Musical Advent Calendar Day 5: Ashes to Ashes – or, Grousebeating to Bowie

Image result for red grouse

I always had a somewhat complicated relationship with David Bowie, and I blame my childhood best mate Nick Clarke, who was such a fan he put me off him. I suspect I did the same for him with Dylan.

However, it wasn’t all Nick’s fault: I’ve always at heart been a bit of a meat n’ potatoes rock bloke, although I do like a meaningful lyric, as you may have noticed. Bowie was always a bit too arty for my taste, a bit too experimental. However, I’ve chosen this track partly to honour the Thin White Duke, and partly to recall a memory it triggers.

August, 1980. I was about to turn 18, and go into first year at Uni. First, though, there was a late summer job to be had grousebeating in Aberdeenshire. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, let me outline the task in hand.

Red Grouse, or to get the species right, Lagopus lagopus scoticus, are a game bird popular amongst the huntin’ and shootin’ fraternity in the Highlands. The big estates manage populations of them to provide ‘sport’ for the toffs who like to pop at them from gun butts on remote Highland hillsides. The grouse live amongst the heather on the hill, and if left to themselves would probably scuttle about in there eating their mainly vegetarian diet as happy as Larry. They’re dumpy wee things that aren’t the best at flying, to say the least.

Which is where the beaters come in. I and my fellow students performed that function, at least back then. You were furnished with a big stick with a fertiliser sack on it, and directed to walk in a line, waving your stick in such a way that the stiff plastic snapped and scared up the grouse who, gamely, attempted to fly away from the strange noises and scruffy students in the direction of the gun butts.

It’s fair to say that, radical republican firebrand that I was, the concept of yomping through three-foot high heather up a hill just so that a bunch of posh English twats could blast some defenceless creatures out of the sky did give me some ethical dilemmas (as did the spelling of that word, by the way). It’s probably just as well Braveheart hadn’t come out by then, as I might have been tempted to inspire my fellow students into a short re-enactment of the battle of Bannockburn. Given that we were always downhill from the toffs, they were the ones with the guns, and we were armed only with fertiliser sacks tied to sticks, it would have been a pretty short and inaccurate re-enactment.

Whatever, the pay was good, there was a great camaraderie amongst us casual labour, and the gamekeeper’s wife cooked us hare stew – you even got, with your evening meal, a can of McEwan’s Export! Some of the guys couldn’t hack the physicality of the job and left, but most of us stayed just about the full four weeks, until, three days before the end, we were told by the gamekeeper we were going back out in the pissing rain for an afternoon shift when he’d told us earlier we wouldn’t have to.

‘Right then, we’re on strike,’ we said.

‘Right then, you’re fired,’ said the gamekeeper. An early experience of unsuccessful labour relations. Needless to say, grousebeaters weren’t unionised. We were taken off the hill and put on the next train south: to be fair, they were very civilised about it all.

What has all this got to do with Ashes to Ashes? Just that it had been released as a single that August, and was an immediate hit – Bowie, emerging from his Berlin period, had decided to write a more commercial record. Part of its success was the video, ground-breaking for the time: but that odd guitar synth figure that runs through it stood out just as much for me. I never knew it was guitar synth until I looked up Wikipedia just now, by the way.

That and the lyrics, of course.

If you’ve got some to spare this month, you might want to spare it on the Red Cross Myanmar Appeal.





























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