Sometimes Ambridge reminds me of The Village, that splendidly implausible M Night Shyamalan film about a 19th-century community in Pennsylvania. The village’s secret is that beyond a supposedly monster-infested forest, there is an actual 21st-century world with cars and telly. But hardly anyone knows about it and no one dares go there. In fact the entire village has been set up as a mad kind of social experiment.
So it is in Borsetshire. The “powerful hold Ambridge can have” over its inhabitants was the subject of rumination by young Phoebe this month. (Will the penny drop? Will she realise that Nottingham, Birmingham, and even, dammit, London are places rather than idle dreams? Will she remember that she too once tasted freedom, at Oxford?)
Later she and Alice, chatting on the phone, found that they were both “shovelling muck” (Radio 4 being too genteel, unlike the Guardian, to shovel shit). Alice was clearing out Shula’s no-doubt Augean stables; Phoebe was doing something unmentionable with the rewilding project’s composting loos. Along with Lily, who is bored to death with her job selling kitchens, the trio – Phoebe the Oxford alum, Lily the Manchester University dropout, and Alice the aeronautical engineering graduate – got round, and not before time, to lamenting the fact that The Village conspires to keep them in a state of perpetual underachievement. Still, Lily is proposing to do a degree in estate management at Felpersham Uni – which suggests interesting times ahead vis-a-vis her twin brother, the feckless but charming son and heir to the family stately home, Lower Loxley.
Hazel Woolley, one of the few characters not bound by Ambridge’s invisible force field, declared the village, with some justice, to be “a parochial, self-satisfied, two-bit place”, before flouncing out of Borsetshire, having evicted Tom and Natasha from the flat above the shop, which she owns (I always imagine her with a massive fur coat and cigarette holder, like Cruella de Vil). Housing in Ambridge is a bit like one of the Valentine’s Day nights that Kenton and Jolene are trying to devise for the Bull – a sort of large-scale musical chairs, with never quite enough accommodation to go around when the music stops. Tom and pregnant Natasha have moved in with Tony and Pat, who are being quietly sent demented; Chris and baby Martha are moving into the flat above the shop, which might leave Alice and Chris’s old cottage, the Nest, free; Pip and Josh are squabbling over the bungalow, currently inhabited by Rex Fairbrother; and Emma and Ed are still languishing in a static caravan. I feel it is all soluble, but you’d need a chart and some diagrams.
Stella’s sexuality is still not established, but I live in hope.