Wednesday 28 September 2011

The 'wrong' side of history, by K. M. Grant

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.


Katherine Langrish said...

I used to ride but have never hunted, but I love Siegfried Sassoon's 'Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man' - do you remember the bit near the beginning when, as a child of nine or so, he blurts 'Don't do that - they'll catch him!' to the the older, more hard-bitten child who is about to shout out as the fox emerges from covert?

Human beings kill animals all the time, and not just for meat. We poison rats (see Louisa's post below, about clearing rats from a castle). They probably die in agony. We mow them down in motor cars: a city-dweller once exclaimed to me in horror about the number of mangled corpses strewn along country roads. We cull animals like deer when their numbers become unsustainable: and death by gunshot is definitely more merciful than being pulled down by the wolves which would have kept the numbers down before we exterminated the wolves.

The argument against hunting seems to be driven by a visceral moral distaste that human beings should take pleasure in pursuing and killing an animal - rather than the fact of its death. Eg: killing rats is OK because we don't enjoy it? - but that makes no difference to the rat... It's impossible to eliminate suffering from the world: the whole natural world is constructed on the principle of kill-and-be-killed: which is the one of the main reasons why I can't believe in God.

Emma Darwin said...

One of the many reasons I so often find myself writing historical fiction in the first person (though the critic P N Furbank disapproves...) is that it makes it much easier to make your characters truer to the mores of the time, without the necessary duck-shuffle which indicate that of course YOU the writer don't think any such thing.

You do still have to beware. Many readers, lacking the historical awareness of just how contingent what we believe to be absolute truths of good and bad may well never get to like him.

Of course many readers do know that what we take to be absolute truths of good and bad are actually historically and culturally contingent. But an authentically good, decent, responsible, kindly and humane historical character would still have have some authentic views on women, children, non-whites and non-Protestants and blood sports which prompt a shart intake of our modern breath, at best.

The best you can hope for

And yes, I've written falconry scenes, and hunting scenes. Though in the latter it was the narrator's beloved mare who suffered the ultimate fate...

Emma Darwin said...

Sorry - a sloppily edited comment!

K.M.Grant said...

You absolutely sum up the confusions, Katherine. I can remember thinking 'I hope he (always he, in my mind) gets away', all the while knowing, and completely accepting, that this was not the name of the game. One thing I loved about hunting was the uncertainty, the never knowing quite what the day would bring or how it would end for any of us. The Darwinian principle doesn't affect my belief in God, which constantly wavers. Despite the New Testament, He has never seemed entirely kind, though when I die I hope, if He exists, he'll be pretty kind to me.

Gillian Philip said...

Fantastic & evocative post - thank you.

Leslie Wilson said...

I agree with Kath. Animal cruelty is more than hunting. Foxes do, sadly, need to be culled, and the means used to kill them now are often crueller than hunting. And unless you are a vegan , you are living from the deaths of other animals and battery farming is worse than hunting , I think. Even vegans - unless you live from gathered food, are complicit in the deaths of competitors like slugs. Killing pests is allowed in organic farming, though probably less wholesale. As to entering into the mindset of earlier generations, I love the bit in Ann Turnbull's Forged in the Fire, where the lovely heroine reflects with satisfaction on the lightning bolt that God sent to demolish a 'steeple-house' - not the way modern day Quakers think but definitely the way early Friends did. Their early records contain judgements by God on their persecutors like being gored by a bull!

Penny Dolan said...

"There is, after all, no group on earth as illiberal as nice people who disapprove."

What a very nice line!

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes,mind you, the persecutors were pretty brutal to early Friends!

Stroppy Author said...

I wrote my PhD thesis on depictions of hunting in literature (though in 1300-1500, not more recently). I was often asked whether I had been hunting to see what it was like. I answered that I hadn't, and that had I been writing on slavery or the holocaust I would not be expected to try out those types of inhumanity.

Hunting was already being excused as a form of vermin control in the 13th century, though the ornate French manuals on hunting show that there were more effective and humane methods of control which did not attract the same (or indeed any) level of glorification because they were not enjoyable. Hunting was denigrated by the church, though many monks and priests were satirised for their devotion to the hunt. It was considered by the Church to be the companion of gluttony and lechery - immoderate enjoyment of something which should serve a need. It did not escape their notice that 'venery' refers to both hunting and sex.

There is nothing noble in the enjoyment of destroying another life form. Early hunters always had propitiation rites which accompanied a successful hunt. Amongst the ruling classes of 'civilised' societies, this developed into rather obscene rituals of lauding it over the dead animal.

Only the upper classes followed the ornate and inefficient process of the ritualised hunt. Peasants and poachers just killed things and ate them. The stylised processes were a tool of exclusion, of marking the knowledgeable hunter as a member of the elite as they still are. The clothing, vocabulary, traditions and method of breaking (butchering) the carcass were designed to distance the act of slaughter and try to make of it a work of art or social separation. In France, the predominant symbolic use of the hunt was of love, but in England it was of mortality, with hunting being the emblem of the 'man who has everything' and pays no regard to the inevitability of death, even while in the throes of inflicting it.

Anti-hunting sentiment is not a modern liberal attitude. John of Salisbury, writing in the 12th century, is the English first writer to record an anti-hunting view on the basis that it diminishes the hunter to take joy in the infliction of pain.

Millgram's experiment is sufficient demonstration that 'normal' people will engage in repellant behaviour if it is normalised or sanctioned by authority. The instinct to enjoy a chase is no doubt an evolutionary one (and a chemical one). The rush of adrenalin and endorphins helped our ancestors to feed themselves. But so did it help them force themselves on unwilling women in order to ensure their own genes were propagated. It doesn't mean that in the context of a developed society it is still a good thing. The 'intolerant liberals' who didn't like slavery felt that black people had rights and white people should not be morally debased by buying slaves. Modern 'intolerant liberals' who don't like hunting feel animals have the right not to be tormented and humans should not debase themselves by enjoying slaughter. I'm happy to be counted an intolerant liberal.

Linda Newbery said...

I'm another intolerant liberal, and a member of the League Against Cruel Sports and the RSPCA. The conduct of hunting belies the "pest control" argument: foxes could be swiftly caught by faster-running hounds, but foxhounds are used because they are slower than foxes but have more stamina, the idea being to prolong the chase for the enjoyment of followers. Then there's the fact of foxes being encouraged to breed in hunting areas by the use of artificial earths - I've been shown some by a landowner in Northamptonshire. The last thing hunts want is for fox numbers to dwindle.

Above all, it beats me how people who lavish every kind of care and attention on their horses, and would be appalled by any kind of cruelty to them, can happily participate in the terrorising and killing of another mammal. There are some good comments here, and I agree that no one can count themselves blameless, and stand above animal exploitation of all kinds. But I don't see that as a justification for blood sports.