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

Buy the book
Buy the book
Dec. 2002
Book Availability

Available on tape

 

 

PICKING UP

Picking UpFenton creates well-defined yet complex characters, and her novel is a rollicking read, an engaging mixture of romance, intrigue and adventure that keeps you guessing until the very end.
The Sunday Times, 29 December 2002

If you are into funny, fast-paced stories full of intrigue and spice, you won’t be able to put this book down for anything.
The Shooting Times

 

Jo Patterson is one of nature's rut dwellers, according to her husband. So? Ruts are cosy and he's an idiot. It's all his fault she's marooned in the Yorkshire wilds and, if only he'd see sense, she'd be back to Wimbledon before you could say Sainsbury's.

As it is, this staid suburbanite finds herself tramping the moors as a beater on the castle shoot. Never mind the sweat, swamps and her not happening to know a grouse from a canary, she's in urgent need of cash and company. She knows even less about corporate finance, but a bizarre conversation overheard by the butts leads her, willy-nilly, into a fraud investigation. Soon she's hauling drunken spies from wrecked cars, fending off lecherous rock stars - and contemplating adultery.

Whatever happened to that respectable housewife and mother? Jo's inclined to blame the dog…

Picking Up

 


Excerpts
 

Kate Fenton writes:

ONWARDS AND UPWARDS
And so am I. Inclined to blame the dog, I mean - for this book and a lot more besides. Not least the fact that I'm typing these words with several holes in my bandaged hands, after rescuing said pooch (unscathed and ungrateful) from a psychopathic wire fence. Like Jo Patterson's, my life has been entirely taken over - engulfed, enfurred, encircled - by spaniel. I am actually the besotted keeper of two of these moulting, farting, high-maintenance, luxury beasts. I suspect I've personally subsidized the building of a new wing at the vet's.

And for anyone who's groaning, I know, I know. I too used to sneer at those idiots so evidently inadequate in human communication skills they had could only make friends among the four-legged community. Not any more, though. And where did this madness start? With a book crisis, of course. In the beginning there is always The Word - or the lack of 'em. But I've wittered on enough about writer's block already. My psyche must resemble a sculpture park of Henry Moore's. Suffice to say that, after enduring for years my husband's suggestion that instead of slumping over my desk chewing nails and pencils, tearing hair and manuscript pages, I should do my thinking while taking a brisk walk round our beautiful countryside, I suddenly decided to give it a go. Walking.

I found I quite enjoyed it. Whether this had to do with the glories of nature, or the odd Benson & Hedges sneakily consumed at a safe and helpfully gale-blasted distance from the nose-twitching smoke police at home, I'm not sure. But it's certainly true to say that, with the well-known zeal of the convert, I was soon out-walking all-comers. Further, faster, more often - ten miles up and down 30% gradients? Piffle. I remember sitting on the edge of the bath one day, blinking downwards and wondering to whom belonged these muscle-bulging legs, because they certainly didn't look like mine.

You'd think the boy would have been delighted. Think again. This is a man who worries himself into a frazzle over the speed the lawn is growing, if nothing more substantial presents itself. Stomping over hill and dale with Ordinance Survey map in my merry knapsack (Foll-de-ri), I was, according to him, an obvious target for every mad axeman or froth-spewing rapist in the county. I pointed out, pretty tartly, that I'd felt far more at risk sneaking a nifty 500 yard short cut across Clapham Common from tube to flat in the days when I lived in London than I'd feel hiking a hundred miles up here. But there was no reassuring him. It would be different, he said firmly, if I had a dog.

No, he didn't want me to buy a dog, Good God, no. Think of the time, the care, the cost, the carpets, the garden. Not on your nelly… Our friends and neighbours up at the Wheatsheaf pub in Egton, however, (that selfsame pub which featured in The Colours of Snow), had a spaniel who liked walking even more than I did. Fizz she was - is - called. Liver and white, shaggy, Cocker-Springer cross (for dog aficionados) but of immensely distinguished lineage, I'll have you know, the result of a swift and unscheduled tryst between her pedigree parents, obviously a love-at-first-sight job. Anyway, after discovering to my relief that, when released from her lead, Fizz would respond to a summons with cheery alacrity, (my ignorance about all things canine was fathomless) I took to dog-walking with even more zest than I had to walk-walking. Her sheer, ebullient glee bouncing through grass would win over the most curmudgeonly of hearts.

And mine was lost to her irretrievably the day she jumped over a cliff. That's right, a cliff. Don't ask me how high. I can only say that, when I lay on my belly, peering over its edge down at the swirling, swelling, spume-spattered North Sea, she looked about the size of a fluttering piebald moth, floundering in the waves before she was swept beneath the overhang of rock - and vanished. I won't bore you with the whole traumatic saga, which lasted two hours or twenty years, depending on your point of view, I'll just say that the Whitby Lifeboatmen are my all-time heroes. I was convinced she'd perished, by the time their little inflatable bounced over the choppy horizon. But they ploughed in under the cliff, nevertheless, amongst all the treacherous rocks and breakers, and, when they emerged, a tiny, soggy, brown and white creature was sitting up - yes, sitting up - on the floor of their boat. She was chilled and shocked, but entirely undamaged. She gave my nose a salty, forgiving lick as the vet pulled and prodded and - I'm sorry, dog-loathers, because this has to be the soppiest little romance I've ever penned, but that was it. Love.

So when her owner, Mick - who was even more generously forgiving than Fizz, given that I was the idiot who'd let his dog career off a cliff - asked if I'd like to come out with them one day on a shoot, I couldn't say no. Anywhere the beloved went, I was happy to tag along. And what an eye-opener it was. Of course, I knew shooting was a big deal round these parts. Often enough, I'd passed the processions of four-wheel drive vehicles, stacked with burly, red-faced chaps in multiple layers of swamp-coloured tweed. I'd heard the ferocious yells and yodelling echoing from woodlands on my walks, even if I'd never quite sussed why otherwise civilised country folk felt compelled to behave like football hooligans. But going out with a shoot - a mixed bunch of locals and Londoners in pursuit of pheasant and the odd woodcock - revealed to me a whole new world.

Not least in the adorable pooch herself, because the change in her was astonishing. Gone was the grinning ball of fluff rolling round my feet and shoving a wet nose into my face. I won't say she snubbed my advances. No, she just made me feel like a child who's been taken to the office by Dad on the strict understanding children are seen and not heard. They sit quietly in a corner and don't get in the way. Fizz was here for business, and made that clear. She was rigid with purpose, nose quivering and aloft, eyes sternly focussed on the distant horizon. When Mick let off a shot, she exploded away through the jungle like a nuclear missile, and I was still plugging my ears and blinking round wondering what'd happened when she trotted back with a feathered bundle in her mouth. And dropped it neatly - at my feet. I tell you, my heart nearly burst with pride. The animal was clearly a genius.

Big conversion number three. Whatever happened to that stiletto-ed townie who used to drive her car the hundred yards to the end of the lane, and wouldn't have known a grouse from a Rhode Island Rooster? First I'd become a walker, then a dog-doter - next thing you know, I'm a paid-up, green-tweeded follower of field sports. I do, of course, appreciate that this last might appal even more people than the dog-doting. I won't go into the ethics here, because this is - although you may find it hard to believe - a genuine account as to how Picking Up came to be written, but I can only say I've never had a problem with shooting as a pursuit. I eat meat, I've always loved eating game birds, given the chance, and it seems to me there's a sort of honesty about bringing your dinner home off the moor or out of the woods clad in feather, rather than clingfilm. What's more, I rather feel that if I had to live life as a bird, I'd sooner be one of these prized and carefully-keepered specimens, winging it free over glorious hill and dale, than a factory reared chicken.

Still, Fizz and I were as one in recognizing that this sort of work was clearly what she was put on God's earth to do, and she did her patient best to teach me the basics of the job. Novel situation: dog trains owner. I put that gag in Picking Up, and I can only say it was entirely true in my own case. Not surprisingly, though, even as I laboured to learn my job, it was crossing my mind that the shooting field presents ripe possibilities for fiction. While I can't claim that you find the whole world gathered on a shoot - you'd never have found the suburban likes of me or most of the rest of the population of this island tramping through mud and undergrowth on a raw December morning - you do undoubtedly encounter an interesting cross-section of humanity. Sighted on North Yorkshire shoots in my time up here: royalty, ambassadors, film stars, racing drivers, models, eccentric Texan millionaires. Also, of course, your usual assorted aristos and landowners, international lawyers and city whiz kids by the Porsche-load.

But while the big shoots mean big, big money - and I'm not kidding, these guys pay a thousand quid upwards per gun per day on the grouse moor - you also find local farmers shooting their own hedgerow and copses of a Saturday. And then there's us workers. Among the pickers-up and beaters, who actually get paid for being on a shoot (£23 a day's the going rate), you find lay preachers along with farm workers, solicitors and bank managers as well as second hand car dealers, and Her Majesty the Queen. OK, so she hasn't graced our shoot, perhaps, but she's renowned as an ace picker-up and dog handler. Gawd Bless Her. What I'm saying is that the divide between them, the guns, and us workers by no means falls along simple class lines.

However, as I've long since learned, a rich setting is not a novel - it's the scenery, not the action. People often ask where ideas come from, and this is one of the occasions when I can give an absolutely decisive answer. It was up on the moor, one glorious, sunny September afternoon. The guns were about to sit down to an al fresco lunch - lobsters, oozing sirloin, game-pie, stinky stilton, claret, vintage port, etc etc - and were knocking back the gin and tonics in the meantime. (We beaters were encamped a hundred yards up the hill, in a tangle of cheese butties, Snickers bars and beer cans). I, however, for reasons too complicated to explain here, happened to be passing the grandees. All right, I was eavesdropping. And heard this geezer say: 'So we sent the spooks in…'

The what? I believe I actually did resort to the old trick of bending down to retie my bootlaces, and with mud-encrusted string on walking boots this can take a satisfactorily long time. Thus I got to hear the most unlikely and complicated story about spooks - yes spooks as in undercover investigators - being hired to break into the offices of some dodgy company and confiscate computer records proving illicit activities, with which the proprietors of said company could then be, um, challenged…

'Blackmailed, you mean?' chipped-in one of the jovial gin-and-tonics.

The man telling the story grinned the grin of a cat who's swallowed the entire cream pot. 'You may choose to call it that,' he purred, 'I couldn't possibly comment…'

And, in that moment, I can honestly say the whole book came to me. I had the title: Picking Up - with all its rich array of alternative meanings; I had a heroine - an ignorant townie like me being run by her spaniel; and I had my hero - the spook. I did have to spend quite a lot of time thereafter looking into the business of 'security consultants' as these investigators tend to style themselves, and discovering to my amazement (I've led a sadly sheltered life) that such shadowy creatures most certainly exist, and that quite a lot of what they do is rather less than legal.

A postscript. Adulterous affairs, as we know, can only endure so long. There comes a day when you long to exchange the excitement of the snatched tryst, the hurly burly of the chaise longue, for the deep peace of the double bed. (Even if my husband never does stop complaining about muddy paw marks on the duvet). And to my immense delight, Mick has now allowed Fizz to make an honest handler of me, and take up permanent residence down here with us: me, Ian - and Bertie. Oh, yes, I had in the meantime felt inspired to acquire a pup of my own, and was foolhardy enough to believe I could train him myself. Bertie, he's called, as in Wooster. Pedigree as long as your arm. Charm, looks, courage, talent - he has the lot. Also vast reserves of low cunning and a considerable turn of speed, chiefly employed in escaping the garden and high-tailing it for the great blue yonder. Bertie's notion of field sport is being chased across as many as possible by his owner.

Poor Ian didn't want one dog. And as for two… He mutters darkly about divorce. But you know how it is. A romantic novelist has to follow her heart.