'My wife married a rockstar but ended up with a floundering farmer': Alex James on why he prefers mucking out to being in Blur
Alex with his son Geronimo on their idyllic Cotswold Farm
Home, since I’d left college, had been Covent Garden in London. A one- bedroom flat when I was poor, and a house in the next street when Blur sold some records. Claire and I fell in love one weekend in the Cotswolds and got married nine months later.
We bought the farm while on our honeymoon, at which point the band promptly disintegrated. My friends were disgusted that I’d stopped drinking for a bit to get married, and now I’d walked out on them altogether.
People said things such as: ‘How can you be a farmer You don’t know anything about farms’ or ‘How can you be a husband You’re an a*******.’
The main reason for going to the country was to be with Claire. I didn’t know anybody in the Cotswolds. Living the quiet life would have driven me utterly mad until I met her. It wasn’t until I wanted to get married that the countryside started to attract me for reasons other than as a hangover cure. I’d spent my entire adult life living in the West End: the most metropolitan part of the largest city in Europe. Now, though, I was ready for a change.
I’d bought a knackered cattle farm near Chipping Norton, also known as Chippy, but 100 years ago when it was part of a vast feudal estate, it would have been knocking out a bit of everything. There would have been chickens, geese and ducks. A pigsty. Sheep for wool and for meat, as well as the extinct nuttery and the long-gone orchards.
There had been a bakery and a dairy. It would have served up more or less everything you can find in an Islington delicatessen.
If you included all the buildings, there must have been way more than a hundred rooms – a mad jumble of endless compartments and spaces, more like a village than a house. Everything from a cathedral-size stone barn to something made out of telegraph poles and bits of railway line.
Everywhere had something living in it. Birds were all over the place like a gas – from tiny whizzing whirling ones to big gliding bombers. There were toads under flowerpots. Rabbits bobbed around. The place was empty, but ringing with life. I was surprised to see a lizard. I thought they lived only on rocks and in jungles.
The insects were much weirder than I had bargained for. A wasp as big as my thumb appeared.
I was alone in deep silence. No taxis. No shops. No cappuccino. No adverts. Just space and peace, and it was all right.
The farm is probably the closest thing the ageing rock gentleman has to a natural habitat. As it became clear just how much it would cost to fix the place, it was reassuring to think how many of my peers also lived on farms. And it’s not just rockers. It’s the first thing Formula 1 champions, lottery winners and movie moguls do as soon as they get the chance. Even princes buy farms and none of these people knows anything about farming until things start leaking and falling over, and by then it’s just too late. They’re already hooked.
The diversity of local farming enterprises was staggering. Llamas and peacocks were surprisingly common in the Cotswolds. There was a big flock of ostriches nearby, too. Wives are always keen on alpacas. (They look like supermodel sheep – all limbs.) But I preferred to stick to more traditional animals. We decided to buy a couple of pigs without giving it much thought. The man I bought them from had said the straw I was using was far too good for pigs. He rolled his eyes. ‘Waste of money,’ he said.
An hour after he had left he sent a text saying: ‘DON’T GIVE THEM NAMES OR YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO EAT THEM!’
Alex and his wife Claire at a glittering London event in 2010
I settled on calling them The Empresses. Soon, I was hanging around the pigsty in the way I’d previously hung around The Groucho Club. I felt grounded in the real world, standing in pig muck.
There is nothing simpler than looking after chickens. But cows are tricky. There is an extra element of drama in dairy farming because the cows have to be milked twice daily. The equipment that comes with them is satisfyingly chunky and mechanical, too: really big tractors and forklifts.
The modern dairy cow has evolved into something unnaturally skinny with huge udders, a bit like a glamour model. I put my name down for a couple of Gloucester cattle.
There was a lot of excitement about the quad bike arriving, but it was a great disappointment. The tiptronic gears kept getting confused and jamming up. Compared with the fantastically efficient design of a bicycle, a quad bike is a stupendously bad piece of engineering. It was dangerous, too. There is a fast-growing list of high-profile people coming a cropper on their quads – the opposite of a celebrity endorsement. They are an occupational hazard for A-listers.
Quads are extremely powerful and unstable – the motorised equivalent of famous actresses. Even over flat ground it was hard to handle, and it was full of unnecessary electro-gizmos that broke down if they got wet or muddy.
All was peaceful in the rain. The lawn was dotted with bright daisies and buttercups. I was still admiring the optimistic modesty of the simple buttercup when I noticed a thin trail of translucent sludge coming up through the lawn. It looked like aspic.
I had to call Paddy, my invaluable land agent. (He was discreet about his other clients, but I know he built Madonna’s stables for her.)
The slime was everywhere, but even he was baffled for once. Then about a million caterpillar things came out of the grass and seemed to be making for my shed. They completely ate the lawn.
There is a long-standing rivalry between two neighbouring Oxfordshire villages, Churchill and Kingham, where we live.
For a lifetime, Churchill had the upper hand: the taller church spire, the best swing park (a dedicated under-sevens area), and the best pub (The Chequers).
But the balance of snobbery suddenly shifted. Kingham was voted Britain’s Best Village by Country Life magazine! The judges were keen on the fact that Kingham had plenty of low-cost housing, as well as mansions and manors.
There is an amazing cross-section of people in the village, from rehoused travellers to High Court judges. There is a cricket pitch at one end and a well-used football pitch at the other. There is a thriving village shop, a school and a troublesome teenager or two.
Singer Florence Welch who stayed with the family
Some villages in the Cotswolds are among the prettiest places on Earth – hidden corners, which can feel more like exclusive islands in the South Pacific. The Cotswolds can be snobbier than Paris, snootier than Upper West Side Manhattan. But Kingham is an entry-level kind of paradise with geezers, Asbos and ‘greboes’ [goth-types].
There is the British Legion, too, for the geezers. Geezers have few places left to go now that their natural habitats, pubs, are full of middle-class women drinking ros wine.
I was surprised how much I liked most of the people who lived nearby. We took on two local women from the nearby trailer park as cleaners, and they fascinated me.
The younger was one of the prettiest women I’ve ever seen. Billionaires’ wives would have given everything to look like she did, but she worked all hours because she was saving up for cosmetic surgery.
Her elder sister had a baby. She brought the baby round one day, dressed from head to toe in Armani. She gave us all her Burberry hand-me-downs. They were kind people.
I took up football again, but here it was played differently. My first Kingham football match may not have featured the most skilled exponents, but it was the most fun. It featured an old Etonian, an autistic ten-year-old, a passing crusty dogwalker and a nightclub promoter against a group of mums, a toddler and me.
I was wearing a suit and a pair of trainers. The girls were in tight jeans. There was a lot of mud on the pitch, churned up by a tractor, and the chaps had the considerable advantage of the slope.
There were so many beautiful women in the Cotswolds, some lived in castles and some lived in caravans. There were dowager chatelaines who presided over great swaths of countryside, heiresses who married into Royalty.
London was such a masculine environment. /02/25/article-2106339-00AF4D84000004B0-913_634x518.jpg” width=”634″ height=”518″ alt=”Former musician Alex and Claire with children Artemis, Galileo and Geronimo at their home in the country” class=”blkBorder” />
Former musician Alex and Claire with children Artemis, Galileo and Geronimo at their home in the country
So I had to get a gun. A shotgun
licence is the most straightforward. Rifles are a bit more tricky.
Pistols are very complicated, and almost no one has cannons any more.
who wants to keep a weapon must have a ‘suitable reason’ to have one,
(which can only ever really be ‘because I want to shoot stuff’). They
also need a secure weapons’ cabinet. I sent off about 20 photos to the
police station and made an appointment.
firearms officer agreed that I needed a gun for vermin control. He said
I’d probably need a rifle for the rats, and he drew a picture of a
rifle bullet. It was a small bullet.
He said I’d probably need a rifle that fired a bullet about that big, to begin with.
he drew another bullet, which was a bit bigger and said we would need
one that big if we wanted to shoot the deer. The trouble was it could
kill a person two miles away. He said if we were having problems with
deer – and they can be a nuisance – it was either shooting them or
reintroducing bears. I bought a shotgun that fires a spray of pellets
and a couple of kittens to take care of the rats.
never know quite what to expect when I work with a singer for the first
time. Quite a lot of famous singers don’t know one end of a scale from
At the age of
12, Lily Allen could neatly lay down several harmonies, but I never
heard Marianne Faithfull sing a single harmony and I don’t think she’s
ventured above middle C for three decades. But hers is still a great
I met a girl called Florence. She was at art college but it was obvious she was big trouble straight away. There was a bloke with her. Just sort of hanging around looking sappy.
I said: ‘Are you The Machine’ and he replied: ‘No, she’s Florence And The Machine. I’m Johnny Borrell from Razorlight.’
He was a nice boy but you could see he didn’t stand a chance with Florence. She was wearing minuscule hot pants and doing cartwheels.
I said: ‘Do you like ukuleles and stuff’ She said: ‘OK,’ and laughed and she came to stay.
It was sunny and we spent the first day floating around and going to the pub. It’s not like building fences or digging holes, writing songs. Sometimes if you start later you finish earlier. It’s either incredibly awkward or just plain wonderful.
Florence didn’t play an instrument, although she liked to hold one while she was singing.
It is beyond me how anyone can just sing like her. She had such a robust sense of pitch that song was as natural to her as it is to a cuckoo. She had written a ballad. She sang it to me with no accompaniment. She just opened up and sang her heart out.
Exhilarating – and obvious she was going to break a lot more hearts than Johnny’s.
The acre of concrete outside the back door had been used for making silage – winter feed for dairy cattle. I loved the idea of dairy cows but I didn’t want to look at a mouldering slab. An enormous monster of a ship on caterpillar tracks came and chewed it all up. It came all the way from Russia where it had been eating whole airports.
Alex larks about with a bevy of models at a celebrity event in 2007
The gardener reversed the quad bike and trailer into the greenhouse and it fell over.
had been difficult to get the quad bike to go in reverse recently, so,
she pointed out, there was a silver lining, but there weren’t any
tomatoes. The greenhouse hadn’t been a success.
we started trying to make the stuff on the farm, I thought of myself as
something of a cheese expert. I thought I knew everything there was to
know. Then I began to meet cheese people – people who had spent their
working lives thinking about it: cheesemakers, cheese ‘affineurs’ (posh
cheesemakers), cheesemongers, cheese buyers, cheese consultants. It
seemed there was a finely tuned fraternity with its ear close to the
ground for any rumbles of breaking cheese news.
In a world of mass-market homogeneity, cheese stands out as something that is becoming increasingly different. People seem willing to go to great lengths for fine cheese. Once you’ve had the best, it’s the only thing that will do. Making OK cheese isn’t difficult. Making an excellent cheese is kind of tricky and that was all I wanted to do.
There have been many success stories of recent years. The entire country is in the throes of a gastronomic revolution and cheese is on the crest of the wave. Stichelton, Stinking Bishop, Golden Cenarth, Tunworth, Cornish Blue: all brilliant cheeses and their scarcity is part of their value.
Eventually, the word was out. I was being stopped in the street by people who wanted to know where they could buy my cheese. Nobody wanted to know about Blur any more. They wanted to know where the cheese was.
My sister married. I guess she married ‘up’. Her father-in-law collected paintings by Canaletto. My father collected things such as outboard engines and coils of rope. Mind you, my mother did once have her bottom squeezed by Damien Hirst (a friend from my college days).
My sister and her fiance were going to get married on the farm, but as I suspected, it worked out much cheaper to have the wedding in Sloane Square and the reception in Mayfair. There was a bishop and everything: still miles cheaper.
Alex, far right, with his Blur bandmates in 1993
I spent most of the service gawping at my own wife, who had been stumbling around in baggy pyjamas, dealing with babies for almost as long as I could remember. Suddenly, there she was wearing a red dress, hat and heels and immaculate in her rediscovered beauty. I swear she was 6ft 2in in those shoes.
It was the first time I’d heard the wedding vows since our wedding day. They seemed to make even more sense years after we said them than they did in the passion of romance. What had started out as a kind of madness between us had become a sensible business by now, a bit like what happens with a successful rock ’n’ roll band. Moving to the farm, removing ourselves from everything we had known, was the most romantic thing we could have done.
We had done some spectacular things together, but you can do spectacular things with anybody and have a great time. I suppose love is when you’re happy to do nothing together.
People kept asking me whether I preferred cheese or music and I told them it was fine to have both. I’ve been to bigger houses, more expensive houses, but nowhere closer to paradise than our farm.
What does success bring if not a quiet moment in the late afternoon sunshine When getting home is more exciting than going away, that’s all happily ever after can ever mean.
Alex James 2012. All Cheeses Great And Small: A Life Less Blurry by Alex James will be published on Thursday by 4th Estate, priced 16.99. To order your copy at the special price of 14.99 with free p&p, please call the Review Bookstore on 0843 382 1111 or visit MailShop.co.uk/books.