Black magic: roosting rooks
Country Notes

Another country

The tales that show how rural life has changed

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

When I was young, I was always told that talking to old people was of the utmost importance. At five years old, I was very clear that listening intently, while an octogenarian coughed their way through a long story, was an essential part of being a nice little boy.

Often, though, it was boring as hell. There was my old Italian neighbour who always wanted to talk about the Pakistanis at the end of the street, and then, when I was slightly older, there was a man with foul breath and a ginger beard who would warn me, over and over, about the perils of standing up in a small boat.

Much more recently, for complex reasons, I’ve found myself spending a great deal of time with an old lady who bashes me with long and sometimes vivid anecdotes about all those young men who took her to the opera.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss everybody over the age of 55. Some weeks ago, in East Anglia, I sat next to a mulberry bush while talking to a lady who was born the same year that the Tasmanian tiger became extinct. “And that was when the policemen used to come to the garden every May with their guns and that was when we made the rook sandwiches.”

She spoke in a tiny voice, with no gaps between her words, and I perched on the edge of the bench, picking over what she’d said in my mind, trying to make sense of it all, two sentences behind.

Some hours later, I went for a walk through the village and then on my return, in the cold spring evening air, rooks started to fly in from all sides. They swirled above the streets, hundreds of them, black magic birds, drifting slowly back to the oaks. It was the roost the old lady had spoken about, where the policemen had shot those branchers all those years ago.

For hundreds of years, it was something that village boys looked forward to. Every May, wherever there was a rookery, the young branchers, out of the nest but still unable to fly, would hop along the boughs of trees where they would be shot by people standing beneath. It wasn’t really something enjoyed by gentlemen. Instead, it was an activity for the village. The lads who’d helped the gamekeeper might be invited or the local parson and his curate if they were men of sporting tastes.

The  young rooks were almost always turned into a pie. Mrs Beeton, in the 1936 edition of her famous Cookery Book, suggests using six rooks, and covering the breast meat in steak. I’ve only ever eaten rook once. It was in Devon and my pal Tim Maddams turned it into a sort of noodle soup. It was one of the greatest things I’ve ever eaten. But I was cold and drunk.

They swirled above the streets, hundreds of them, black magic birds, drifting slowly back to the oaks

The countryside is different now and you can no longer pot young rooks just because it’s the 12th of May, when rooks were always shot. To shoot rooks at all, you need to be able to prove that you’re preventing them from damaging crops or spreading disease among livestock. You could claim you’re trying to thin out a problem rookery but I wouldn’t like to have to make that argument in front of a magistrate, after targeting birds that have yet to actually take flight. It’s quite remarkable that there are people who remember inviting policemen to their garden to shoot rooks in spring, when these days, shooting rooks in spring might result in a less agreeable visit from the police.

Over the years, I’ve been amazed, while listening to old people’s stories, on riverbanks, in pubs, and next to mulberry bushes, by how much the countryside has changed. By the time I’m 86, I wonder if there’ll be any shooting at all. Perhaps fishing will be the new battleground and whatever does go on, will go on in a countryside that sounds very different. By then, it’s probable that Britain will have lost its turtledoves and that our nightingales will have become extinct. I’m sure I’ll sit and talk round and round in circles. And maybe some 28-year-old will try to listen.

Patrick Galbraith’s first book, In Search of One Last Song, is out now in hardback with William Collins

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