Living The Country Life: Poacher turns gamekeeper

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The Independent Online

Many newspaperjournalists, doubtless driven by the egotistical desire to commit their prose to something more permanent than tomorrow's fish-and-chip paper, set about writing a book. Incidentally, it occurs to me that "tomorrow's fish-and-chip paper" is a term as obsolete as "Fleet Street" - when were you last handed cod and chips in yesterday's Daily Express? - yet both are still used as euphemisms for the press. Most odd.

Anyway, I am writing a book about our life in the country, to be published early next year by Simon & Schuster at a thoroughly affordable price. But to write about our life in the country, I also have to include a bit about our former life in the city, to which end I have been leafing through the columns I used to contribute to a local paper in London, chronicling life in Crouch End.

On 25 September, 1998, I see, I took great exception to an article in Country Living magazine, in which Rosamund Ridley wrote that "for urban children, travelling to school is a battle against time and traffic, but in the Lake District, each trip is a wildlife adventure".

I waspishly suggested that Ms Ridley's 12-year-old daughter didn't really sit on the school bus "waving to passing badgers", but "probably sits there wishing that the nearest roller disco wasn't 400 miles away". And I seized the opportunity to be sarky about a friend of ours who lived in the remote west of Scotland and during a visit to our terraced house in London, had asked, "Don't you mind being overlooked?" before extolling the virtues of raising his son in Ring of Bright Water country.

I wrote: "When I phoned the other day to enquire provocatively whether he'd managed to see Saving Private Ryan - knowing full well that his nearest cinema had barely got round to showing Gregory's Girl - the answer machine was on. They were probably swimming with seals in a nearby loch. So I left a message after the high moral tone."

My own tone was remarkably similar to that recently taken by my Independent colleague Mark Steel, who lambasted the smugness of those who have moved from city to country and celebrate the fact that their children, although growing up knowing no black people, can identify "five different species of heron". I took Mark's attack personally, and answered him robustly. I suppose I had forgotten my own resentment as a city-dweller towards those who crowed about the advantages of life in the sticks.

I will now send him my 1998 article, to demonstrate just what a poacher I was, and just what a gamekeeper I have become. Still, at least I have never asserted that the rural school run is a wildlife adventure, unless you count last Tuesday, when we regrettably flattened a squirrel who evidently thought that because he lived in the country, he had, unlike his metropolitan cousin Tufty, no need of the Green Cross Code.

The pitfalls of fowl introductions

Last week we added another four chickens to our burgeoning flock. Not that I'm at all sure that flock is the correct collective noun. Thanks to Schott's Original Miscellany I know that starlings assemble in murmurations, crows in murders, curlews in herds, pheasants in nyes, ptarmigan in coveys and larks in exaltations - titbits of knowledge which are bound to come in handy in these parts. But Schott doesn't say anything about the chicken. Whatever, the four we added to our existing collection are unremarkable creatures called Warrens. Jane crossed the border into Wales to pick them up from farmer Mr Griffiths who had advertised in the Hereford Times. "How should we introduce them to the chickens we already have?" she asked. He gave her a patient smile. "Oh, I shouldn't worry too much about that. They'll be fine." He was a kindly man, Mr Griffiths, who was clearly trying to suppress the slightest expression of his thoughts, which Jane felt went something like "for God's sake, woman, they're just bloody chickens". That's the thing about bringing middle-class, liberal, essentially urban sensibilities to the country; they can end up looking utterly preposterous.

I'm glad it wasn't me who collected the Warrens. I might have shared with Mr Griffiths some of the things I have learnt from Francine Raymond's Big Book of Garden Hens, which Jane gave me for Christmas and which is currently perching on my bedside table. Ms Raymond advises that new birds being added to an existing flock "must spend several days in purdah, cooped separately inside the run so the occupants can get used to each other little by little". She also recommends making runs as attractive as possible, and keeping an old folding garden seat inside, "so you can relax there too". Whatever Mrs Griffiths gave Mr Griffiths for Christmas, it's reasonable to assume that it was not Big Book of Garden Hens.

One man's treat is another man's penance

A couple of weekends ago a delightful family stayed in one of our holiday cottages, having booked because their daughter Aishling, bless her, wanted to wake up on her eighth birthday in a cottage in the country. My own eight-year-old, Joseph, thought this not much of a birthday treat. "A trip to Legoland is a treat," he said. We have indeed taken Joseph to Legoland on his birthday, which fell that year in the Easter holidays. It wasn't much of a treat for us; in fact it seemed like a penance. I do hope that Aishling's mum and dad feel differently.