When it comes to the countryside, despite all I've learned. I still rank as an idiot, a novice. I've only just discovered the difference between a swallow and a swift. (Swallows have red throats) However, I can and always have been able to spot a puffball at half a mile because they are delicious. It's about the right time of year for them and as there has been some rain I thought it would be worth extending my runaround to come back through the field where they grow.
The Daylesford steers, the castrated male cows, were in that field.
It's not always easy to tell the difference between cows and bulls until it's too late but I know these fellas: each one two tonnes of pure organic Daylesford with attitude. Handsome beasts: black, bold and beautiful. It's lovely talking to them over a fence. We often do it. They gather quietly in a crowd of eyes and a cloud of steam.
Even entering a field full of them, you're all right as long as you square up to them. It takes a bit of bottle to do it. You just have to be bold, raise your arms as you walk gently towards them saying tough stuff like, "You want some?" "Yeah? Yeah?? Yeah, really?" and "Who are ya? Who are ya?" It's quite good fun. You don't want to startle them but they will back off if you keep your nerve.
The trouble starts when you walk away from them. Once they've got inquisitive they start to follow. So if you run, they run. This was apparent by the time I was halfway along the copse when one of them did a little dance, a crazy skip and a skitter and then launched into a full-on, full-speed ahead charge.
There was a sort of feedback effect on the others and soon they all were stampeding and having a great time. I only just managed to scissor kick over the fence at the end of the garden with a nine-inch scratch on my backside, completely exhilarated. I won't be doing it again but I don't know who had the most fun, them or me.
Life gets better in a gentleman's club
"Some days," they say, "you eat the bear, and some days the bear eats you." Well, yesterday morning it was all about the bear, and I didn't see him coming at all. I'd hoped I might be telling you about that first, that most satisfying biff of autumn, today, but no. Oh, no. The prevailing atmospheric conditions, just a big cloud of bad news.
From daybreak it was raining toxic sludge. The first snippet, enough to ruin my wife's day, arrived by text message before my head had left the pillow and I woke up to the sound of her swearing.
Then, lurking in with the newspaper, there was a hand-delivered note full of quite the most pointed, infuriating nonsense I have read for a long time. Even before I'd set out for town, I was hopping up and down but somehow, inexplicably when the emails started to whirr it was more of the same only different. Soon I wanted to throw the phone out of the window. It was all looking a lot like a bear's birthday when really it should have been all about that first biff of autumn that can be so exhilarating.
By 11am I was sitting in a magnificent gentleman's club. Apart from me and the porter and two people changing lightbulbs it was all quite deserted. I was lounging back in a Chesterfield trying to feel grandiose but drawn into black and pointless speculations. How could so many interrelated things have gone quite so spectacularly wrong in such completely different ways on the same morning? I was looking so broken that the porter evidently thought I was some kind of loser masquerading as a gentleman.
"You can't have your bag in here", he said. "Lose it. Are you a member? Did you sign in?"
There he was, the bear. A rubbish bear at that and he knew I was weak and he was having his fun and there I was, beaten.
The wonderful healing power of grouse
By the time my friend arrived, I could hardly speak. She asked me how I was and when I opened my mouth I suddenly really thought I might weep. I shook my head and said "let's just go to the dining room". I was staring into space instead of looking at the menu and that's why I almost missed it. I almost ordered the mixed grill and that would have been a mistake. I'd opened my mouth to say "mixed grill" when the grouse caught my eye.
"Grouse," I said and it was like a magic word. It filled me with warmth. "Grouse," said the waiter, smiling and nodding. I said it again and felt better still. "Grouse."
When it's sunny, eating a plum from a plum tree is the ultimate sensory experience. Fine wine can't compete with plums on a plum tree in summer. You probably wouldn't want to eat a grouse on a grousemoor. The time and place to eat a grouse is a gentleman's club, an empty gentleman's club, on the first day of autumn, and my God I felt my strength returning. There is nothing finer than grouse. It comes with crisps and that's just the start of how amazing it is.
I looked out of the window over the first of the cold silver sunlight glinting on the Thames. The indifferent breeze blowing through the city with thrilling clarity, the sense of forever and ever that you can almost touch at this time of year. I can't believe I'd given up on the day and it wasn't even lunchtime.