OK. Deep breath. Until I married in 1985, hunting was what I did in the winter. That is, I got on my horse and followed a pack of hounds thus, I suppose, becoming one of the ‘unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable’ as Oscar Wilde memorably put it.
Legislation to outlaw this age-old practice was passed in the Scottish Parliament in 2003 and at Westminster in 2004. Good riddance, said many people. I was not one of them.
What has this got to do with historical novels? Two things. Firstly, novelists normally imagine the past rather than experience it directly. Secondly, it raises an interesting dilemma.
Apropos the first point, when another writer rang me wanting to know about real, old-fashioned hunting, as opposed to what goes on now, my first reaction was to send him to one of the many books that include hunting scenes: Surtees, Somerville and Ross, Trollope, or the books written by the Pullein-Thompson sisters in the 1950s and 60s – Christine P-T’s A Day to go Hunting was a particular favourite of mine. He shook his head. He’d read books. What he needed was to sit with somebody who’d really climbed onto a horse on a frosty morning, shaken out the reins, pulled on gloves and shivered with chilly anticipation. He wanted to know practical details about scent (the fox’s, not mine) and, more urgently, whether what he’d written rang true. In other words, he wanted to experience hunting from the horse’s mouth (or as near as he could get) and I was that horse. It was strange. The writer was older than me, but reading his stuff made me feel like Methuselah. As somebody who had hunted in the pre-ban way, I was now actually part of a vanished world. I’d become a bit of history.
I also feel part of history when I go deer stalking. For those who imagine I’ve got some kind of blood lust, let me reassure that the number of deer on the remote Scottish island on which I found myself a few weeks ago outstrips the number of humans by miles, and that culling is both crucial and legal. I quite accept, though, that I’m hardly essential to this process, so readers may feel I am a bit enthusiastic in the John Peel department. Be that as it may, despite argocats having largely replaced ponies as stag pick-ups, stalking provides a connection with the past that’s not breathy or wispy but as solid and tangible as the rifle. As I walk, crawl and slither behind the professional stalker, I might be my grandfather or great grandfather. I see the same view. I’m thrashed by the same rain. I feel the same stomach flutters, the same respect for the stag, the same rush of pity quickly overtaken by objective calculations of distance, movement and angle necessary for a clean shot. I witness the same gralloch*. The other week I even shot with a rifle employing a bolt action familiar to anybody who fought in the First World War. I find in stalking a sense of living history in the active sense of that phrase.
'The Road to the Isles'.
By now, some readers may be spluttering into their cornflakes, which brings me neatly to my second point. We often debate how to tackle the different moral perspectives of the past: can our hero be a hero if he doesn’t condemn the slave trade? Is our heroine going to meekly accept being married off? But nearly always the dilemma is academic and literary rather than live. There’s no question that the writer abhors both the slave trade and women being considered chattels. The question is only whether historical characters can be imbued with modern moral values.
With bloodsports, it’s different. The issue is still potent. What’s more, there’s a presumption that modern writers, being nice people, must disapprove. It’s certainly true that these days hunting appears in historical novels less often than would be accurate and almost never without condemnatory undertones. Indeed, I contend that were I, today, to offer a book commending derring-do on the hunting field, nobody would publish it. There is, after all, no group on earth as illiberal as nice people who disapprove.
Hey ho! How strangely post-modern to be a historical novelist who ends up on the ‘wrong’ side of history.
A small aside. Sitting in the gunroom after stalking, the stalker told how he’d once admired a guest’s elderly rifle. ‘Still in perfect condition,’ the stalker remarked. ‘Where did you get it?’
The reply was unexpected. ‘I bought it at auction. It was Goering’s.’
Though Goering was a keen shot, both he and Hitler were passionately anti hunting with hounds. That’s not the reason I might have refused the gun had it been offered to me. There’s real, and then there’s real.
Word of the day: gralloch: the art (and it is an art) of disembowelling the carcass on the hill. Oddly, it's more fascinating than gruesome.