Plenty of issues divide urbanites and country folk in Britain. High-speed tailgating on blind corners; the ideal size for a pet dog; cider: should it be cloudy and lethal or bottled over ice? Your position on these talking points will largely be determined by your postcode, or at least the postcode in which you were born and raised. But the subject that really sorts the townies from the clean-air-and-greenery brigade is hunting.
You know the flashpoints in this debate: the slaying of the Emperor of Exmoor, the horsey women of the Countryside Alliance, Carole Middleton fitting in with the Firm by blowing birds out of the sky ... One half of Britain rattles with indignation at the bloodthirstiness of an upper-class pursuit masquerading as sport, or even husbandry, while the other harrumphs about effete Islingtonites sticking their iPads into a sensible tradition of which they know nothing.
I'd put myself in the former camp until, that is, I recently found myself faced with the bloody victim of the guns – juicy, perfectly roasted and glistening in sweet gravy on my plate.
It happened last week in north Devon. We'd been reminded that this was prime hunting season from the moment we arrived. On a dark, squally afternoon, driving through rainswept rural landscape, I had to swerve to avoid an almost invisible figure walking on the side of the road. Around the next corner, yet another camouflaged person appeared in my headlamps, just in time. It took a few days to figure out that these people dressed in military fatigues weren't suicidally inclined long-distance ramblers, but locals returning from pheasant shoots.
I know they were the locals, because we saw the visiting guns (bankers? A team-building exercise for management consultants?) one evening in a country hotel. They hadn't walked home from shooting but had driven hired Land-Rovers and wore chunky jumpers as they discussed the day's sport in loud London accents. Hunting, to them, was the PlayStation of the countryside. "My best shot of the day, though," guffawed one stout chap, "was a magpie! Did ya see that?"
The next day, walking in a wooded valley, we happened to see a shoot for ourselves, on an opposite hill: the duck-call of the beaters disturbing the birds, a loud bang, a fat pheasant dropping out of the sky (so obese are these birds you'd have to be rather dull-witted to miss it with a shotgun), the black-and-white dogs racing to pick up the kill. The shooters themselves, though, were tiny specs in the distance, so I couldn't tell what breed they were. Were they merchant bankers from Mayfair (or Manhattan) on a jolly, I wondered? Or were they locals out killing next week's dinner?
These seemed to be the pertinent questions later at lunch when I found myself pronging a sliver of pheasant meat on my fork, wondering about its provenance. I've also been curious about the slayers of the partridge, pheasant, duck and venison on the counter at my local butcher this month. Can he certify any of it "Not Been Shot By Banker Idiots"?
In fact, he can't, explains the game dealer Ben Weatherall, owner of the Blackface Meat Company. "Every game bird you buy from your butcher has been shot in the wild and will have been picked up, the day after the shoot, by a dealer like us," he tells me. This leaves me conflicted. I'm happy to eat a bird that's been briskly extinguished by a countrysider in camo – we metropolitan types all know they're a bloodthirsty lot who'll do as they please. But killed by a loaded, phoney, hedge-funder from Notting Hill wearing Pringle tweeds? Not so tasty.
Save Jazzer from the PC police
He likes nothing more than to line hisstomach with a bowl of porridge before he goes on a drinking "sesh", is a notorious womaniser (despite working as a pig man), and has a shady past involving drugs and car stealing. In EastEnders, he'd be a face lost in the crowd.
In Ambridge, the Glaswegian character Jack "Jazzer" McCreary is almost shocking, even though his crimes these days don't amount to much more than forgetting to do the dishes. But now the BBC is facing complaints that The Archers has "stereotyped an entire nation" with its depiction of Jazzer as a boozy, gruff, criminal-minded layabout.
I consulted my friend the Professional Glaswegian on the matter, who revealed herself to be a huge fan of Jazzer, despite his "unconvincing accent".
Stereotypical behaviour, it seems, is even more of a source of amusement to Scots than it is to the English (see all 10 series of Rab C. Nesbitt ...).
But, please Archers producers, please don't let BBC compliance send him home!
Here's one phrase I'm not a fan of – oh, wait ...
When did the phrase "I'm not a fan of ..." go viral? Some days it seems like there isn't a person in the English-speaking world who doesn't reach for this oddly mealy-mouthed way of expressing dislike. You'll never hear it being used literally, ie, "I'm not a fan of United, I'm a City fan", because the construction lacks any conviction. But ask people if there's anything they don't eat, and you'll be vigorously not-fanned. Not a fan of red meat. Not a fan of seafood. Not a fan of jam sandwiches. Reality TV shows are crowded with the not-a-fan fans, which makes me think that's how the tortured way of expressing simple dislike became popularised in recent years. And I don't like it. (See how easy that was?)