Kate Fenton

 

Books
The Colours of Snow
Dancing to the Pipers
Lions & Liquorice/
(US) Vanity and Vexation

Balancing on Air
Too Many Godmothers
Picking Up

 

 

JOURNALISM

HAPPINESS IS A WARM GUNDOG

It took novelist and city girl Kate Fenton years to embrace country life - then a four-legged friend introduced her to the joys of grouse-beating

Just occasionally, I feel a pang of nostalgia for my old urban life, for the time when my idea of traversing rough country would be to take a short cut over Clapham Common en route to the tube. The pangs are strongest at time such as now, when the muddy puddle into which I've just stepped turns out to be a peat bog. It's green, stinking, thick as trifle, and rather chilly around the bum.

With the putrid sludge at bra level, I imagine some television archaeologist, in years to come, prodding the bleached bones in 'Fenton's Fen' and detecting the spinal slump of a desk worker; the metatarsals warped by stiletto heels. What was a nice city girl doing in a filthy hole in a remote corner of the North York moors, he would ask.

Grouse-beating is the answer. And if you're thinking that this is some journalistic stunt - novelist flits in, gets wet, then scuttles back to Islington - think again. I may be the only one of this bluff, gruff, tough-as-a-tractor brigade wearing mascara, but I'm the genuine article. I was here last week and will be back next, and all for £23 a day and free beer. As to why I've signed up for a job that makes an SAS assault course look like a tea dance - well, that's what all my metropolitan friends ask.

After all, while it's a good few years since I was transplanted from my civilised job at the BBC in London to the wilds of Yorkshire, until very recently I wouldn't have known a grouse from a canary. Like ex-pats on the Costa-del-Chingford, swigging PG Tips in the Spanish sunshine and watching Eastenders via satellite, you can live a long time in a place without feeling the need to go native. My participation in countryside matters was confined to reading Willy Poole and listening to The Archers.

My conversion began with a book; I was so horribly stuck on the plotline for my latest novel that the only remedy was a packet of Benson and Hedges. Because of the presence of the domestic smoke police, however, I had to sneak off to the woods before lighting up. Just taking a stroll, I'd murmur. Which was fine, until my husband started to fret.

Gratified as he was by this sudden passion for fresh air, he was convinced that a lone female walker was a magnet for mad axemen and drug-crazed rapists. So, just to keep him happy, I borrowed a dog from a neighbour: a brown and white spaniel called Fizz.

We clocked up a fair few miles, Fizz and I; me puffing and pondering, she investigating hedgerows with the thoroughness of a professional gundog. I developed calf muscles, a cough and a guilt complex if I skipped a single day: spaniels have famously reproachful eyes. Even so, I assumed ours was a modern, no-strings relationship.

Then, she jumped over a cliff. When I flung myself on my belly to peer over the edge, she was the size of a piebald moth, fluttering on the heaving swell of the North Sea.

I'll pass over the anguish of the next two hours, but by the time the heroic Whitby lifeboat bobbed out from the cliff with a tiny, brown-and-white figure sitting up - oh glory, sitting up - in the prow, the course of my life had changed.

No strings - was I mad? I adored this animal. A day without Fizz was a day not worth living, and when the man who (technically) owned my beloved invited me to join them pheasant shooting, I didn't hesitate. Not even when he suggested I do a spot of picking up. Sandwich wrappers? I cheerily enquired. Men? Oh, dead birds. Hmm...

Not that I had any problem with the ethics. I eat game and never doubted that these fancy fowl have a vastly finer life than a supermarket chicken. Even so, it was unnerving the first time Fizz burst out of a thicket with something resembling a junior peacock in her jaws. But when she trotted over and deposited the feathery corpse at my feet, my heart nearly burst with pride. We were a team. One woman and her (borrowed) dog.

I can't pretend it was an equal partnership. Fizz hurtled about like a hairy guided missile. I watched, and passed around the hip flask. In my Gap sweatshirt and Capri pants (the only gear I possessed in regulation sludge green), I was, I suspect, almost an embarrassment to Fizz and her owner. Very conservative, these shooting types.

Inspired by my fellow dog-handlers, I acquired a whistle. Fizz's response was what I imagine Queen Victoria's might have been to a whoopee cushion. Nevertheless, among congenial company, in woods as crisp as a Christmas card, I rather took to this shooting lark. A friend gave me some tweed breeches. No matter they'd have made Victoria Beckham's bum look big, I was getting into the part.

By then, I had finished the novel that drove me to cigarettes - which I dedicated to Fizz, of course - but writing is like the Forth Bridge. No sooner have you typed 'The End' than it's straight back to 'Once Upon a Time'. And it occurred to me that the shooting field presents a promising cocktail for the writer of popular fiction: locals, Londoners, loaded firearms.

But I'd also learned that there's shooting and shooting. There are our convivial jaunts with a bunch of friends - and there's the big boys' league; the serious business that keeps our noble landowners nobly landed and half the rural economy afloat.

When the dented Ford Fiestas and mobile hencoops outside your village pub are suddenly outnumbered by spanking new Range Rovers, when the neighbourhood buzzes with sightings of rock stars, royalty and Texan trillionaires, you know a proper shoot is in town. And the grandest shooting of all is grouse shooting, which costs around £1000 per man, per day.

So, with an embryonic plot for my next book, combining showbiz, financial espionage and a spaniel, there was only one place to do my research: on the moor.

My initial notion, I admit, was to inveigle a lift with a tame tycoon in one of the leather-upholstered, all-terrain toff-transporters, and pop a few questions while knocking back 20-year-old malt in the butt. (Note for fellow-townies: butts are those dinky, stone constructions I used to think were sheep shelters and/or Neolithic burial mounds. Hides for shooters, actually.) My mistake was to consult first with a drinking chum who was also a beater on Danby Moor. (Beaters: front-line infantry in the army of shoot workers. Not to be confused with loaders, drivers, flankers or pickers-up, these flat-capped Colossi bestride the heath in their seven-league wellies, flapping flags and hollering like football hooligans to encourage the birds butt-wards).

I was a touch startled when my friend suggested I join the beating line. Then, while I was still groping for a reply, he said: 'Fizz'd love it.'

Thus did my pooch and I find ourselves with 14 men, one very fit-looking female and a squirming melee of dogs, jammed into a canvas-roofed, wood-benched, box-on-wheels towed behind a tractor, driven by a Schumacher-disciple known only as 'Loony Tunes' (with good reason). Then we were tumbled out in the middle of vast, heather-purpled nowhere - and off we all set.

Walking through heather is like marching across a 1000-acre bouncy castle, pitted with potholes. But at least when you fall over, which I did twice within 100 yards, it's a soft landing. Twenty minutes later, with a face like a tomato, I was told to stop and wait for the signal. That's when I realized I hadn't even started the job yet.

We were being strung out into a giant horseshoe formation, ready for the drive. Like Miss Muffet, I sat on a tuft of heather clutching my dog and flag (fertilizer sack nailed to a knobbly staff). Eventually, like beacons igniting across the landscape, one flag after another went up, and we were away.

On a normal hike, you choose your route, skirting gulleys, swamps and walls of scree. Not when beating, you don't. You stick grimly in line, and when the jungle of shoulder-height reeds looms, you bash right on through. Heaven forfend you fall behind because running to catch up across this terrain is not an option. Fat chance of watching your step, either, because you're watching your comrades, your dog (bouncing ahead like an ecstatic antelope) and, oh yes, the birds - who seem to catapult over your feeble flag, sniggering.

And grouse do snigger: yakka-yakka-yakka. Still, no time to fret about other little hazards such as adders (rife hereabouts), blood-sucking ticks (even rifer), or the outside chance of getting shot as you finally close in on the butts. Hell, there have been times at the end of a long drive when I would have thanked someone for putting me out of my misery.

By lunchtime that first day, I had material for several novels. The guns' picnic alone warranted a chapter. (Note: the trigger-pullers are themselves known as 'guns'. Also referred to in the beaters' wagon, with a shimmer of irony, as 'the quality'. But the class divide doesn't fall clean between 'them' and 'us'. You'll hear the odd accent among our ranks that is more cut-glass than some of those in the butts. Let us not forget our own dear Queen serves as a picker-up.)
The guns' alfresco feast featured champagne, lobster, Chablis, oozing sirloin, vintage claret and a cornucopia of salads, breads and tarts, all rounded off with port and a Stilton so stinky that we could practically smell it from our spot further up the hill. We workers, meanwhile, sat in a tangle of crisp packets, Tupperware, dogs and beer cans. But I wouldn't have swapped our picnic for theirs, because nothing has ever tasted as fine as that can of Carling Black Label. In fact, as I flopped back that first day, ham butty in hand, I realised I was feeling terrific.

And it isn't just those endorphins that kick in after vigorous exercise - although beating reaches muscles never dreamy of by aerobics teachers. Nor is it that you're in cheery company, having the sort of flat-out, noisy, filthy-to-the-eyebrows fun that most of us haven't had since childhood. There's more to it than that.

Imagine a golden September afternoon. You're lined out, waiting for the drive to begin. A tapestry of moorland rolls to misted infinity, and there's just you and your dog, breathing the honey scent of heather, watching hares leap and clouds tumble. Could anything be more blissful?

It's been a shock for my husband, of course. He married a Joanna Trollope wannabe, and finds himself with a prototype Clarissa Dickson Wright. At least he doesn't have to worry about me smoking any more. It's impossible to combine beating with cigarettes. The problem is combining it with writing - particularly since Fizz moved in.


©Kate Fenton 2002