Slogging up through the woods and on to the main ridge of the Chilterns on a damp morning in late autumn, the joys of summer rambles seem long departed. Ah! If only I could recapture that fearless rapture with which I turned the golden key, wrenched open the door and ran laughing down the corridor into the Queen of Hearts’ rose garden. Dandelion days! Sweet scattered spore of youth! When to the sessions of sweet silent thought we summon up … and so on and so forth, jaw-jaw, bore-bloody-bore. No, the fact is that it’s pissing down and I’m a middle-class, middle-aged man making tea on a miniature gas stove in a tiny covert, while down the muddy track beside me ride upper-class, middle-aged women on chestnut stallions, exchanging the small change, the he-shagged, she-spat of hacking society.
But I’ve no time to get lost in such regrets; I’m on a mission. In my rucksack are enough uppers, downers, twisters and screamers to transmogrify the passive pheasants of these pleasant hills into the avian equivalent of suicide bombers. Strange Miles, my neuro-pharmacological consultant – who operates out of a light industrial estate near Princes Risborough – has been working on this gear all summer. He swears blind that if I leave enough of it in the feed bins scattered along the ridge, then come the first day of the shooting season, instead of doing the flying equivalent of ambling towards the wavering guns of a lot of tipsy City brokers, the fowl will
rise up and descend in a fluttering, bombinating horde, their
I only hope the Prime Minister himself will be in residence that weekend and get espaliered by a thousand tiny beaks, but if not, if he’s in Texas or Timbuktu, then I’m prepared to accept whatever fatalities may be caused by the drug-crazed birds. Strange Miles and I simply see this as collateral damage in our two-man war against the entrenched power of the state.
On I slog and slide, the rich clayey soil spattering my nylon flanks. But what’s this! Just past Cobblershill Farm I come across a folding table set up by the wayside. A number of clingfilm-wrapped placards enjoin me to sign a petition against the use of this bridleway by four-wheel-drive vehicles. Of course I should sign! Every fibre in my being cries out against the desecration of the countryside by these disgusting vehicles … and yet … and yet … if I’m entirely honest I cannot deny that I myself have done a fair bit of off-roading. In the early 1990s, when I found myself temporarily marooned in a small cottage in deepest Suffolk, the green lanes beckoned to me with their cushioned camber and their soft verges.
Few people realise quite how many green lanes there are in England, let alone that you’re allowed to drive cars along them. If I took the B-roads back from the Ship Inn at Dunwich, or The Bell in Walberswick, to my cottage outside Leiston, there was always the slim chance that I might encounter one of the two patrol cars that cover East Anglia. Not that I would’ve been over the limit you understand, it’s just that encounters with the authorities of any kind have always given my sensitive nerves a dreadful jangle. No, much better to slide out of Walberswick and then across the common on the sandy, rutted, potholed track past the haunted hippy house. In deepest darkest winter there was always a tremendous frisson when I reached the last outpost of civilisation and doused the headlights. Proceeding by the light of the stars at a stately 5mph, the wind battering the featherweight chassis of the little car, always made me feel that I’d stripped away all the useful accoutrements of motoring, to leave merely a locomotive residuum.
It helped that I was driving a Citroen Deux Chevaux. Yes, not for me the padded monstrosity of a Toyota Land Cruiser or the effortless functionality of a Land-Rover Discovery. Not for me the effortless traction of four massive tyres. What made my night-time, green-lane driving an acceptable form of transport, rather than a dubious kind of recreation, was that I allowed the countryside itself a fighting chance. True, the 2CV does perform impressively in the rough, but there was always a chance that I’d get myself bogged and end up having to slog home 12 miles on foot. It happened several times – and I felt good about it. But these bastards ploughing the Chilterns into a furrowed morass, they simply shouldn’t be allowed. I withdrew my tungsten-carbide ballpoint from its oiled leather sheath and signed the petition with a flourish, before plopping on towards Little Hampden.
A fortnight later, the PM stepped out on to the ha-ha of Chequers in the lemony light of a perfect autumn morning. The shotgun reports up on the ridge sounded like the doors of so many suburban semis being precipitately slammed by hurrying commuters – or so he thought in a rare moment of metaphoric insight. And that cloud up there, what could it be? So many airborne motes fusing into coherence and then fissioning into chaos, like thoughts in a disordered mind.