Colours of Snow
to the Pipers
(US) Vanity and Vexation
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
Whatever happened to that respectable
housewife and mother? Jo's inclined to blame the dog
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.