Thursday, 8 September 2011

‘Tis My Delight On A Moonlight Night.......

How things change. Gamekeepers have been having hard times over the last couple of years. Increased pressure to perform, increased pressure on shoot margins, inclement weather during rearing seasons and on top of that the profession is demonised in the media, attacked by the RSPB at every turn and had to suffer rouge individuals stupid enough to think that they can get away with poisoning raptors. It's enough to make you think about chucking it all in and becoming a poacher.

However, away from the propaganda of the RSPB, keepers are generally seen as key players in the stewardship of the countryside – a lynchpin in conservation and a deserving contributor to the success of the countryside. In reality, the lot of the gamekeeper is far better than it was a couple of hundred years ago.

If you want to know about the lot of the gamekeeper in the 1800s, you could do a lot worse than listen to some traditional folk music. There is a considerable body of English and Scottish folk music which focuses on the relationship between the gamekeeper and the poacher. Invariably the gamekeeper is portrayed in a bad light. A brutish thug, in thrall to the landed-gentry, whose sole purpose in life is to prevent the gallant poacher from earning a (dis)honest meal. Gamekeepers were often described as wandering in gangs, with cudgels and axes, to murder and brutalise at will, anyone who dared to trespass on their master's hallowed turf.

On the other hand, the poacher is rarely mentioned without being qualified as gallant, a likeable rouge, pushed into his exploits by the necessity of poverty and feudal penury. A dashing figure; the perfect foil to the dastardly keeper. Strong links are seen between the romanticism of the highwayman and the life of the poacher. 

The penalties for poaching were stiff to say the least. If the poacher was caught, if he survived the beating, he could look forward to deportation to the colonies aboard a hell-ship. Poaching songs are usually adventure songs, about the thrill of the moonlit night, and the eternal contest with the gamekeeper. The better ones also comment on the iniquity of the squire owning so much when poor folk are starving, and are often linked to the barbarity of the legal system of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

In the traditional Yorkshire song "Rufforth Park Poachers" a band of 40 poachers take on the Rufforth Park keepers leading to the death of Roberts the Head Keeper. Only four of the gang were caught, tried and deported for the murder.

A buck or doe, believe it so, a pheasant or a hare
Was set on earth for everyone quite equally to share
So poachers bold, as I unfold, keep up your gallant hearts
And think about those poachers bold, that night in Rufford Park
In the Death Of Poor Bill Brown, the rather inept poacher Bill is killed by the gamekeeper as he attempts to take a deer, but his death is avenged in gory detail as his companion shoots the keeper in the back.

One starry night as you shall 'ear,
All in the season of the year,
We went to the woods to get a fat buck,
But ee that night we 'ad bad luck,
For Bill Brown got shot and 'is dog got stuck.
In all my time that I have loved English folk music I have never come across a song that glorifies the keeper or even represents him fairly. Even in relatively modern protest songs such as Manchester Rambler, written by Ewan McColl, concerning the mass trespass on Kinder Scout, keepers come out with a bad press.

The day was just ending and I was descending
Through Grindsbrook just by Upper-Tor,
When a voice cried, "Hey, you!", in the way keepers do,
(He'd the worst face that ever I saw).
The things that he said were unpleasant;
In the teeth of his fury I said
"Sooner than part from the mountains,
I think I would rather be dead"

He called me a louse and said "Think of the grouse".
Well I thought, but I still couldn't see
Why old Kinder Scout and the moors round about
Couldn't take both the poor grouse and me.
He said "All this land is my master's".
At that I stood shaking my head,
No man has the right to own mountains
Any more than the deep ocean bed
Why is it that in the canon of English and Scottish traditional music, the gamekeeper's image is that of dullard and thug, whilst his opponent the poacher is a gallant romantic figure, hard done by, by both the state and gentry? Well perhaps the old keepers were thugs and perhaps intolerable social injustices drove normally honest men to commit the "crime" of poaching in order to feed their families rather than see them starve. All that daresay had a part to play.

Perhaps however, poachers had more time to write songs than keepers; more time to weave an unreality of spin and PR. Certainly McColl was a socialist (to say the least) who disapproved of the idea of land ownership, and liked nothing better than to tilt at the English Class system and those who he perceived perpetuated it.

This vision of the roles of the gamekeeper and poacher is pretty different from modern day perceptions (or is it?)

Why does the devil have all the best tunes? Because he writes his own press release! That's why.

We would do well in current times to remember that in the future we may be judged not by our deeds, but by what is written about them. We should choose those who elect to speak on our behalf with the utmost care lest our best intentions be misrepresented.


1 comment:

  1. Having been introduced by SBW, following a good long read of his blog, I have now found yours. I have really enjoyed reading the first two posts so look forward to reading the rest. Nice to 'meet' you.