A message from Scarlett Penn, Co-ordinator / Chief Exec
Last Sunday night I was in a fine Shropshire pub. I’d gone to play in a folk music session and this town was a bit further than I’d normally go, but a friend was starting up a new monthly event and I wanted to support him. It was an amazing night with a circle of about 15 musicians in a back room of the pub, plus a whole group of ruddy and rowdy men who’d come through from the front bar. They were revelling in the sing-along songs so we played to their enthusiasm and rolled out lots of well known tunes. It was a fun, cockle-warming thing to do on a cold winter’s night.
At the end of the evening we milled around having quick conversations here and saying goodnight there, and one of the hearty ‘gallery singers’, as we called them, came up to thank me for my Irish whistle playing. It was an instrument he’d always loved, such a great sound. ‘And you’re so lucky to have a local pub like this!’ he added. ‘It’s so alive, that sense of community, especially in winter, people doing things and having fun together.’
I’d assumed his group were locals, so I asked him where they’d all come from. ‘We live in Jersey. We don’t have pubs like this. We’re all saying we really envy you.’ I thought it was nice that this eclectic group of merry strangers appreciated such things in life, so I asked what they were doing up from Jersey. ‘We come up to do some shooting on land round here.’
I’m sure everyone within a large radius felt the atmosphere instantly freeze. In my peripheral vision I noticed other people (some my friends, some his) silently and without exactly appearing to move, drift to our respective sides.
Just the day before I’d had the most polite altercation I could muster with my neighbour, who allows shooting parties to get their killer kicks behind my smallholding. Thankfully it doesn’t happen that often but the mixture of gunshot, dogs barking, aggressive male voices, the purpose of the event – it sets me very on edge. On that occasion the party had done something particularly inconsiderate and I happened to be in even worse humour towards shooters than normal. (And don’t get me started on how is it even legal that people can rear livestock and then release it to run free all over your land, creating the kind of damage I’ve seen with another neighbour where the pheasants (poor things, it’s not their fault) peck at all her flowers, which represents her livelihood as a florist? How is that even allowed??)
Anyway, I took a slow breath, thawed my frozen smile and asked them why they come up here for a shooting ‘party’. ‘I’m a big property developer. It’s full on. I work an 80 hour week. I like to get out into the countryside, you know, to relax. The countryside is nice. I don’t know any other way of getting outside, especially with a group of lads, other than to come shooting.’
Facepalm. I almost felt sorry for him.
‘So…you’re trying to relax? You’re shooting guns and killing animals to help you…relax.’
Of course a conversation followed where I said about WWOOF, TCV and others, but he’d just finished another large whisky and along with becoming glassy-eyed and slightly absent, he’s also begun to stroke the arm of my jumper, mumbling that it felt exactly like a sheep. He liked sheep, they’re soft. Err…yes. Time to skedaddle.
But before I could move one of his mates – very genial and jolly – piped up with ‘so would you prefer us to buy chicken in cellophane from Tesco’s where the bird has had a bad life, or eat the pheasants we’re catching tomorrow that have had a good life?’
Me: ‘Oh, are you going to eat these pheasants? Most shoots I’ve heard of don’t eat the birds and just dispose of them; often they bury them in the ground.’
Him: ‘Well…yes, we do chuck them away, you’re right about that.’
Him: ‘But this is the countryside way and people like you move out from the cities and don’t like the country ways, which were here before you were, to be fair.’
Me: ‘And you know the environment in which I grew up…how..?’
So who had been priming him with these quick-witted and brilliant arguments to use against Tree Huggers, I wondered. But more immediately pressing, it was definitely time to round off the evening and leave so I said ‘Listen, it’s been a great evening and I wish you all well, but I do hope you have a terrible shoot tomorrow.’ They laughed, raised their glasses and that was that.
But all the way home I was thinking about what they’d said. It’s a basic human desire to want to get outdoors, and it has proven mental health benefits. It’s natural to want to be a band of brothers. But it was a shock to me the only way they knew how to do that was to go hunting and killing. It brought up so many issues for me all at once, and for a while I went off on a crazy solution-finding tangent of business ventures to tackle just this precise phenomenon. And then I got to thinking about the more general mindset and how very widespread it is. Then I started to feel overwhelmed and helpless and before I knew it, I was driving home after a great night out feeling quite depressed.
So is there a positive end to this story; a wise nugget or some pithy point I can give you to take away? Really I’m still processing it all, but I suppose there is one thing I can think to say for now. A group of strangers, all with diverse backgrounds, interests and outlooks, managed to have a damned fine evening in a random pub that turned out to be no-one’s local, creating music, mirth and song together. That at least has to be a good thing, right?
illustration: Gordon Allen