth, cursing colourfully.)
The last two Christmases were my first in the UK since 1969. The current one (I drafted this on January 1) is much more bitingly, bitterly cold than last yearâ€™s, with winds howling round the hauntingly beautiful Oxon-Berkshire-Wiltshire border areas fit to cut any Old Africa Hand in two.
This was also far less â€œChristmassyâ€ than last year as the credit crunch bites into Pommie standards of living and way of life; the recession shows no signs of receding and a severe slump apparently hides behind the roadâ€™s next hump. Those of us who spent most of the last decade in hyper-inflationary Zimbabwe might be forgiven for wondering quite what all the fuss is about.
Â A well-filled trolley of mouth-watering provisions from the local supermarket appears to cost at most two or three pounds more than a year ago; the various pubs serving grub here in Faringdon and neighbouring stone-built inns in the Cotswold foothills and riverside hostelries of the Thames Valley which TVâ€™s Inspector Morse led us to; in nearby Oxford or roughly equidistant Swindon, charge about Â£1,50 a meal more than they did 12 months ago.
But the cost of getting around is cheaper. I filled up my son-in-lawâ€™s Rover for Â£36; he tells me it was Â£48 three months ago. A single bus fare is slightly dearer than a year ago, but returns are about the same and â€œfamily runaboutâ€ tickets, which are, I think, new, make buses affordable and convenient, especially given nerve-wracking, ultra-dear parking here.
Â Although many high street shops (including Woolworthâ€™s) closed, will close or â€” according to the depressing TV news â€” are likely to close soon, those still trading apparently flourish, now offering quality sales goods at between 50% and as much as 95% off. A camera I bought 18 months ago is now 42% of its original price; the laptop, on which I tap this out, Â£100 cheaper than a year ago.
To help stimulate the economy, government recently slashed VAT by 2,5%, enhancing value for money of goods and services bought.
The pubs which now charge 30 extra bob for a piled platter of excellent comfort food: say steak-kidney-mushroom-and-ale pie, chips, new or mashed potatoes, three well-cooked young vegetables of five available, from Â£6 to Â£12. They literally fight for trade due to awful weather, the smoking ban, Breathalyzer, longer opening hours and concerns over the worldâ€™s financial future.
So, although increased cost of a pub mealâ€™s ingredients is passed on immediately, drink prices seem stable, little changed from last year; almost every outlet has a daily â€œhappy hourâ€ (in reality up to three extremely convivial hours!) with (say) 50 pence off individual drinks; two-for-one, or three for the price of two deals.
It doesnâ€™t seem to matter much to the average UK person that a year ago the pound was worth US$2, but is now under US$1,50. But then, it took many Zimbabweans ages to grasp the fact our dollar, in the mid-1970s worth over an English pound, had plummeted in value to a fraction of a farthing before Gono slashed the 13 noughts.
When we woke up, it was too late for many.
I look forward to seeing some magical Mayan civilisation ruins in bird-life, flora and fauna-rich Mexico and Belize (nÃ©e British Honduras) as you read this. On Sunday we walked briskly in crisp, mid-winter watery sun to inspect, not so much the ruin of the 13th century Great Coxwell Tithe Barn, but an amazing piece of agricultural architecture which could be used for its design purpose tomorrow.
Built in 1300 in Cotswold rubble-stone walling, with squared ashlars on buttresses and openings, with Cotswold slate roof, it was given by King John to the Cistercian monks of Beaulieu Abbey in the New Forest. Its high 44m x 12m floor area stored grain.
Run by the National Trust, the historic attraction which daily draws scores of visitors, last weekend featured a Nativity scene.
More attractive to me was the Eagle Tavern at Little Coxwell. Open 11-11 it offers real cask ales, fantastic traditional English fare, beautiful banqueting hall, great atmosphere and friendly staff. The colourful (banned) Heythorp Foxhounds Hunt met nearby; 12-bore shotguns boomed and blasted over frost-rimed fields.
With log fire roaring up chimney back, the pub is dedicated to horse-racing (a few kilometres from Lambourneâ€™s famous training stables) and country pursuits and specialises in pies…nothing wrong with that culinary aim.
My son had a magnificent minted-lamb and potato short-crust job, while I tucked into seafood pie of cod, smoked haddock and prawns in a creamy, rich Mornay sauce, wrapped in a soft mash spud â€œpie caseâ€ with sweet corn, baby corn, peas, broccoli, mange-tout and cabbage at Â£10,90, washed down with a pint or three of local Stowford Press Cider.
Continued in The Standard on Sunday. Pictures (right) by Dusty Miller.
BY DUSTY MILLER