The online bookshop Amazon, as some of you will know, enables readers to enter reviews of books they have read, supposedly as a guide to prospective buyers. Probably unwisely, I sometimes take a peek at what people have written about my own three books, two of which are about our post-London life in north Herefordshire, inspired by this column.
So, a few weeks ago I was horrified to find a review of my latest, The Pheasants' Revolt, written by a cousin of mine. Horrified because it was vituperative stuff, provoked less by what he thought of the book than what he thought of me for not having bothered to get in touch with him for six or seven years. Apparently, Amazon has strict guidelines for reviewers designed to stop personal or spiteful attacks, guidelines that in this instance signally failed to work. Instead I had to take the matter into my own hands, indignantly e-mailing him, whereupon he apologised, removed the review, then harangued me all over again by e-mail. The old dictum about being able to choose your friends but not your relatives was never more valid.
Anyway, I'm pleased to say that, as of my latest peek, most Amazon reviews of my books are full of generous words. On the other hand, there's another old dictum that says that if you don't sniff the bouquets too keenly, the brickbats won't hurt so much. I'm not very good at that, allowing praise to go to my head and taking criticism to heart. I was duly stung by a review of my book Tales of the Country, posted by "Tom from Edinburgh": "Transporting himself to a million-pound property with attachable rentable cottages isn't living the good life quite as much as Viner seems to think," he says.
Where he got the million-pound idea, I don't know. Our house might be old and rambling, but it cost a very great deal less than that. And if I might also defend myself against the "good life" charge, that book makes it fairly plain (or so I thought) that we are only playing at living the so-called good life, and are transported townies right down to the tips of our wellies, unable even to wring the neck of an ailing chicken.
What got me on to this subject is another, much friendlier e-mail exchange I've been having with a woman called Hannah, who enjoyed Tales of the Country and, having moved with her husband and three young sons from the Home Counties to rural Lincolnshire, felt as if I might be a kindred spirit. Her latest note makes it clear that I am anything but. They have 13 acres, and keep their own pigs, sheep and ducks. They also have their own fledgling business making jams, chutneys and cordials, and though money is tight, they have just sold half a haystack, thus keeping things ticking over.
"Although it is amazingly hard work and long hours, none of us would go back to our old life," she says. I am full of respect for folk like that, who really have embraced a new way of life. As Tom from Edinburgh knows, we haven't done so in any truly meaningful sense. I earn my living in the same way that I did when living in London, and we have no plans to keep pigs.
On the other hand, living in the heart of the countryside means some interesting new encounters, even after five years. The other evening I wandered into my office and was slightly taken aback to find a mouse exploring my desk. Lots of people have a mouse on their desk, of course, but rarely a real one. It scurried away as I approached, but the following day made another appearance in my wastepaper basket. I must borrow some humane mousetraps from our neighbour Will, the wildlife consultant, although the last time we caught mice humanely, and then set them free at the end of the drive, they were back indoors practically before we were. Maybe harsher steps are called for.
Will, meanwhile, is excited because the rare, noble chafer beetle, assumed to have died out in Britain, seems to have reappeared in Herefordshire. He even thought that he saw one the other day in the damson orchard over the road. "Unfortunately, it evaded our capture," he said. When a man talks about a beetle like a French revolutionary talking about the Scarlet Pimpernel, all seems right with the world.