Curiouser and curiouser

To start, an apology and an explanation…

Those of you who have read this blog before may have noticed a distinct diminishment in the number of posts recently. For this, I am sorry. I mentioned before that I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel. Well, since then the symptoms of numbness, aching and random stabbing pain have spread to both hands, arms, feet, legs, lower back and more. Honestly, you’d think my body had something against me! I’m not dying or anything (had the blood tests to prove it), but I am baffling the doctors so far! That achievement aside, I’m happy to say that life is now on the up: I’m done with the resting (it makes no difference) and am on some lovely new pain relief drugs which should kick in fully soon. I’ve  got a lovely job that is willing to be flexible around my hospital appointments, drug-induced dizzy spells and discomfort, and I  have upgraded to a shiny new iPhone that I love love love love love, not least because the lack of having to press buttons makes it so much easier/less painful to type on! The above should hopefully explain my apparently paltry efforts when it come to new blog posts in the recent past, and it has all led to a moment of inspiration for a new blog post.

Now aided and abetted by my beloved iPhone I have as I explained before reignited my involvement with Twitter – my Twitter account was created years ago, but only reactivated when my work and my mum both created accounts and demanded faithful followers. My old account was resurrected, given a whole new look (@TheFirstFrost of course, complete with lovely sloe berries as a background) and suddenly I had a whole new life online. Ladies from the aforementioned Shotgun & Chelsea Bun Club are rife on Twitter, and between them can easily absorb hours of my life with talk of cakes, discussions about guns, shooting and associated accessories, lovely photos, beautiful sketches and enough tweedy goods to tempt me and my far-too-empty purse, before I notice and drag myself away from the screen. The acquiring of Twitter followers is a whole new experience – at first it almost feels like you’ve got fans! After a while you start to realise it doesn’t actually mean quite as much as an adoring fan club with banners saying “I ❤ The First Frost” but it’s still rather exciting when you first reach your first 10, then 20, then 50 and most recently for me, 100 followers. And it was my hundred and one-th (hundred and first?) follower that provoked me into writing this.

And now on to the main event…

Mr 101 commented (very kindly!) that he enjoyed my blog and always liked to see ‘country converts’. I replied saying that, truthfully, I was coming to love the country, but that it was a very strange world indeed. And this, to my surprise, surprised him.

Though I’m well aware I’m not a full-blown member of the secret society that is The Country, I feel I’ve fallen comfortably far down the rabbit hole to be safe from burrowing border terriers looking to drag me out by my heels, and thus close enough to Wonderland to able to pass some judgment.[i] And what I’m seeing is intriguing,appealing, confusing, educational, fascinating and very wet and muddy (I suppose as one might expect a rabbit hole to be.) While I am most definitely on my way to becoming a country convert, I am, as I told the lovely man on Twitter, finding a lot of it rather strange.

First is that the country world is far more old-fashioned in a lot of ways than the cosmopolitan environment I’m used to. It seems in a few ways rather behind in the ways of modern technology. Don’t get me wrong; the tractors and other farming machinery I’m sure are built with the newest of new technologies, but for the first time in perhaps as long as ten years, I’ve met fully grown adults who don’t have email addresses. This is astounding to me, a girl who could reasonably comfortable type before I could reasonably comfortable write. I’ve used computers since I was three years old, and have had at least one email address and generally two or more at all times since the age of ten or eleven.  It seems alien to me that anyone could function without regular access to the internet and email communication. Similarly, some of the country businesses, organisations and companies I’ve come into contact with in this new world have websites as advanced and complex as the ones we built for our GCSE IT. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to live a life devoid of email or so un-reliant on the Internet, but it is in my mind peculiar.

Technology aside, the country seems slightly old-fashioned in other ways. I’ve met people of my own generation (early 20s) who admit to having only ever met one or two people of African or Afro-American origin, including  someone who said he once proffered an introduction along the lines of ‘I’m sorry if I’m weird around you, I’ve just never met anyone black before’. I grew up oblivious to skin colour. You might not believe me, but I really did. Accents I noticed, but the colour of someone’s skin meant absolutely nothing – my school was a rainbow of skin colours, and none of them had the slightest of impacts on our opinions of each other – your performance in inter-house challenges was far more important! My mum will back me up with an anecdote about some friends and me sat in the back of our car discussing how a girl we knew looked like Sandra Bullock. My mum sat in the driving seat somewhere between astounded and amused, as the lookalike in question was from an Indian family and thus had completely different colour skin to Sandra Bullock. But that was irrelevant – she really did look like Sandra Bullock! Let me be clear: I’m definitely NOT saying that everyone in the country is racist. Far from it. This is probably more of a comment on those people not-in-the-capital-city. But the slight, unintended racism of a few of the people I’ve met in the last year or two is incredibly strange and slightly shocking to me. I thought that sort of stuff had mostly died out, at least among ‘people like me’. Shows how closeted I’ve been in my capital-city life.

Similarly, I’ve personally encountered more sexism since discovering this world than I ever had before – for instance, gentlemen assuming I would know nothing about guns (problem here is, they’re right) or ammunition (I know a little more about cartridges I’m proud to say) and automatically turning to a male colleague to ask advice. Or more simply male customers looking unsettled in receiving ammunition advice from someone who dared have both a matching pair of X chromosomes and an interest in guns. Surely not! I’ve met women who volunteer to help on a shoot only to restrict themselves to helping with tea, coffee and refreshments. Now, I’ve made my love of tea and cake abundantly clear, and if you’ve read my blog and not realised that perhaps I need to work on my writing. But simply because a woman enjoys baking, does that mean she should be limited to the kitchen? Why not bake and help with the shooting side of things? Or god forbid, shoot yourself?! This is definitely NOT a problem affecting all country folk – if you possess said pair of X-chromosomes and find yourself sat at your computer agreeing or shouting “YEAH!” then I highly suggest you find your next S&CBC meet and come along. Join us in our ambition to prove to all menfolk that we enjoy baking and take pleasure from our beautiful kitchen aid mixers (wishful sigh) while simultaneously enjoying shooting and taking pleasure from our beautiful shotguns.[ii] Call it multitasking. If you like the sound of that, come along and you’ll meet plenty of like-minded women I promise! Anyway, I digress. Until I left university I was coming to the conclusion that from my own (admittedly limited) experience, sexism was far less prolific than some of my more feminist minded friends made out, and as long as I stood my ground I’d be okay. But if it’s still in existence in country life, evident to me in under a year, then who’s to say they’re not right that it is prolific in other worlds too. I’m growing to really like the country, and love the history and tradition – seeing no point in change for change’s sake, and valuing hugely a lot of things lovely and old-fashioned – but some things have changed for a reason, and these isms are one of them.

The second odd thing I wish to comment on, and that I can ramble on about for some time if given the space (but I’ll try not to), is the acceptance of the roles of nature and death. I’ve talked about it before, but Country Death is not a horror that lurks in the corner in a black cloak with a scythe just waiting, revelling in the general fear and loathing that people hold towards him until the time comes for him to hack your head off or whisk you away into The Beyond. Death is accepted. The animals shot for sport are respected while living, treated well, looked after and protected while still left to roam free. And yet their deaths, and the achievement of killing them, are celebrated and glorified with photographs of dead birds laid one atop the other, or a shooter photographed and so preserved for all eternity, posing behind the dead of a just-shot dead, one hand on each antler holding it up. Animals are frequently killed on a regular basis – a farming friend casually mentioned that he was going out ‘blasting bunnies’ later on, as they were causing problems in his crops. I won’t mention the hunts-on-horseback at this point, but foxes are still shot regularly as pests, and photos will often be taken of the carcases as the norm, even just friends snapping pics on iPhones. Taxidermy – a practice which I had thought antiquated and old-fashioned – is very much still alive, with stuffed birds dotted around country shops and living rooms, the heads of decapitated buffalo, stag, antelope and countless other animals mounted on wooden plaques and displayed in shops, shoot lodges and hallways. From a city perspective, this means that someone has taken it upon themselves to track down a living, breathing animal, end its life, carefully gut and empty the animal of all its bones, muscles, arteries and other live-preserving matter to leave only the outer skin, fur, feathers, eyes, feet horns and so on. They then stuff the dead animal (and use other much more complicated techniques) to ensure its preservation, and proceed to display this emblem of a life ended too soon as a pretty ornament. City girl says: what’s wrong with a painting or sculture?

I think I’m starting to be able to rationalise it, and even possibly understand it (and I’ll save that ramble for another day) but the problem is that however rationally I explain it in my head, the fact is that I’m still pretty squeamish when it comes to dead stuff. Or dying stuff. Once it’s dead in my kitchen, it’s not a problem; it’s not an animal that recently died; it’s meat, even if it is still fully clothed in fur or feathers. I’m just not phased by dead animals when they are obviously there to be eaten. But that act of killing them still turns my stomach slightly, the idea of a stately stag in the wild standing proud one minute, and lying dead the next with a bullet through its neck (or head or heart or wherever else they’re shot), blood spilled on the grass and then dragged back home. Then again, once it’s strung up to be skinned and gutted, I have no problem – it ceases to be a deer and becomes venison. But still the middle bit, the transition from dead to alive, the idea of people and children in particular being so close to that moment, and the successful hunter taking quite so much pleasure in it… much as I possibly shouldn’t admit this to some country-friends, my head may have manage to get around it, but my heart and stomach still haven’t. I’ll admit, I’m far happier with the idea of shooting birds than I am deer and stags, so I may simply be suffering from a case of Bambi-it is. Nonetheless, it took some serious thinking to find the idea of what I first saw as ruthlessly shooting a bird down mid-flight not unpalatable, and I still find the ‘country-folks’’ complete, nonchalant acceptance of it all rather peculiar.

The last thing I’ll comment on today that I find strange looking down the rabbit hole is the amount of money people spend on clothes and footwear. I come from a world where you buy your day-to-day things cheaply, be it H&M to M&S, but the extravagant purchases are a beautiful pair of heels, or a dress for a special occasion, both of which you may wear only once a year – if that! And I know someone who buys the absolute cheapest wellies he can, once a year for a festival, leaves them at the festival and buys another next year. But suddenly I fall into the Country, and meet countless people who own £300 wellingtons (leather-lined, of course). But it does make sense – a lot of people will spend days, even weeks on end in their wellies, wearing them all day long, day in day out. They need to keep their feet dry, comfortable and warm. Similarly, a £500 coat isn’t a designer item, it’s a heavy-duty, waterproofed affair – tweed of course, if you’re of a traditional persuasion and going on a game shoot – but still Goretex lined with these storm cuffs, that drip stopper thingy and those draining holes (in the pockets of course, to keep your cartridges dry!), and countless other sensible touches, instead of the frills and fripperies of the city. This makes so much sense – I’ve even started adopting it in my every day life, spending less on dresses and heels for occasions and more on my day-to-day shoes and clothes – and you know what, it works! My clothes wash better, last longer, and are quite simply fit for purpose – so much more worth the money I spent on them than a £200 dress I might wear once or twice. Though I’m still not in the market for £300 wellies – I just don’t wear mine enough. Amazing, wonderful, sensible, logical, and most definitely to a girl who grew up in the city, just a little strange.

Strange isn’t bad, it’s strange. The Country is my wonderland, and assuming I stay safe from decapitation-hungry monarchs that torture hedgehogs with flamingos, I’m eager to see more of it. I promise that as I keep falling down the rabbit hole, I’ll let you know what else I see. In turn, if you farming folk would be so kind, should you find yourselves out ‘bunny-blasting’ please avoid any flustered looking rabbits with waistcoats and pocket watches.


[i] A country friend recently confirmed this for me, as I, a humble girl from Twickenham, referred to her local country town as “Chippy”. Apparently this means I passed some sort of test, and am well on my way to becoming ‘country’. Though apparently not there yet, as I still own Hunters, and insufficiently muddy ones at that (and love them).

[ii] For the record, I don’t recommend baking with shotguns or shooting with cake batter or even sultanas. Neither will yield very good results.

Advertisements

Sir Pheasant Struts His Stuff

Last weekened, for the first time in my life, I met a combine harvester. Or rather, I met one of the wheels. And one of the wheels was enough; it’s almost as tall as I am (and I’m not short) and probably similar in size to my whole car [i]. The machine itself, even without the wheels, was probably bigger than the house currently I live in.

The farm I visited was entirely alien to me, but the strangest thing about it was the noise it made in the evening. When you stand in the middle of the fields (and there’s quite a lot of land there, especially for a girl who measures floor space in square feet), you can hear nothing. Actually nothing. I like peace and quiet, but peace and quiet to me comes with the background noise of living under the Heathrow flight path (when I was small) and mere metres away from the M40 (now, when I’m not so small). Vehicles of one form or another tick away quietly in the background of my life, ever present and for the most part, unnoticed (though listening for concord at 11am when I was at primary school was a definite exception – everything stopped when concord flew over; it was far too noisy to think, especially when you’re thinking complicated four-year-old thoughts). So for me, Countryside Quiet is quiet on a whole other level. It truly does ‘echo with the sound of silence’.

Everyone knows the sound of your ears ringing when you subject the poor things to a lot of loud noise for a continuous length of time, whether it’s a concert, festival or screaming child. But stood in the middle of a field, with zero background noise, no matter how hard I strained to hear, my ears were ringing with the lack of noise. It was like they couldn’t cope without sound, and so generated it themselves.

If black is in fact the absence of colour or light, then silence is the black of the auditory realm. Quiet you can hear, but this was the complete and utter absence of anything – and I can’t stress that enough. Very occasionally you could head a distant moo of cattle or squark of a pheasant, but that only heightens the lack of sound the rest of the time. Nothing happening, the world just Is. It lifts everything from your shoulders, the world is put on pause… it’s wonderful.

Another thing I liked about being on the farm was seeing the animals. Not just the farm animals, but the wildlife. I’ve developed a familiarity with game – I’ve had to, as it’s emblazoned on everything in the shop where I work, from jumpers and cufflinks to crockery and boxer shorts. Partridges on side plates and bowls, woodcock on mugs, pins and brooches of roe deer and snipe, pheasants embroidered onto jumpers and grouse woven into silk ties. I’ve been presented with a brace of pheasants, a few rabbits, pigeon and even haunches of venison as gifts, and I even have a tiny silver grouse hanging off my charm bracelet as a gift from my mother. But I’ve not yet actually spent any length of time around the live birds. Seeing them around the farm provided not only a novelty, but immense amusement.

They really are funny little things. The plumage on a cock pheasant is stunning, and stationary it looks almost elegant with long slim tail feathers, a proud face and the spectacular shimmering mallard-green and holly-red head, subtly speckled and smoky feathers on the body. But then they start to move, and the show begins. Strutting around with his chest puffed up, the cock pheasant assumes a comically arrogant persona: a rich portly gentleman of class, red face from years of overindulgence and cigars simply because he can; one thumb hooked into the pocket of a silk waistcoat, gold buttons straining, as he consults his shiny pocket watch pretentiously, rising onto his tip toes in that sort of way as he proclaims something supposedly insightful, concluded with ‘… don’t you know old boy’. Tail thrust out proudly behind him, our Mr Pheasant –sorry, Sir Pheasant, swaggers about as if he owns the land and terribly kindly lets the poor farmer work it. And yet, for all his apparent pride, if you walk or better yet drive towards him, the two scrawny little legs that support his rotund body start spinning round in circles like a Loony Toons character. Both scared and hilariously indignant, huffing and puffing he scuttles away.

Partridges are simply a smaller, rounder version of the same. Quiet and peaceful on the surface, not quite so proudly plump in the chest but they are just as funny to watch. Given that despite their wings, they’re not the most proficient fliers, partridges and pheasants both really do have tiny little spindly legs, with movement limited to just two options: the overinflated strut and comical scuttle of resentful desperation.

In the fields at dusk we watched the Mad March Hares playing (before returning home for tea with Alice and the dormouse no doubt). Bounding through the sprouting wheat and barley, pausing occasionally to box each other before carrying on their whimsical game of tag. Roe deer spotted in the distance, only as tall as the hedges around them, slim elegant legs and necks, they walk sedately though the fields. Admittedly at this point I only saw the farm, I didn’t do any work or get involved in any way. But watching the wildlife at dusk you see how nature endures calmly and happily, barely disturbing the silence and flattered by the twilight, providing gentle entertainment, amusement and wonderment. I’m sure Mother Nature will reveal her nasty side to me soon enough – and eyes peeled because I’ll write about it when she does – but for now, I’m smitten.

I know some of my friends would ask how I could reconcile this attitude towards nature and wildlife when I am in favour of shooting. On a farm like that one, small shoots are held during the season, and Sir Pheasant, who I’ve been writing about with such affection, becomes a target. While I’m desperate to go, I’ve not yet actually been game shooting (one day… one day) but despite my lack of experience and my appreciation of nature, I will still defend it. The shooting industry  is actually responsible for an awful lot of conservation of the wildlife and habitats involved in shooting (see BASC for more info). Birds are bred specifically for the sport, and are looked after from birth – after all, a weak bird that can’t fly a good distance, for any length of time or with any speed makes for a very poor target. Anyone who takes issue with game shooting should consider the source of the meat they eat from their local supermarket – I for one would far rather eat a bird that’s lived its life outdoors and been shot mid-air than a battery farmed hen. It is very possible to appreciate the elegance and comedy of the puffed up pheasant strutting his stuff on the farm, the challenge he provides as an airborne target, and the flavour of the pheasant breast wrapped in streaky bacon on your plate at dinner.


[i] The overgrown toboggan that is my little blue Peugeot 107.