Book Review: The Gamekeeper

The Gamekeeper

“George Purse never killed anything for fun. He only killed to protect his pheasants, which were then killed by other people for fun.”

The Gamekeeper, by Barry Hines, follows a year in the life of George Purse, one of the gamekeepers working on a country estate in Yorkshire owned by a Duke. The lineage of this landed aristocrat could be traced back to William the Conqueror. The Yorkshire manor, moors and woodland in which this story is set make up his small estate, his larger one being located in Wiltshire. The place is meticulously maintained according to his wishes that he may enjoy part of the shooting season there with invited guests. He visits for only a few weeks each year.

George lives with his wife and two young sons in a cottage that comes with the job. It is set by the woodland in which he must work raising pheasants and protecting them from predators. He has been in this role for a decade having previously worked at the local steel plant. It is a hard life but still better than the alternatives.

“George Purse had always enjoyed being outside. When he left school there had been two choices. It was either the steel industry or the pit. Some lads chose the pit. George Purse chose steel … two more years of working shifts, of lifting boxes, of strained backs, of fierce heat, of metal burns. He took the gamekeeper’s job at half his previous pay.”

George is a conscientious keeper, carrying out tasks because that is what he is paid to do. This does not always make him popular locally. Hungry men become poachers but must still be deterred. The Duke’s land is not open access so children are to be scared away. George sets traps to kill the many wild creatures that would take the birds he raises. He shoots or poisons both land and avian predators. From time to time he can barter a favour from local residents with his catches. His family find the life they must lead lonely due to his job.

There are evocative descriptions of nature through the changing seasons but these are shadowed by the violent deaths meted out by a man in the service of a wealthy landowner. Over the course of the year George will provide for and protect the pheasants – from eggs to chicks to poults until finally they are shoot worthy. He battles disease and inclement weather to minimise losses he would be judged harshly for.

“Ascot week … It rained every day at the races. The thunder rolled, and the rain came down like rods. It rained every day in most places. Crops were flattened all over the country, and a river overflowed in the south-west. But it was the weather at a race meeting which made the headlines.”

Although a story that shines light on the work of a gamekeeper – and this is both informative and fascinating in the way it is told – at its heart is the unbridgeable divide between rich and poor. George recognises the absurdity of his hard work, how he labours day and night to keep pheasants alive that they may be shot from the skies by his employer. It is a job and he gets on with it, mostly stoically.

What he does complain of from time to time is when the wealthy claim they cannot afford to raise the standard of living for their employees. Wages remain depressed. Dwellings are maintained only minimally. He deplores that when they meet, the workers must kowtow to the landowners and their ilk.

“Some estates had contracts with exclusive London restaurants to provide a few brace for the evening of the 12th … some restaurants used to charter light aeroplanes in which to carry the birds from the moors … The cost was passed on to the customers, and they could afford to pay for it anyway.
And during the same period there was the General Strike, when miners stayed out for six months and were eventually starved back to work, and the Depression, with millions of people unemployed throughout the country.”

The author employs a neutrally descriptive tone in the narrative, yet still it overflows with the beauty of the natural world – and how it is thoughtlessly damaged by men who regard it as their personal and rightful playground. The grouse shoot and then pheasant shoot chronicled raise the important issue of why on earth such ‘sport’ is still allowed to happen. It made me angry this is accepted – and despairing that so little ever changes.

A powerfully understated account of a working man’s choices and the costs he must then pay – a story that resonates and will linger. This is country life stripped of its bucolic veneer.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, And Other Stories.

Book Review: The Mating Habits of Stags

“I love it up here, she said. It’s so wild.
Wild?
A-huh.
There’s nowt wild about it. It’s all man-made.
But it’s nature, you know.
It’s a desert. These hills are nowt but a sheep ranch.”

“These hills should be covered in forest.
She scanned the landscape. I didn’t realise.
Pricks that own the land, swiddening the moor, burning heather off to create new shoots for grouse to feed on. Reason yon dale floods. Peat acts like a sponge but when they burn it, they knacker it. All that damage to folks’ homes and businesses just so some posh southern twats can come up here once a year and shoot some game.”

The Mating Habits of Stags, by Ray Robinson, is set in Yorkshire where the protagonist, septuagenarian Jake Eisner, is on the run from both the police and the son of Charles Monroe – an elderly man he has recently murdered. After a childhood marked by poverty, Jake spent most of his life as a farmhand. He knows the land and how to survive.

Jake is a widower, his beloved wife, Edith, having died a year ago. They raised a son, William, but he too is dead. Jake’s friend, Sheila, cannot understand why Jake would have killed a wealthy landowner who was already in poor health and living in a care home. She does not know their shared history. Jake has talked little about his past. What Sheila does know of him she has gleaned from having been born and raised in the same locality. She would have liked to get to know him better but he often rebuffed her attempts to spend more time together.

The timeline of the story jumps back and forth giving the reader glimpses of lives marked by actions and their consequences – the beauty and pain of living. It is a tale of: desire, grief, love, revenge.

Jake makes his way across woods and moorland, camping out or finding occasional shelter in farms he once worked at. He moves on regularly to evade capture. With winter closing in he turns to those he hopes might offer assistance. He learns that he has become prey.

“Fox hunters: terrier men on quads, pony clubbers in hacking jackets, car horns and bugle calls – those privileged hooligans.”

Sheila is perplexed by Jake’s actions but is distracted by her own worries about her daughter and grandson. Feeling used and taken for granted, she has recently moved away from her home town. When Jake turns up on her doorstep she must make a decision. It is one she will come to regret.

The narrative offers a no nonsense glimpse into the lives of working class families in an area where what wealth exists is in the hands of those who made it from others’ hard graft.

“He eyed the north face of the magnificent Monroe Hall. Such places sickened him with what they represented: generations of downtrodden poor in the factories and mill-towns. Claggy-arsed industry, scab of the North Country.”

Sheila decries her daughter’s work ethic and choice of partners but recognises that her own history is chequered. She has a difficult relationship with her mother. She still has feelings for her second ex-husband – and also for Jake.

The glorious use of language provides a vivid evocation of the landscape.

“A swap of wind scurries through the abandoned mill, a wind made of leaf mould and rusted rabbit wire.”

“The plop and patter of rainwater, a liquid metronome”

The dark beauty of the place and the people who live there are rendered in unsentimental yet emotive detail. As the reasons for Jake’s behaviour are teased out, along with their repercussions, his journey and its outcome inexorably alter Sheila’s future. And yet there is much, it seems, that cannot be changed.

The sparse yet salient prose drops a depth charge into the reader’s sensory responses, the story offering so much more than the actions portrayed. The characters’ flaws are the cracks that enable a flow of empathy and understanding. This is an uncompromising depiction of northern England that I unreservedly recommend.

The Mating Habits of Stags is published by Lightning Books. 

Book Review: The Offing

The Offing, by Benjamin Myers, is written in prose that is as mesmerising as poetry. The author conjures up a potent sense of place, rendering the beauty and power of nature alongside man’s small place in it. The tale is humbling but also uplifting. This is writing to be savoured.

The story is narrated by Robert Appleyard, son of a miner working the pits around Durham. Now facing old age, Robert is looking back on a pivotal summer when he was sixteen and hungry for freedom. Growing up he understood that, once finished with school, the colliery beckoned as it had his father and grandfather. Before accepting this fate, he decides to satisfy a hunger for a different experience. The Second World War is not long over and the transience of life, the need not to waste what precious moments are granted, is seared into a mind still reeling from horrific images of mass graves.

“Wars continue long after the fighting has stopped, and the world felt then as if it were full of holes. It appeared to me scarred and shattered, a place made senseless by those in positions of power.”

“no one ever really wins a war: some just lose a little less than others.”

With a pack on his back, Robert sets out from home one morning to explore whatever is beyond the village where he has spent his life to date. He sleeps in outbuildings or under hedges, doing odd jobs to earn food along the way. Having felt cooped up in a classroom, where lessons dragged interminably, he relishes being outdoors, unknown and unconstrained. He walks from Durham across Cumbria and through North Yorkshire, to where the land meets the sea.

“This was agricultural rather than industrial terrain – of the earth rather than stained by it.”

“I experienced frequent and quite unexpected moments of exhilaration at the overwhelming sense of purposelessness that I now had. I could go anywhere, do anything. Be anyone.”

Although drinking in his newfound freedom, Robert’s outlook is still limited by the beliefs drummed into him about what someone like him can expect to achieve. He is therefore unprepared when he meets Dulcie Piper, a wealthy and eccentric older lady living in a rundown cottage above a remote bay. She recognises the potential in the boy and sets about inculcating an appreciation of literature. Amongst other pleasures, including fine cooking and wider thinking, she introduces him to poetry.

Dulcie is a fabulous creation with her disregard for rules, religion and those in authority.

“I have seen other wars. Read about plenty more too. And what I’ve learned is that they’re all much the same […] most people just want a quiet life. A nice meal, a little love. A late-night stroll. A lie-in on a Sunday. As I said before, don’t despise the Germans.”

“‘We’d be ruled by Nazis now if they had got their way,’ I said.
Dulcie shook her head, tutting. ‘Worse, Robert. Much worse. We would be ruled by those remaining English stiffs employed by the Nazis to do their bidding. Chinless wonders and lickspittles. There would be no room for the poets or the peacocks, the artists or the queens. Instead we’d be entirely driven by the very wettest of civil servants – even more so than we already are. A legion of pudgy middle managers would be the dreary midwives of England’s downfall.”

Dulcie tells Robert stories from a colourful history, lends him books, expresses opinions he has never before considered. Over the course of the coming weeks she awakens in him a deeper understanding of possibilities. Alongside their burgeoning friendship the verdant surroundings shares its bounty. Robert is enraptured by the sea, the land and its creatures. In time he learns why Dulcie, with her wealth and connections, has settled in this place.

Plot development is gentle. The joy of the book is the language: the rich descriptions of nature, the wit and wisdom of dialogue. Although set in a time that too many hark back to with nostalgia, it has contemporary relevance. Time is marked in the shape of the land more than the history of man’s repeated foolishness fuelled by ego.

“the Great War was the worst atrocity committed by humankind. What lessons were learned? Build bigger bombs and better bombs, that’s all. Hitler still happened, and there’ll be another angry little man along in due course. I sometimes think that in many ways we’re completely screwed, all the time. I suppose it’s a collective state of insanity. It must be, to keep repeating the same patterns of death and violence.”

Perhaps because of such sentiments, the life Dulcie has lived, and introduces Robert to, is one of making the most of every moment. She has taken pleasure wherever it may be found: nature and literature, food and wine, love and travel. A tragedy haunts her yet she retains an enthusiasm for life, eschewing societal strictures. She shows Robert that he has choices beyond family expectation.

I finished this novel both with tears in my eyes and feeling like punching the air with satisfaction. It made me want to go straight out and enjoy a long walk through the local fields to appreciate what matters in our still beautiful world. There may always be the endless bickering of dull men about: politics, loss of respect for some self-appointed hierarchy, the good old days. Of more import and value is the breathing in and out of the seasons. Nature renews and offers itself as a balm for those willing to engage. Perspectives in life need not be those imposed by oppressors.

I enjoyed this story, the power of its words and beauty of its language. The author has delivered something special. I recommend you read it.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bloomsbury.

Book Review: Under the Rock

The first thing a reader will notice on picking up Under the Rock is that it is beautifully produced: the vibrant detail and embossing on the cover; the purple end papers; the clear, well spaced print. Within a few pages it becomes clear that the writing is something special too. That subtitle, The Poetry of a Place, is deserved.

This is not a book to be rushed. Over the course of the days I spent reading I kept setting it down to step outside and appreciate my surroundings – the small things it is easy to pass by, unregarded, on my walks through local fields and woodland.

The author is curious and unafraid of straying beyond marked paths. He views man as a part of nature, a shaper of landscape albeit for short term, selfish gain. There are no gushing superlatives about the beauty of our natural world – however that may be defined given man’s tinkering – but rather an exploration of a microcosm through the changing seasons and from a variety of perspectives. There is recognition and appreciation of the cycle of life, that death is not an end.

“Nature does not stop. It never shies away from the task at hand: perpetual growth and death, growth and death. Survival – that is all. Of plant species and creature alike. Feeding, mating, birthing. Dying. On and on it goes.”

“Only humans reach further, filling their time with false desires, delusion and distraction from the self. Turning away from news media, I find myself instead considering the wider environment, at a deeper level.”

Ben moved out of London with his partner a decade ago. He left the noise and bustle of the city for a village in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire. Within Mytholmroyd is a fenced off area containing the looming mass of Scout Rock. The site has been quarried, was once the town dump in which asbestos from a nearby factory was buried. It is a place of:

“toxic soil and bottomless mineshafts and cliff-diving suicides and unexpected landslides in the night”

Having been abandoned by man, the flora and fauna thrived. This is the story of the place, its history and surrounds, the impact a sometimes desolate environment has had on the author.

Ben and his wife purchased a property in the shadow of the rock. Each day he would take their dog and walk through the fenced off area, scrambling around the rock, making his way to the moorland above. He came to understand the personal changes wrought by the seasons, to endure the persistent rainfall, to accept the mud splatter, the minor injuries from slips and falls. He would swim in the nearby pools and at a reservoir, seeking to immerse himself physically in the place. Gradually he learned its history from libraries and conversations with locals, some of whose families had lived there for generations.

Divided into four main sections – Wood, Earth, Water and Rock – each is completed by field notes, poetry, and photographs. The chapters in Water detail the devastating floods that affected the area at the close of 2015. There is acceptance that this was not a unique event in the valley’s long history. It did, however, bring change.

“The Scout Rock I have known for the past decade is no more. It is something else now.”

When the workmen, drafted in to supposedly make the area safer, finally leave, this fresh molestation will be recolonised, reclaimed. The author may then explore the place anew, recreate the paths he chooses to take.

Ben’s walks and swims lift his mood but the dank darkness of winter, the heavy rainfall of the area, are oppressive. He mentions the financial difficulties of surviving as a writer. He acknowledges both the challenges and benefits of modern living. Woven into these deeply personal musings are the layers of discovery from his daily perambulations.

He writes:

“My goal in life is
to walk the
hills unheard.”

Within these pages we hear his voice, and it sings.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.