Contrary to accepted wisdom, I did happen to judge a book by its cover on eBay recently. In my defence, it is one of the best book covers I have ever seen, featuring a blackcock at full bore surrounded by a bank of greyhens. Ian Niall has some strong links to Galloway, but his real home is in Wales throughout many of the chapters of The Way of A Countryman.
I must admit that for its first few pages I enjoyed the book; Niall paints some lovely and very evocative pictures, however he has a tendency to slip into elegy and a nostalgia that almost borders on the smug, inferring that things were so unspeakably excellent in the old days that nothing now could ever measure up. An account of shooting blackgame on the geographically ambiguous “Clanty Moss” sounds idyllic, but it goes beyond Housman’s “land of lost content” and ends up on a chocolate box on a pedestal on a cloud. The countryside becomes a kind of mawkish, game-packed puppet show in which a revolting and cynical old codger is recast as a pawky cove who casts an endearing vernacular charm over proceedings. The blackcock was slain in due course and the narrative returns again to some bland colloquialism delivered deadpan, first by the old man and then his guidwife.
I’m all for setting down the reality of the situation, and while readers of this blog know that I don’t mind adding a rose-tinted angle to some accounts, I hope that it never takes the whole out of context. Many accounts of wild game even since the Second World War are enough to make my hair stand up with delight, but Niall’s repeated formula of perfection leading to loss makes him seem almost like he is thumbing his nose at those who came after him. At times, the narrative verges on a condescending impression that your countryside of today is only a shabby relic of how good it was when Niall was a lad and the hum of dozy bees lingered on the flow’ring heath &c. &c.
Nostalgia is all very well and some carry it off without skipping a beat, but the problem I had with this book was that it quickly became a catalogue of things that could be done but which are no longer possible. By extension, Niall emerges from this graphically broken mould as the definitive, unequalled “countryman” to whom all must defer. I abhor the expression “countryman” and feel particularly uncomfortable when people use it to describe themselves, and perhaps that is why I should have looked more at the wording on the book’s front cover before buying it, rather than simply being bowled over by its design. It is usually published with one of Tunnicliffe’s woodcock on the front, and I would have walked straight past it altogether in this guise.
It is certainly not without merit, but The Way of a Countryman is not a volume that I will return to again soon. I hadn’t thought that I would ever write a book review after graduating, but this one made me rise. Perhaps I’ll do it again sometime.