Week 55: Country Pursuits

realclay4Had you sidled up to me to impart the information, possibly in a whisper, that spending a morning trying to shoot little saucers made of clay out of the sky would be such fun, I just might have looked askance at you. But you would have been right, and I would have been …. less right than usual. Clay shooting is great, not least because it is a precious addition to my little fund of Sports You Can Chat While Doing. Companionable, only madly competitive if you do it in the company of madly competitive people (the very nice Peter Wilson, Olympic gold medallist, for example), and the tiniest bit silly: what could be more fun? My new addiction is fed by Alan Hawkings at Northumberland Clays (that’s what to do when next you are in this neck of the woods sorted, then. You can thank me later).

All this country living had already introduced me to the joys of fly-fishing. I think I should tell you that the first time a fishing trip was proposed to me, I did not thrill. Fishing was right up there with golf and bridge as hobbies I hoped I would reach my desired quota of 103 years without ever having experienced. And then Finlay The Ghillie From Heaven showed me how to cast my first fly ….. Now I have a secret nagging doubt. What if I’m …. less right than usual about golf and bridge as well? It is in this reflective frame of mind that I turn to books for guidance

I have three indispensable bedside books for fishing. They are Isaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, Jeremy Paxman’s Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life and Luke Jennings’ Blood Knots, which I recommended to you in Week 30. Paxman may be famous in legend and song for the worthwhile pursuit of politician-baiting (and pompous-student-deflating on University Challenge), but his heart clearly lies out on the river and his fishing anthology is an abiding pleasure. Walton is one of those Ur-books that are more talked about than read, I suspect, and yet another pretender to the title of the most-reprinted book in the galaxy. The fly-fishing chapters were added by his chum, Charles Cotton, and remain perfectly practical and sound advice. Norman Thelwell’s Compleat Tangler, on the other hand, is probably less useful as a manual, but it is heaven fthelwell 1or those of us who adore his inimitable illustrations of English country life. To be completely honest, his fishing cartoons lag behind his glorious pony pictures – but then, what doesn’t? They have to be the most perfect commentary on the horsey life ever published.

Shooting, and the perils thereof, is covered by Isabel Colegate’s atmospheric The Shooting Party, which has something of the suspenseful atmosphere of LP Hartley’s mesmerising The Go-Between about it. They are both completely successful in evoking the pre-Great War world in which they are set, and both somehow feel as if that world is holding its breath in anticipation of what is to come. Chekhov also wrote a novel called The Shooting Party, which I have not read and truth to tell, had not heard of until I spotted a copy at Barter Books last week. I will immediately get reading, not only in a spirit of topic-based enquiry but because I am a fully paid-up member of the ‘Chekhov was a genius’ society. It is the only novel he ever wrote, and – hurray! – it is a detective story, so I think I am in for a splendid time.

I never could resist a good profile

I never could resist a good profile

The Mitford sisters –or the speakable-of ones, at any rate – proved adept at chronicling country pursuits, both traditional – Lord Redesdale was an indefatigable rider to hounds, courser of hares and bagger of pheasant, partridge and grouse – and less so – the invention of the child-hunt, when foxes were thin on the ground, being one his more notable achievements. He appears as himself, more or less, in Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, which is as good an account as you’ll get of (eccentric, I grant you) country life among the upper classes in the Thirties; and as Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford’s affecting The Pursuit of Love, which, with its sequel, Love in a Cold Climate, is howlingly funny as well as tragically sad.

The thought of the Mitford children being pursued by a pack of hounds reminds me of the hound in the red jersey in Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children. The children, Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis are actually exemplary incomers to the countryside, scampering about out of doors and making their own entertainment – although the bitter truth is probably that, given today’s technology and half a chance, they’d have been stewing indoors glued to a console. Beware romanticising the past, in other words, and always remember that Bobbie and Phyllis were wearing those terribly useful red flannel petticoats because it was bloody cold out of doors.Unlike, I am delighted to report, here. After a brief encounter with Hurricane Bertha, we have pleasingly reverted to our customary glorious weather. Time to get outside. If not with fishing-rod, shotgun or dog-leash in hand, how about with a book?

There are more literary, and less literal, country pursuits.  Spotted the film-of-the-book?

There are more literary, and less literal, country pursuits. Spotted the film-of-the-book?

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Week 30: A Great Day for Out

Created with Nokia Smart CamAfter the wettest winter since the world began, London newspapers – which is pretty much all the English papers, then, ‘the north’ being something that starts at Islington for them – are cheering the first signs of spring.  Here in the not-so-wet North East we have almost been made to feel guilty for some months now, as we potter about in the t-shirt and jeans that comprise the average Northumberlander’s specialised winter gear.  But in the last week or so we have rejoined the rest of the country in a tiny frenzy of blooming and budding.  As promised, the NorthernReader Walking Book Club stepped out for the first time this week, and in amongst the book-lined pleasure path we made of  ‘have you read?’ and ‘oh, I loved’, we had time to notice (as we paused to 1170411678catch our breath – walking uphill and talking –one of us with the very smallest reader in a baby sling – you’d have been proud of us and I bet you’re wishing you’d come with us now, aren’t you?) – we had time to notice that lambs were skipping, catkins were doing some tail-shaking and the world was gently turning emerald green.  We tucked into home-made cakes at St Oswald’s tearoom on Hadrian’s Wall before skittering down the fell to get back to the serious business of following up on all those lovely reading recommendations.  Here are mine.

salmonWalking above the sparkling North Tyne, which is England’s best salmon river, it was perhaps inevitable that some books about fishing came to mind.  Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, of course: but have you read Luke Jennings’ Blood Knots? I’m not sure that I can recommend it highly enough.  Beautifully written, it is the perfect example of the meditative and philosophical nature of fishing (or indeed walking – anything that gets you out there, perhaps). Jennings’ young life was shaped by two astonishingly brave men, his father (A Military Cross-earning hero of the Second World War) and Robert Nairac, whose posthumous George Cross recognises his almost unimaginable courage as an undercover special forces officer who was discovered, tortured and killed in a lonely field in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.  Jennings manages to think aloud about both these men, and about his own upbringing in a vanishing England, in a way that never seems contrived or awkward. cheviotsIn return, I’m looking forward to reading At the Loch of the Green Corrie by Andrew Greig, which was recommended to me as we walked along the ridge, with views of the Pennines to the south and the Cheviots to the north (you see how this Walking Book Club works?  Why would you want to sit in a frowsty room to talk books when you can have all this?).  Greig was a friend of the great Scottish poet, Norman MacCaig, whose dying request to him was that he should make his way to a remote hill loch in the far north-west of Scotland and catch a brown trout in his memory.  I am reliably informed that this is a book about life, not a book about fishing, and I can’t wait.  The most delicious anthology of writing about fishing, by the way – although it predates both Jennings and Greig so I shall now have to hope for a new edition  –  is Jeremy Paxman’s Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life.  And while we’re at it, we can re-read Arthur Ransome’s The Picts and the Martyrs for the valuable lessons in guddling trout.

Our adorable baby reader caused us all to bubble with fond memories of the stories either we or our own children had loved when truly tiny.  The Very Hungry Caterpillar is already pooh and pigletgoing down well, we learned, but we added Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo and Oh Dear to the pile, together with CDs of Alan Bennett reading Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows.

And we talked about books of letters.  I have to admit that I got fairly short shrift from KatePonders when I helpfully suggested she should read Les Liaisons Dangereuses in French (a mother has a duty never to give up).  Wait till she clocks all fifteen hundred pages of Clarissa.  CS Lewis’s  Screwtape Letters, recently marvellously read on the radio by Simon Russell Beale, should be on everyone’s list: as should Lionel Shriver’s dark masterpiece, We Need to Talk About Kevin I’m definitely going to read Dear Lupin, the letters Roger Mortimer wrote to his son Charlie; Dear Lumpy, his letters to his daughter Louise (and I don’t care what you say, no father should ever call his daughter Lumpy.  Not ever.  Even silently in his own head), and Dearest Jane, his letters to his elder daughter.

We were (of course) blessed with goodish weather for our inaugural walk.  Well, alright, it was a bit misty and there was a hell of a gale, but it only rained when we were soaking up coffee and cake in the lovely tearooms.  So I’m glad to say that no-one’s thoughts seemed to turn to Sun Shuyun’s The Long March, nor her Ten Thousand Miles without a Cloud.  No-one broke out into a few bars of ‘Climb Every Mountain’– though I’m sure they’d have been lovely if they did.  Next month, we shall walk to the beat of the Hexham Book Festival.

Tobias should have taken a book with him

Tobias should have taken a book with him

PS Congratulations to our dear friends Dawn and Michael, who have just won the Countryside Alliance award for the North East for their lovely Bardon Mill Village Store and Tearoom.  Hurray!bardon mill