Reading the Wainwright Prize: Meadowland

In the run up to the announcement of this year’s Wainwright Prize winner, we’re sharing extracts from each of the shortlisted books – next we have Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel.


The river is so low I can step across its spindly width. A nuthatch scuttles down the elder, tapping for insects behind the Jew’s ear mushrooms. At the back of Grove hedge, the crab apples have fallen into the ditch and gather slugs. In medieval times it was believed that parent hedgehogs rolled on fruits and transported them home to their young. The hedgepiglets who lived under the pile of logs in the promontory will have no need of food. They are dead. Perfect scale miniatures of their parents, and grotesquely colourless in death. Only one has been eaten, scooped out of its spiny back; the other three seem to be unmarked. Presumably these died of cold. And a fox or badger is the perpetrator of the crime.


November is one of my favourite months, with its faded afternoons of cemetery eeriness, and its churchy smell of damp musting leaves. November suited perfectly poor crazed poet John Clare, who limned it so:

Sybil of months, and worshipper of winds!
I love thee, rude and boisterous as thou art;
And scraps of joy my wandering ever finds
’Mid thy uproarious madness.

Although some do feel, with Thomas Hood:

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds –

Flint winds from the east cut us irrevocably from summer.

Hunger makes the hunter. From the house I see two male pheasants in the field, perambulating across with the dignity of Ming emperors. Even at hundreds of yards the low weak winter sun burnishes them into coppery magnificence. They are past the moult, they are in their feathered prime. Occasionally they stoop to peck at some flower or grass seed.

I get my shotgun from the gunsafe. By the time I reach the field, they have disappeared. I catch sight of their quick shadows in the copse but they slide away before I can get a clear shot. In the copse they are in their natural habitat, for what are pheasants but ornate jungle fowl? The first pheasants were brought here by the Romans, but probably did not go feral; Phasianus colchicus torquatus, the pheasant with the white ring collar, is an eleventh-century introduction. And after nine hundred years and annual releases of 30 million or so for shooting, the pheasant still looks gaudily out of place.

On a hunch I wait in the field, just under the over-hang from the copse alder which bulges over the wire stock fence, loitering against it, the barrels of the gun nuzzled between neck and shoulder, more reassuring than a father’s hand. With my left ear pressed hard to the trunk of the alder, I can hear every internal stress and strain as it shifts about.

The doleful day ticks down. The wren, cock-tailed capo of the copse, tells me off for loitering. When American poet Robert Lowell wrote ‘For the Union Dead’ and needed an image to explain the righteous Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, killed leading a regiment of black soldiers, he settled on ‘an angry wrenlike vigilance’. I know precisely what Lowell meant; the wren continues its scolding staccato as I watch out over Lower Meadow while it prepares for bed. A tawny owl ker-wicks up the wooded stream, a robin warbles a few wistful bars from the Grove hedge, the sheep edge up the field to where it is highest, from where they have the best view of any approaching predators. The ancient Escley gurgles contentedly. The leaves of the hazel glow, the chill aches my face.

Then I hear the pheasants. A brief, proud ‘cok-cok-cok’. They have left the copse and slinked next door to the Grove.

The light has gone to ashes. There are only seconds left in the day. I slip back the safety catch.

Up flies a pheasant from the Grove field, up, up, its tail streaming like the wake of a comet. I step forward and take the poacher’s shot, the shot that is not for sport but for the kill. I shoot the silhouette just as it spreads its wings to break its speed before landing in the tree.

The bird falls thump into the field. Dead. As dead as though it had never lived.

The graffito blast of the shot is still echoing in the green valley, the blackbirds still squirting their alarm calls as I slip a length of bailer twine around its neck to carry it home. The sheep, momentarily disturbed from their eating, put their heads to the field once more and carry on mowing.

The smell of gunpowder is thick around me, and masks out even the rotting incense of the autumn leaves. A child’s full moon is struggling to break through the gloom.

How did I know the pheasant would roost there, on that bare branch in the alder? It is where I would have chosen to sleep if I were a pheasant, a place too high for foxes but not so dense with leaves that I could not see into it.

Rationally it seems fair, even appropriate, that if one farms for wildlife one can eat the wildlife. The justification does not stop me suffering the agonies of sentient killers and those unforgiving lines from Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ start to spool:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A Dove house fill’d with Doves & Pigeons Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.
A Dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate Predicts the ruin of the State.
A Horse misus’d upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fibre from the Brain does tear.
A Skylark wounded in the wing,
A Cherubim does cease to sing.
The Game Cock clipt & arm’d for fight
Does the Rising Sun affright.

And on, on until:

Kill not the Moth nor Butterfly,
For the Last Judgment draweth nigh.

Taken from Meadowland, by John Lewis-Stempel

Find details of the full Wainwright Prize shortlist here

The winner will be announced on 22nd April

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