Thursday, 2 July 2015

A Weasel I Briefly Met

It's been several years since I've been abroad. I could put this down to a couple of very obvious reasons - a certain reluctance to plan that can become ingrained after many years of stubbornly self-employed life, my fear of flying, following lightning striking a plane I was on several years ago - but I'd perhaps be ignoring a more significant one, which is that I don't really yearn to be away. I've got an endless list of wild places in Britain I want to visit, all of which I can happily place ahead of overseas equivalents in the queue, but it's not even that. I am more and more interested in the part of the outdoors that immediately surrounds me. Obviously, this is partly because I'm lucky enough to live in an extremely beautiful and (still, for the time being) relative unspoilt part of the Deep South West (Devon and Cornwall are the Deep South West in my view - anyone who lumps them in with "The South" doesn't properly know them), but I was the same in the place where I lived before, on the opposite side of the country, and think I'd bring a similar attitude to any rural location. 

   This is a feeling that has grown in me over the last decade: a realisation I spent my teens and twenties walking around in a cloud of misguided, suggestible ambition, missing a lot of interesting stuff right under my nose, coupled with the worry that The Internet is making the universe smaller in a not always entirely beneficial way, prompting us to spread our experience more thinly, to be "worldly" in the most distracted and inverted comma of fashions. The two square miles around my house alone loom increasingly huge and colourful in my mind, dotted with fauna and plantlife I could study for years and still not truly know. It's when I'm in a supposedly bigger world that I often feel stymied, cooped up. As Rob Cowen says in Common Ground, his brilliant book about exploring what he calls "the edgeland" near his house in Yorkshire: "Ours is a world growing yet shrinking, connected yet isolated, all-knowing but without knowledge. It is one of breadth, shallowness, and endless swimming through cyberspace. All is speed and surface. Digging down deeper into an overlooked patch of ground, one that (in a global sense, at least) few people will ever know about and even fewer visit, felt like the antithesis to all this."

   I walked the lings, water meadows and bridleways around my house in Norfolk very extensively from 2008 to 2013, but it's the noticing part that I've got a little better at since moving to Devon early last year. At one point not so long ago, for example, I might not have picked up on the minuscule anguished squeak I heard behind me in some bushes half a mile from my house on Monday: it might have been lost in the small din of a summer day in a wildflower meadow near a river. I'd have charged on, eager for more fresh air, instead of slowing down and listening, as I did, and I'd have missed the amazing and somewhat horrifying sight that occurred just under a minute later: two furry animals, each no bigger than my foot, locked together, spinning onto the path, at least one of them in extreme pain.

   One of these animals was a young rabbit and the other was a weasel, but it took me a few moments to realise this. I watched rabbits suffer a few times in the jaws of my cats Ralph and Shipley, before I attached large double bells to Ralph and Shipley's collars last year, but this was another level of vicious: seeing the burning darkness in its eyes and the shrieking rabbit in its jaws, I momentarily became the rabbit and the weasel became the headlights. 

   What happened next astonished me further still: a larger rabbit, bouncing out of the undergrowth and hurling itself at the weasel. This, though almost comically ineffectual, was just enough to break up the original ball of weasel and rabbit, and as they separated, all three creatures noticed me for the first time in my static, mesmerised position, not more than four feet away. The grown rabbit hopped into the bushes, its offspring flopped and writhed behind it, clearly badly injured. The weasel scuttled in the other direction, pausing and getting on its hind legs for a second to peer at me in a "Can I take him?" sort of way. I sat and waited and five minutes later the weasel re-emerged, scuttling across the path like a cackling comedy villain in a Hanna Barbera cartoon, confirming everything we know about weasel etymology. I heard nothing more. I wondered about looking for the young rabbit and putting it out of its misery. I knew I wouldn't.

   I'd had a lot on my mind that morning, was probably in a slightly more fragile state than usual, and I felt simultaneously shaken and awed by what I'd seen. Initially I had the thought "I wish I'd filmed that" but I quickly banished it: it was an impulse fostered by the modern condition of going everywhere with a phone, of sharing above experiencing. I already do too much of this, like most people, and I want to cut down on it, if not stop altogether, as it's ultimately just another way of skimming across the world's surface. I didn't actually wish I'd filmed it at all. The Internet just made me briefly think I did. But I felt a little alone with the visceral knowledge of what had happened and needed to offload it. I looked around, but all I could see were some jersey cows. They probably wouldn't have thought it a particularly big deal if I'd told them. As I walked back home through the trees, I got the sense that the Devon countryside's June party had reached its crescendo: the nature equivalent of that moment where you stay out, thinking things will get wilder, and they do, but in a slightly dark way you regret. Blood-caked bird wings and gristle lay on the path ahead of me. Towering bullyboy nettles stung my bare legs: thistles that weren't bold enough to slag me off to your face. I didn't notice until later. As a forager told me recently, "the stings do you good: you should embrace them" but that wasn't why: the only thing I was embracing was my dazed and preoccupied state. 

   What has stayed with me most is the image of that larger rabbit, bouncing so determinedly to its offspring's defence, despite its non-existent artillery. It was impossibly touching and deeply sad, and another illustration of what I've learned about rabbits, living near so many of them for the last year. That they're nature's ultimate hippies, wanting nothing more out of life than to live in peace and eat their greens and have lots of unfaithful sex. In the weasel's eyes I thought I saw pure evil: that look briefly became a metaphor for other lamentations about injustice, greed and selfishness that were whirring in my mind. But naturally this was bollocks. There was no evil here, because this wasn't about choice. A weasel didn't choose to kill a rabbit, not like, say, a local council chooses to destroy the habitats of countless weasels and rabbits when they approve a planning application for some wanksome executive housing estate. It is just surviving, playing a part in the churning maelstrom of the countryside where I live: providing a (albeit especially predatory) part of the death that's an intrinsic part of a great, ever-changing, maelstrom rainbow of life. I am not angry with it. You can't be angry with a weasel for being a weasel*. But three days on, I'm still feeling a little bit shaken from it, and a little bit more alive as a result.

* Rule does not apply to Michael Gove.

Illustrations by Sophie Gilmore. See more of her artwork here. Email me via my website if you're interested in getting your artwork featured on this blog.

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WEASEL FACT: The collective noun for weasels is "boogle".

Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Dozy Gene

My late paternal granddad Ted was an almost constantly grinning man with a moustache, glasses, and a scar running across the entirely bald dome of his head. Right from when I was very small, I’d known that he’d been injured in World War II, but it wasn't until later that I asked about the scar’s exact origin. “NO," my very loud dad told me. “HE DIDN’T GET IT WHILE FIGHTING. ACTUALLY, HE DIDN’T DO ANY FIGHTING. HE WAS MENDING A PLANE AND FORGOT TO MOVE OUT OF THE WAY WHEN THE PROPELLER STARTED GOING, AND IT FOOKIN' CLONKED HIM ONE.”
   My dad never addressed his dad as “dad” but as “TED” or “TEDWARD”. To me this says as much about Ted's extreme Tedness as it does about their relationship. In my memory, he is preserved as a human teddy bear: cheerful, circle-faced, cuddly, and often found in the woods. But teddy bears cannot survive alone in the world and in my grandma Joyce my granddad had found a complimentary opposite: stern and fearful, a woman who once called the police on her own son for messing about on a train track close to their council house in Nottingham. Joyce’s role was to remind Ted not to post his house keys in the letterbox at the end of their road or leave loaves of bread on the roof of the car prior to long journeys, and, during visits to heavily mirrored buildings, stop him from spending too much time apologising profusely to other moustachioed men with scarred bald heads for blocking their path. Ted’s – arguably more significant - role was to shake Joyce out of her naturally pessimistic state with a succession of dancing classes, neighbourhood bonfires, fancy dress balls, caravan holidays and Derbyshire walking expeditions.
   For most of his adult life, Ted worked on the floor of a factory that made women’s stockings. This was somehow apt, given his penchant for gently bawdy humour, but in view of his relationship with his cars, it now seems slightly surprising to me that, both here and in the war, he was entrusted with jobs that involved handling heavy machinery. In the 1960s, he drove all the way to Devon from Nottinghamshire in an Austin Wolseley that lacked a reverse gear. Once there, he somehow survived a week driving the county's narrow, high-banked lanes, repeatedly getting out of the car to knock on the window of befuddled oncoming drivers and tell them of the vehicle's fault so they could move backwards and let him pass. It was a rare journey in Ted's car that went by without him running a red light, although this was always due to absent-mindedness, not haste. "Oh, I think it might be time for me to give up driving," I remember him announcing after various fraught journeys through the Nottingham suburbs in the early and mid-90s but it wasn't until a few months before his death, in 2002, that he actually did. One winter, after a visit to our house in the north Nottinghamshire countryside, a passing group of six sinewy cyclists were enlisted to push his Toyota out of a snowdrift and back onto the road: a task that, even bearing in mind the snow, necessitated an unusually Geoff Capesian amount of grunting. It was only later that it dawned on Ted - thankfully in a way that he neglected to voice until later, when the cyclists were gone - that he’d forgotten to take the handbrake off. One other occasions he had been known to park the Toyota in the dead centre of the country lane we lived on, and once left a small Paraffin stove burning inside its footwell to “keep it defrosted”.
   My mum remembers that on her first visit to my grandparents’ house, Ted was wearing a paper party hat. Since it wasn’t Christmas or anybody’s birthday, this confused her, until she found out that making Ted wear the hat was my grandma’s scheme to help him remember that he had to turn their immersion heater off. My own initial firsthand encounter of my granddad’s legendary doziness came when he caddied for me in a junior golf tournament and, arriving on the second tee and reaching for my driver, I found the flag from the first green in my bag. This occurred during the same year that he and Joyce sent a Christmas card to my parents – whose names are Mick and Jo - reading “To Joyce and Ted. Happy Christmas! Love from Joyce and Ted.”

  Nobody can remember the exact moment my granddad’s scatterbrain gene kicked in, but a poll of those who knew him puts it at around the age of 36: four years younger than I am now, and four years before Ted set fire to a stranger’s coat by putting his still-lit pipe in his pocket during a coach trip from Ilkeston to Mablethorpe. I was always closer to my nan on my mum’s side than I was to Ted and Joyce, and have often been told that my personality and looks are closer to hers and those of her husband Tom, who died before my birth. But recently, particularly as my hair on my head has become slightly less thick and the hair on my face thicker, I’ve started to see a hint of Ted in the mirror. This effect will no doubt become more extreme if I finally start wearing my glasses as often as I should. It also has got me thinking about my genetic destiny, especially on the days when I put the coffee beans straight into the mug or a bottle of unused shampoo directly into my green recycling bin.
   I kidded myself for a few years that my increased doziness might be down to a overfilled mind and the pace of modern life but I'm now facing up to the fact that my Ted gene has now fully kicked in. I suppose a big signpost was the moment in 2013 when I got a bit too involved in a folk album I'd just bought, forgot to check on my bonfire, and accidentally set a fairly large portion of my next-door neighbour's garden alight. Increasingly, friends and strangers chase after me as I exit pubs and shops, waving my clothes and valuables in the air. But that's ok. Ageing is often about facing up to your flaws and admitting your mistakes. For example, the other day I put my wallet in the fridge, and I now realise that was a mistake.

   I mentioned some of these incidents to my dad, seeking reassurance. I knew that he, at least, hadn’t inherited the doofus gene: he was always double-checking that he’d switched appliances off, was, for all his eccentricities, a rigorously organised person. He sat me down and replied in, what was for him, an unusually hushed voice: “WHY DO YOU THINK I’M SO NEUROTIC? IT’S NOT JUST BECAUSE I GOT IT FROM YOUR GRANDMA. I HAVE TO BE LIKE THAT, OR I’LL WALK AROUND DOING STUPID THINGS ALL THE TIME.” He too had first experienced the phenomenon during his mid-30s, he said, during a holiday when he broke an up-and-over garage door off its hinges by pulling it the wrong way. “IT’S A LATENT COX TRAIT. I WAS GOING TO WARN YOU ABOUT IT THE OTHER SUMMER WHEN YOU DROVE INTO THAT PARKING BARRIER AND SNAPPED IT, BUT I THOUGHT I’D GIVE IT A WHILE JUST TO MAKE SURE.”
   It felt comforting to know there was a cure for my condition, but I also felt hard done by. My dad had had great fun playing practical jokes on his dad – convincing him, say, that he'd received a call from my grandma on an unattached, analogue telephone many yards from any building - but because of his pesky compensating for his condition, I’d been robbed of the chance to do the same thing with him. Instead, I had been doomed to a life of being told “REMEMBER TO PUT YOUR HEADLIGHTS ON” and “DON’T SAW INTO YOUR HAND WHILE YOU’RE CUTTING THAT WOOD." Now my illness had been confirmed, I could no longer even claim he was fussing unduly.

   Not long before he died, my parents took Ted on a visit to a large country house that was open to the public. “Ah. If I could do it all over again, and got luckier, who knows?” he sighed. “I could have been the gardener here.” Ted worked hard all his life, but he never got ideas above his station, which perhaps meant his doziness was easier to manage. I, on the other hand, have always had many ideas above my station. With this in mind, I should probably start thinking about winding it all up now, for safety’s sake: spend more time pottering about the garden, perhaps keep the car on the road for a few more years, but limit it to small trips to local tea rooms, hardware firms and dinner dances. Occasionally, I’ll need to go shopping for slippers, and I might fall foul of the odd full-length mirror in the process, but I’ll cope. It won’t be a bad life, and if I live it a quarter as nobly as Ted did, I’ll have no complaints.

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Wednesday, 17 June 2015

My Week In Badgers

Sound travels in a curious way on the hillside where I live here in Devon. The sudden dips and rises in the land and the dense canopies of the area’s countless trees can create deceptive pockets of noise. What you think is, say, your girlfriend or your cat talking to you might not even be something vaguely similar to your girlfriend or your cat, and might not be talking to you at all. My first big lesson about this arrived last summer, when I mistakenly attempted to call an elderly Spanish tourist into the kitchen for some mass-produced trout chunks coated in gravy. Armed with experience, I’m more sceptical now, so last Wednesday when, just as I was falling asleep, I heard a warthog slaughtering a chicken behind my garden hedge, I responded relatively calmly. At the same time, the sound was quite loud and alarming enough to draw me to the bedroom window. I watched the spot where it came from until a short, squat man emerged on all fours through the leaves and began to crawl across the lawn.  

   My house is in quite a rural spot, but in summer the fields around it can be popular hang-out spots for teenagers from the local town, who like to use them to experiment with alcohol and drugs and self-consciously demo some of the new loud adult voices they’re working on. A few even turned up and did some rapping behind my garden last summer, although this clearly needed some work and resulted in the female members of their party making an early exit. It’s still a bit early for south Devon’s posh DIY hip-hop season to fully kick in and I have little experience with warthogs so I was glad, peering more closely at my lawn through the dark, to discover that the intruder on my lawn on this occasion was in fact a large badger. Seeing its form gradually unblur, I felt like I’d just watched something walk through a partition in reality. Grabbing my camera and the nearest pair of trousers, I tripped my way hurriedly to the back door. The badger was nowhere to be seen when I arrived outside but, alerted by a grumbly rustling, I found it a couple of minutes later behind the garden gate and managed to snap a quick grainy photo before it scuttled off, with a “just been victimised at an unfair disciplinary meeting at work” air about it. 
Front end of big intruder badger behind my garden

   If you see one badger a year in Britain, you feel pretty good about yourself. If you see several in the space of twenty four hours, you feel like you’re walking on a magic cloud cushion. Until last year, I’d never seen a live badger up close at all. It wasn’t until 1977 that one was first shown on TV (on the now legendary Badgerwatch). Being on such a high from seeing my first badger of 2015 - and a bit too engrossed in a Garrison Keillor podcast - accounted for the fact that, walking over the crest of a hill a few hundred yards from my house on the way to the shops the next day, I didn’t even notice until the last minute that I’d almost stood on another, much smaller badger. 

   As I continued through the woods towards town a mixture of feelings set in: annoyance at my absent-mindedness, elation, and the special, rare kind of remorse that comes from almost treading on a very young badger. I remembered the golf club I was a member of in Norfolk a decade or so ago, which would devote several pages of its year-end AGM report to the ongoing “badger problem” on the seventh fairway. I laughed at the time and mentally urged the badgers on in their scraping away of the fairway’s finely mown turf, despite the difficult lies it would give me for iron shots in future tournaments, but now I realised my urging had been insufficient. If I had the courage of my convictions, I shouldn’t have been a member of a golf club at all. I should have been on the fairway at night, with a bag of worms, staging a badger sit in. 

   Determined to make amends, armed with a party bowl of peanuts and cat biscuits, I set off at dusk back up to the hilltop where I’d almost trod on the young badger. A further surprise greeted me when I arrived: not just the original young badger from earlier, snuffling about on the mown turf, but a shyer, smaller sibling, in the longer grass and weeds a few feet away. Neither seemed hugely aware of me and I crouched in the grass and watched them for quarter of an hour or so, then scattered the peanuts and cat biscuits, which they duly chomped. It wasn’t until I’d got within about two feet of the bolder badger that it scuttled away. I was reminded of something I’d noticed last year, when I’d got my first close up of a badger: that they don’t run in quite the same way you see the other four-legged furry animals of Britain run. The way badgers run is a bit like a garish 1960s fur footstool might run if it suddenly realised it had the power of functioning limbs. 

Young badger (and shyer sibling) in the field near my house

   A couple of days later, I noticed the beginning of a sett in a rough patch of ground beside my garden fence. Walking around in my post-badger cotton wool dream world, I found myself twisting the conversation repeatedly back around to my badger sightings when I spoke to strangers: a woman I bought a stilton pasty from, a walker who asked me directions to the river. This proved to be less of a non-sequitur on Sunday, when I visited The West Country Scythe Festival at Thorney Lakes in Somerset and spoke to Leslie from the Dorset For Badger & Bovine Welfare Group. As well as feeding the badgers near her garden peanuts and grapes, Leslie regularly makes peanut butter sandwiches for them. She also recently fed them some leftover ratatouille from her freezer. “They loved it,” she explained. “But they ran off with the dish. It was a nice dish, too.” 

    Leslie talked to me about the ongoing badger cull, its insubstantial supportive scientific evidence and astronomical cost, and the new plans which will almost certainly see it moving from Somerset into Dorset, and subsequently to Devon. I don’t want to write in detail about the cull here, as you’ll find plenty of far more serious and informed writing about it elsewhere online, but I urge everyone to read Rob Cowen’s wonderful new book Common Ground, which features a rigorous explanation of the nebulous facts and Tory power lust directly behind the cull. 

   It’s perhaps no coincidence that the badger chapter coincides with the amazingly powerful, optimistic crescendo of Cowen’s book: a rousing argument for sensitivity over cynicism when approaching the complex issues surrounding the future of the British countryside. Humans interfering with nature is part of nature itself. But how far the interference should go  - how much it’s about our own greed and pride - is the big question. I’d been feeling a little glum in the early part of last week, thinking about another five years of a government which, at least in part, actively supports bloodsports, looking at the scars that two large new executive housing developments had put in beautiful, wild hillsides in my neighbourhood, readying myself for the cold mockery of street names commemorating the very things they’d destroyed (interesting how rarely you get a “Dead Weasel Close” or “Evicted Hawk Moth Avenue” on such developments). It is easy to get bogged down in such thoughts right now, feeling like something precious and pure is ending, in a far bigger and more significant way than the way that something precious and pure has always been ending, throughout history. But badgers are still here - small snouty folk rock bears, quietly yet magically outside the humdrum - and there are people out there willing to devote huge amounts of their free time to their protection. I’ve not done anything nearly so selfless, but I have been up to feed mine peanuts, chick peas and cat biscuits every night since I first met them. Sitting in the long grass, in the divine, heavy stillness of a mid-summer dusk, looking into a small, fresh stripy face, it’s been hard to feel anything but hope. 

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Tuesday, 9 June 2015

A Truly Utopian Radio Station

Those of you who follow me on Twitter might be aware I've been hosting a fortnightly radio show recently. It's called Message From The Country and features music of a rural nature (acid folk, country funk, magical boondocks classic rock, agri-psych, mystic Americana), me rambling on about stuff like hares, folklore and walking up tors, a little bit of dead air due to my habit of fading up the wrong channel, and the odd robin or jackdaw joining in when I leave the studio doors open, which is often. Like the rest of Soundart's junk shop army of DJs, I don't get paid for this - actually, I'm unfair to say that, as I did once receive a large floret of broccoli and two courgettes after a particularly good show - because Soundart is a station run entirely by volunteers, which survives on donations and the amazing, infectious energy and enthusiasm of its founders, Chris and Lucinda. The breadth of programming is astounding, from the electro sexton Morecambe and Wise that are Ru and Claire (otherwise known as directors of The Green Funeral Company), to Dick Everett's beekeeping show, to the rural soundscapes of Tony Whitehead and Andy Dickinson, to Eccentric Voices (featuring Robert Davidson, who took the famous photograph of Frank Zappa sitting naked on the toilet), to Jared and Matthew's Random Radio, with its outdoor broadcasts and bold scotch egg eating challenges. There are frequent times, sitting in the studio, which is situated on the beautiful Dartington Estate and overlooks the Dart valley, when you find yourself blinking in disbelief that something so wild and wonderful exists in such a place, in the metropolitan-orientated, financially-squeezed artistic world of 2015. It can feel like living inside a small, hopeful, beautifully flawed dream, and it could be argued that right now there exists no greater and truer community-minded continuation of the egalitarian, philanthropic vision of Dartington's former owners, The Elmhirsts. That so many bright, imaginative, talented people work for Soundart for nothing is not just a testament to the experimental, loose approach Chris and Lucinda encourage but to a positivity that radiates from everything they do.
   It's unlikely that everything on Soundart will be for you, but I can guarantee that within its eclectic mix you will find something to fall in love with. If there is a braver and more interesting radio station in Britain right now, I haven't heard it.

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Dartington College alumni broadcasting on Soundart

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Tuesday, 2 June 2015

A Few Thoughts About Writing (And Quitting) A Newspaper Column in 2015

I quit my monthly Guardian column yesterday. I thought I should explain a bit here about why, in case anyone who reads the column regularly is wondering where it’s got to. The column, which was called The 21st Century Yokel, covered nature, country customs, folklore, landscape, family and my small adventures in rural Norfolk and Devon and the North East Midlands, and had been a fixture of the paper’s Life And Style section since spring 2011. It ran online-only because only a fool would hope that something so utterly separate from the zeitgeist or news or celebrity, containing such a dearth of controversy, soul-bearing confession or shit-stirring opinion would run in the print version of a modern newspaper. It was easily the most poorly paid of all the work I do, I received no travel expenses for the research trips I did for it, and I put a huge amount of time and love into it. I accepted all this and enjoyed it a lot, though, because it was a space in a newspaper where I had a fair bit of freedom to write about subjects you don’t tend find in newspapers, in a very non-newspapery sort of way. It also provided a complimentary portal to my last few books: a way of showing people who would typically be apprehensive about reading cat books (people, in other words, like me) that what they would get in my cat books was often not the sort of stuff you normally find in cat books. 

   At the same time - while I hope the end result was more or less the same - I approached the writing of the column with slightly more trepidation than the way I’d approach writing about the same subjects for my own blog or one of my books or even a magazine that didn’t appear online. Although I’d long since stopped reading the comments beneath the columns, and those I had read had been broadly positive, as far as the murky world of Below The Line went, the voice of a certain kind of London-based Guardian reader echoed in my head as I wrote: someone with absolutely zero interest in badgers or firewood, who might approach one of my columns with the exclamation “You call this news?” then read it anyway, because getting high on their outrage was one of few joys they still had left in life. I don’t, of course, call what I write “news”. I’d be hard pushed to even call what I write “something you might find standing on the other side of a ravine, waving to news”, and I understand that this has been a slight problem for the Guardian’s Life And Style section. I had come to dread their clickbait headlines which, in an attempt to get the attention of the kind of people who wouldn’t enjoy my columns anyway, were often somewhat misleading. When I wrote a column about the notion of belonging and being local and my deficiencies as a proper rural Norfolk person (easily my worst 21st Century Yokel piece, incidentally), the headline presented it as a feature about a London person trying and failing to fit into country life. I lived in London many years ago, for two years and four months, and never felt truly at home there. For almost the entire remainder of my life, on either side, I have lived in the countryside.

   We live in a world of technological pond skimming and this is not something likely to change any time soon. Amongst other new and surprising facts I’ve been told about myself on the Internet in the last couple of years by total strangers are that I write picture books about cats (I don’t; I write some books about golf and slightly more books about my life through the prism of what can be loosely termed cat ownership which also serve as a veiled way for me to write about place and rural eccentricity and tell stories about my dad and toads) and that I’m a typical middle class Guardian-writing Oxbridge graduate (I don’t even have any A-levels, let alone a degree; I spent most of my childhood living in a North Nottinghamshire mining village and my parents grew up on council estates in Liverpool and Nottingham). But there are people out there making far more wildly inaccurate knee-jerk online judgements about writers than they make about me. A fact that writers, or any kind of creative spreading their work in the online sphere, are having to learn to accept about the strange new world we live in is that getting your work to reach its intended audience means sending it on a sometimes thorny journey past its unintended one. It’s a tariff for this mindblowing new way we have of getting our writing out to the world, and the odd misleading headline could be viewed as part of that tarriff. The kind of people who’d only read the headline of one of my pieces then sound off or a make a quickfire judgement are typically not the kind of people who’d enjoy my books. 

   So I was aware that I was a difficult proposition for Guardian headline writers, even had some sympathy for them occasionally. I hope my columns cohere, but I do like to be a little discursive, and I don’t attempt to have a very simple hard-hitting agenda. I’ve found, in fact, that being more discursive and not attempting to have a very simple hard-hitting agenda are two of the bedrocks of my improvement as a writer over the last few years. This approach can still be packaged in a book by a publisher’s marketing team, but it’s difficult with an online article where there’s pressure to get traffic, and I have felt for the Guardian’s subs. On the one hand, you’ve got “Been With Boyfriend Three Years But He’s Only Made Me Climax A Few Times.” Easy! On the other hand, you’ve got me, writing about the time a cow licked my foot then segueing into a story about a sunshine pop duo and a moorland river legend. Less easy. The one rare time that clickbait and a genuinely representative headline for one of my articles coincided was with August 2014’s ‘Has That Cat Got Semen On Its Back?’, for my column about the time the stray cat I’d adopted spunked on my other cat’s back.

  2012 and 2013 were terrible years for a lot of people who made their living writing for newspapers and I was one of them. I lost my two main forms of journalistic income, got dropped by my then publisher and had to sell my house. Next to this, The Guardian telling me that I could only continue writing the 21st Century Yokel column if they cut my pay in half was a fairly minor set back. I agreed to the pay cut because I didn’t seem to have any other options available to me, but also because I was getting a lot of positive reader tweets and emails about the column, and I increasingly enjoyed writing it. One sign I increasingly enjoyed writing it was that what my first drafts were getting longer and longer. I assumed this would not be a problem: it wasn’t for the print version of the paper, so it did not have a specifically allocated finite space on a page. By getting more off me, it could be argued the Guardian were just getting more for their money, but I knew that wasn’t how it worked. My editor asked me to keep the word count down: because it would “take longer to sub-edit” and because of the perceived diminished attention span of the modern online reader. Typically, after writing the column, I would spend another hour or two editing around four hundreds words out of it whilst trying to keep the general thrust of it together. This was more unpaid work but I felt it was ultimately worthwhile. I was becoming more widely read and there was more of a sense that much of this writing would have a future life in my books, which might actually even find a willing publisher.

  From autumn 2013, my working life took a distinct turn for the better. I had a top ten bestselling memoir published, got out of debt and, in spring the following year, moved to my favourite part of Devon: a county I’d long yearned to write about. The previous winter I’d wondered if I would even be able to carry on making my living the same way I had since 1996, but now I got two more books commissioned and offers of other writing work started to come in thick and fast: all of which, while no route to early retirement, were at least marginally more remunerative than my Guardian column. From any purely financial standpoint the logical move would have been to quit writing it. But that wasn’t the way I looked at things. I have yearned, for years, like many writers, not to be well-off, but for creative freedom: to be able to write the numerous books that buzz around my head every day without the terror of whether I’ll be able to pay next month’s rent or mortgage, or at least with only a manageable amount of terror, rather than the terror that keeps you awake all night, staring at the ceiling, because, let’s face it, a bit of terror is very important to the creative process. Now, with the terror briefly diminished, my Guardian column seemed a part of my new freedom, as, over the last year or so, it had contained some of my best writing. Devon, too - its wildlife, its folklore, its people, the diversity of its terrain - had made the column more colourful. I continued. I did not ask for the pay to be returned to its original level. I did not point out that I was bringing more readers to their page via over half a million followers on Facebook and over a quarter of a million on Twitter. I considered asking if The Guardian might make my column fortnightly, instead of monthly, as I had so much new material for it.

   I noticed, however, that my Guardian column was becoming more time consuming, in an unanticipated way. There was the time it took to research, the time it took to write, the time it took to edit and the time it took to share online, all of which I was fine with. Less enjoyable were the corrections I had to send to my editor after it had been uploaded. Some of these were my own typos that I’d missed and the subs had missed too. Others were chunks that had been taken out of the copy rendering a joke or observation virtually meaningless. Then there were glaring errors that editors or subs had inserted themselves. After the column I wrote this February about assisting with a pony drift on Dartmoor was published, I had to correct a photo caption which referred to a Dartmoor hill pony as a Dartmoor pony. No big deal, although an important distinction for those knowledgeable about the subject, and one equine pedants who read the column would be sure to point out. But in the headline Haytor was referred to as “the Devon town of Haytor”. When I pointed out that Haytor was a tor, not a town, this was changed clumsily to “the Devon tor of Haytor”. This is the kind of stuff that reinforces the sense of The Guardian office as an island in King’s Cross full of people who have never seen a cow, but it also associates me with the errors: not everyone who reads a newspaper column knows its author is not responsible for its captions and headlines. The Grauniad has long had a reputation for typos and I’d fallen victim to it many times years ago, when I wrote about music for them: the time a copytaker changed my spelling of “Tom Waits” to “Tom Waites” in a headline, for example, or the time a sub decided that I was wrong to state that Waylon Jennings wrote and sang the Dukes Of Hazzard theme song and changed its composer and singer to Willie Nelson. But now there was sometimes the sense that, if I’d sent my friend’s three year-old poodle in to sub-edit my copy on a monthly basis, it would come out in a more finely honed state. Nonetheless, because I’m not Giles Coren, and because I know the Guardian is criminally understaffed, and because I’m grateful for the fact I no longer work in Tesco or a factory, I did not complain. I just politely and meekly sent my changes each month. I ignored some subbing errors, as not to bombard them - for example, the bit where they changed “southern wanker” to “southern moron” (does anyone actually use the phrase “southern moron”?).

  A decision I made during my struggling spell from 2011 to 2013 was that journalism wasn’t for me any more. My focus would be books and, if I couldn’t make those work, I’d swallow my pride and find another career. With my fortieth birthday looming, I gave it one more big push and, fortunately, happened to write a bestselling book that has been translated into several languages. I’d always wanted to be an author, not a journalist, and my writing style had become less and less suited to newspapers. If a newspaper or magazine asked me to write a piece, and I liked the sound of it, I’d still do it, perhaps, but I would never again do anything at the expense of the time I would devote to my future books. Books, I have always believed, are where you’ll find the best writing, not newspapers, and in a world where newspapers are fighting for their lives with desperate clickbait and sub buzzfeed crud, this is more true than ever. Despite the 21st Century Yokel being published by the Guardian, I do not view myself as a Guardian writer. I do not even read The Guardian. If I read, I want to read something that’s great fun or likely to improve me as a writer or, better still, happens to be both, so I read books or The New Yorker magazine. I am a book writer who happened, until a couple of days ago, to also write a column for The Guardian. Saying this probably won’t do me any favours as far as getting my future books covered in the paper, but, what the hell, people aren’t honest about this sort of thing often enough, because they’re too terrified about not getting work.

   On Monday morning, I filed my latest column, which was about visiting my local Owl Club and going to look for cuckoos on Dartmoor with a National Park ecologist. It was a little late, but my editor has always made it clear that tardiness doesn’t matter, in the case of the 21st Century Yokel. Actually, I got the sense that if I failed to file a column for two or three months, she would have been too busy with more important stuff to notice. For the last five months, she also forgot to pay me, every month, and would surely not have done at all if I hadn't eventually reminded her, a month after each column was published. I originally wrote this latest column at just over 2000 words, then edited it down to 1600: around 100 words more than my previous column. I was excited about what I’d written, and didn’t want to edit anything else out, as I felt like the piece would become a lot less entertaining, and I’d miss out some crucial facts and humour. My editor, however, was adamant that it could not be over 1200. “It’s not just the average attention span of the reader but also the subbing time,” she explained. I thought again about the subbing on the pony column but refrained from mentioning it. I asked if she could run just this one at full length and that I’d make sure the subsequent month’s column did not stray over 1200. She refused, then added that the column had “had a good run” and she was “going to suggest maybe another three then call it quits”.  At this point, keeping in mind everything else I’ve detailed above, it took me approximately 0.1 seconds to decide to quit on the spot. I then uploaded my owls and cuckoos column to this blog. If you’d like to read it, you can do so by clicking here.

   There was a time, many years ago, when I nurtured an optimistic belief that working very hard on improving as a writer would bring you more success and stability. I’m glad I believed this, even though it’s not true, as it made me work harder at the time. The reality is more complex: working very hard on improving as a writer can on ever-diminishing occasions bring you more success and stability but it very much depends who you’re writing for, and who you’re relying on. In the late 90s and early 2000s I had offers of work for magazines and newspapers coming out of my ears. Was it because I was a bit younger and prettier than I am now? Because it was a more fruitful time for journalists? Because it happened to be the exact short period I was living in London? Because someone needing to make a quick commission vaguely remembered me from a launch party they’d been to? A bit of all four? It can’t have been much to do with my skill as a writer because, though I was probably passable for my callow years and knew a fair bit about my subjects, I know for a fact that I’m about five times better at what I do now. Yet there’s no correlation between that improvement and the amount of newspaper work I’ve been offered in recent years. When, during my conversation with my editor about the owls and cuckoos column, I finally, after many years of not mentioning it, alluded to the fact that she paid me less than anyone else I worked for, she countered with the argument that, for the same length column, she’d pay most other people £90, as opposed to the £150 she paid me. I found scant consolation in this, in much the same way I’d find scant consolation if someone handed me an almost whole eight week old KitKat from a shed, then told me that everyone else was only getting one finger of an almost whole eight week old KitKat from a shed.

   I know how lucky I am right now. I know that getting the chance to write for a living is a rare privilege in a world where endless people want to write for a living and can’t. But I’m 40 now. Since March 1996, when my first piece of paid work was published, I’ve worked fucking hard, written hard, read hard, been through some difficult times, and been entirely devoted - especially devoted, perhaps, as someone with very little proper education - to making myself better and what I do. Even looking at my first 21st Century Yokel columns, from 2011 and 2012, I can see stuff that annoys me, that I’d change if I had chance to write them again. But, for that twenty years of struggle and improvement, modern journalism’s award is “You get paid £60 more for a week’s work than some other people we’re totally ripping off.” My editor has told me that all The Guardian’s headlines are put together in collaboration with their SEO team. I didn’t know what SEO stood for, since I’m allergic to acronyms, so I looked it up. It stands for Search Engine Optimization. Essentially, in a world of Search Engine Optimization, if you want to write a humorous, honest, tender article about walking in Derbyshire where your granddad’s ashes are scattered, and looking at bracket fungus, you’re bollocksed. You would be far better not working on your writing at all but writing something short and quick which would suit a headline such as “Should I stop eating quinoa?” or “Is my online dating profile photo putting people off?” Then, when you’ve done it, you can churn out another, for another £90. Another acronym often used on the Internet is TLDR. It means “Too Long; Didn’t Read”. It’s thought to be a phrase favoured by adolescents with an electronically compromised attention span but it also sums up what The Guardian’s attitude to comic life writing has become.

   When I started out as a writer, I viewed myself as intrinsically inferior to the newspaper editors I worked for: I came from a very different world from most of them, felt incredibly honoured that they’d give little me the chance to work for them, and believed everything they told me more or less unquestioningly. Some of them were great and taught me a lot; some of them weren’t and didn’t. Editors have been breaking the facts of how things are to me for years and it’s often been bad news. But another fact of how things are is you don’t have to work for free, you can retrain as a plumber or a forester or a gardener and be paid something reasonable for what you do. If not for the success of my last book, I feel almost certain this is what I would have decided to do. Maybe I still will have to, one day. But I no longer view newspaper editors as superior overlords who wield important power and keep me afloat. Many of them are just struggling, compromised employees of a struggling, compromised industry.

   What I’ve felt in the twenty four hours since quitting my Guardian column is mostly a feeling of immense gratitude to the people who’ve read my books and supported them via Twitter or Facebook over the last few years. If you’re one of them, thank you. You have helped made me realise that, as a self-employed writer in the modern age, you don’t have to view the old-fashioned media - people you’ve often never met, who live far away, in a different world - as a boss to kowtow to. There is sometimes another route. For all its headaches and trolls and pond skimmers, social media - my @MYSADCAT profile and my Facebook page, especially - has allowed me to gain an international readership, far more than the Guardian ever could have. It has also directed a lot of people to my Guardian pieces, although I’m sure the paper view that as barely a few more grains of sand on the beach. I’d be pleased if another publication took my pieces about my life in the countryside but if not, I’m happy to publish them on this blog. They will perhaps not be as widely read, and might contain a few typos, but they hopefully still will be read. Subsequently, a lot of the material in them will end up in one of my books, where it will be edited properly, by talented people who care - who still have the opportunity to care - about the quality of a piece of writing. I am pissed off that I’ve not been treated better by the Guardian, or valued by them, but I sort of understand. It must be hugely difficult being a newspaper editor in 2015, with the pressure of SEO, the need to constantly up advertising revenue and ever-diminishing budgets and staff. To the few in that job - and I want to believe you’re still out there - who still prioritise a nice piece of writing in such an environment over a quick and easy attention-grabbing one, I salute you.

My 21st Century Yokel columns can be found here.

My latest book, in case you'd like a look.