Back to Norfolk after a christening in Sussex this weekend. Back to final few weeks on my new book. Am at the point where I dream about my characters and they’re constantly chattering among themselves in my head. Sounds pretentious, I know, but there they are, bickering to one another. While driving back up here today I listened to Russell T Davies’ recent Desert Island Discs which I recommend for many reasons. He was so lovely about caring for his late husband and bang on about writing. Course he was, he’s Russell T Davies. But he really was good on the mad and (very occasionally) wonderful process of getting the words out. HERE’s a link to it if you like. And will paste last Sunday’s Telegraph column below.
There are a couple of exciting work-related things happening this week, the first one on Thursday. Unless you’re my mum, you don’t absolutely have to write it in your diary though.
It sounds like a posh horror film: trapped in a 3,000-acre Capability Brown deer park as the sky darkens, does our heroine escape or is she found, three days later, her eyes pecked out by a hungry pheasant? I got lost while walking in Norfolk recently. My toenails were starting to hurt, dusk and rain were sweeping in, I wanted a cup of tea. In the end, I ignored a ‘private – no entry’ sign, tiptoed past a few pheasant pens, scrabbled over a nine-foot wall and trudged my way back down the road. I skipped tea when I got home and went straight to wine.
The reason I was particularly nervous is because we’re into shooting season and pheasants are serious business up here. I haven’t had many conversations about Brexit while living in Norfolk but I’ve heard plenty of talk about gamekeepers, guns and whether Merlot the Labrador is ready for his first season.
‘It’ll be banned in five or six years,’ said a man I met at a dinner party a couple of weeks ago.
The fear is that since hunting’s been outlawed, shooting will be next. Shooting’s even less justifiable if anything, since foxes were never farmed in their tens of thousands purely to be killed. ‘The idyllic impression that many have of ‘game’ bird shooting, in which wild birds are skilfully plucked from the sky by marksmen then taken home for a feast, is nothing but a sham,’ thunders the League of Cruel Sports on its website. There are also whispers among the shooting fraternity of the big estates that still bury piles of dead birds at the end of the day because they can’t flog them. Shameful.
On the other hand, with echoes of the row raging about trophy hunting in Africa, shooting is a tradition which means money is ploughed back into the countryside and it helps conservation. Keepers control the predators, wild birds flourish.
I mulled this over on my walk. If shooting does go, pockets of rural Britain will look – and sound – quite different. Holkham, the estate where I was lost, is one of the oldest shoots in the country and the beaters, those charged with getting the birds in the air for the guns, still wear bowler hats originally commissioned in 1849 to protect their scalps. Half an hour away is Sandringham, the Royal estate given to that shotgun-obsessive Bertie (later Edward VII) as a 21st birthday present in 1862. Shoot breakfasts used to include truffled eggs and lunch was rabbit curry. In the museum, you can see a picnic trailer that Prince Philip invented for elevenses snacks on shoot days.
I like a yarn which demonstrates how barking the aristocracy and their friends used to be. Bertie had a shooting pal, Maharaja Duleep Singh, who lost his Punjab throne when young and settled in Britain. He imported an elephant to carry him around his Yorkshire estate while shooting grouse. Meanwhile, Randolph Churchill, Winston’s father, once accidentally killed a fellow guest’s pet dachshund while shooting at the Marquess of Londonderry’s estate. He then carted the little dog to London’s finest taxidermist and presented it to the former owner as a present.
None of these are arguments in favour of keeping the sport. For many they’d be quite the opposite. But as I limped home that day, I did feel a pang of something at the idea that this could all be forgotten. Nostalgia? Wistfulness? Or it might just have been the throb of the blister growing on my heel. Quite hard to tell by that point.
I stayed with new Norfolk friends last weekend. ‘Show Sophia to Sean’s room,’ the daughter was instructed by her mother when I arrived. Sean? I assumed he was a brother I hadn’t met. She meant Sean Connery. Turns out, someone they knew went out with Sean Connery’s son and they’ve ended up with Sean’s tailor-made bed. It is enormous: three pillows across and you could put at least six people in it. Dare I take a selfie of myself rolling around in the sheets for Instagram or would that be vulgar and embarrassing? I couldn’t resist in the end and snapped myself smiling in front of it. I can also report that Sean likes a very firm mattress. Or ‘matresh’, as he would presumably say.
There’s a new film of David Copperfield coming out shortly so in preparation I’ve just listened to a dramatisation, ashamed that I’ve never read the book. It was nine hours of Miriam Margolyes shrieking as Betsey Trotwood and I loved every second. But as soon as I’d finished the recording, up popped an email from Audible: ‘The new Charles Dickens book is now available – don’t miss the latest release!’ It made me howl with laughter. Not bad to be born in 1812 and still churning books out. I wonder if he’s the narrator or they got someone else to read it instead? I’ll download it and report back.