Book interviews and country diary

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I’ve still got my head down working on a longer term project, but in the mean time I continue to conduct interviews and edit for the literary site Five Books, which you should visit and follow if, like me, you like to keep a to-be-read pile larger than your bedside table or to hear authors/academics/public figures talking about their areas of expertise in depth. Recently I’ve spoken to author Matthew Green about post-traumatic stress, journalist and memoirist Bryony Gordon about depression, and academic Philippa Levine about eugenics.

I also contributed another short entry to the Guardian’s Country Diary, this time about horse-riding in the Black Isle during pheasant shooting season. Text at the Guardian website here, or after the fold. 

Daft, beautiful birds protected for the pot

Redcastle, the Black Isle There are dozens of them waiting in the undergrowth to fly up, panic-stricken, as we pass

male pheasant

When we reach the turn for Gallowhill Wood the horses know we’re going home and pick up the pace. It has been a long day for them, these heavyset highlands – so low to the ground and dressed in such thick fur coats. But not so long they haven’t the energy to feign fright when we round a bend to find tripods lurking between the trees, with plastic bellies and wooden legs, short tails protruding from their underparts. They have an alien aspect, and the horses don’t like them at all. I agree.

A few minutes further and the mystery deepens. A paddock fenced with electrified wire twice my height. This looks serious. Wild boar? Oh no. I prepare for a panic of hoofbeats. But there too are strips of plastic hanging in the trees and CDs spinning on treads: this fence is to keep something safe inside.

We leave the paddock behind and ride on. The ground is wet and soft, a mix of leaf mulch and pineneedles. It’s not late, but through gaps in the branches I see the sky flooded with blue and violet ink. The horses know the way so we give them their heads and relax, soaking in the soundscape of the forest at dusk.

At once, all around us, is the answer to the puzzle. A hoarse chu-chuk warns of our arrival. And then, a drumming chukchukchukchuk and flurry of wings as a pheasant takes flight in raucous alarm. There are dozens of them waiting in the undergrowth to fly up, panic-stricken, as we pass.

Daft, beautiful birds. I think of Roald Dahl’s cocks with “scarlet spectacles” and hens so plump “their breast-feathers brushed the ground”. In Danny, Champion of the World, they were being fed up for the pot, and here is no different.

On the road we pass a convoy of cars on their way home from a shoot. They pull up politely to let us past. Smile. Still, I can’t help wishing that one day these birds come to their senses and – as in the book – lift up in a cloud and make their escape.

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