Country Notes

It takes all sorts

Patrick Galbraith on rural racism and the fear of outsiders

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Four soggy bums, we sat in the lodge, squeezed together on a two-person sofa. Our waterproofs were soaked with rain on the outside and dripped with sweat within. By September, it was our routine. After a long day on the hill, we’d slump in front of the telly with a sugary cup of tea and then a beer, flicking through the channels until dinner appeared. In my mind it was an advert for a dishwasher, but it could have been a washing-machine.

Either way, the gamekeeper on my right started growling, a low phlegmy grumble that suggested something was very wrong with the world. It was the first time I’d heard it but the others nodded knowingly; it was apparently his thing. The growl rose to a jeer and then rolled into something heartfelt about taxes and monkeys. The commercial finished, the black face was gone, and damp serenity resumed.

I know the countryside to be a place where everyone who is known is welcome, but therein lies the issue

I’d love to be able to note it down as an anomaly but it isn’t. I’ve heard enough farmers shout all sorts of things at crows to know that racism often reigns unchallenged in the countryside. Almost a year ago, I walked into a small Lincolnshire pub with a black friend. As we drank, furtive glances were cast across the room, ranging from the curious, at best, to a man slumped over the bar, bloodied knuckles and cut eyebrows, with a thin smile that made it clear he’d like to go again.

Perhaps I imagined it — after all, we weren’t local — but those looks were much the same ones shot our way, six months earlier, when a Pakistani pal and I tumbled into a Dumfries bar while waiting for a bus.

Last year, at the start of the pheasant season, I was sitting in the office of Shooting Times (of which I’m editor) with Ed, a colleague, when his phone rang. His expression told of something curious. It was one of the guys on the shoot he was driving down to Cornwall to write about the next day.

It sounds grand but like so many shoots, this was a working man’s do, where a team effort throughout the year results in just a few days a season where every bird in the bag is hard-earned. “They called to say,” my colleague told me, “that there’s someone on the syndicate who dresses ‘different’, but they said I’m not to treat them any differently because they’ve been on the syndicate as long as anyone.”

The following Monday, Ed arrived back in the office, full of wonder about the fall of woodcock he’d seen. “Oh and that thing,” he added, “it was that there’s a man on the syndicate who wears red nail varnish. Afterwards, his wife came from the village with some cakes for tea and he put a dress on. He was on the peg next to me — brought down some serious pheasants.”

At this point, the call made sense. This bloke — our photographer confirmed pronouns — loved his shooting and by God these Cornishmen weren’t going to have some journalist from upcountry coming down and spoiling the day by treating one of the boys like an oddity.

The story might sound unusual but in the countryside, in a sense, there’s no such thing. I was recently chatting to my friend Pigeon Tom about Ed’s experience. “Bit like Joe the cross-dressing poacher,” he told me. “Married to the vicar, good poacher too.”

Closer to home, my neighbour, Maggie, wanders the lanes at night, stopping sometimes to bang on peoples’ doors whereupon she shouts at them about their drinking or the affairs she knows they’re having, or anything else that comes to her in the darkness. In the city we ignore such people, but in our village, as in villages across the country, everyone knows how everyone is getting on. Maggie is doing better now and she stops in daylight hours to talk of gardens.

At the end of last season, at a Shropshire shoot, an old boy took me aside because he wanted a word about something in ST. He ushered me out of earshot of the other guns. “It was the issue where your friend,” he began, “the coloured boy” — he chewed over the word, seemingly knowing it wasn’t quite right but not knowing quite which word he should be using — “it was when he went duck shooting and wrote that article. He loved it and that’s what we need.”

He broke into a bright smile and prodded me, avuncularly, in the chest. It was a small thing but it felt significant and standing on that cold Shropshire soil I felt the heat of emotion rising behind my eyes.

It hurts when I hear people suggest the countryside is racist. It hurts because I’ve known it to be so and it is all the more painful because I also know the countryside to be a place where everyone who is known is welcome, but therein lies the issue. In rural Britain less than three percent of the population is black or minority ethnic and in truth a fear of the unknown pervades.

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