Category Archive 'Diane Athill'

19 Jan 2010

Diane Athill on Field Sports

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Emily Hacker whipping in for Bath County Hounds.

In her memoir, Instead of a Letter, published in 1963, renowned editor Diana Athill, makes the case for the field sports brilliantly, but then, with little explanation, at the end, declares herself a firm Puritan opponent.

Any kind of hunting, whether with a gun or with hounds, brings the hunter into a close intimacy with the country over which he does it. He learns what kind of cover a partridge, for instance, will favour—learns it so intimately that he can almost feel himself crouching under the broad, wet leaves of a field of sugar beet. He knows what weather does to ‘his’ land, and to its animal inhabitants; he knows smells and textures, the sounds different sorts of fallen leaves make when he walks through them, the feel under his palm of the moss on the damp side of a tree trunk. Because of his pursuit his senses have to be more alert than those of even the most enthusiastic walker, so he takes more in. He has to contend with nature, not merely look at it, wading through heavy land, clambering through thorny hedges, allowing for wind, observing the light — and discovering, of course, as much as possible about the habits of the creatures he is after. People who have always been, as a matter of course, against blood sports often gibe at the sportsman’s professed affection for animals, but paradoxical though it may be, it is perfectly true that there is no surer way to identify with an animal than to hunt it. The man who shoots for pleasure only is doing, I myself now believe, something wantonly destructive—but I have no doubt that it is he who knows best what it is like to be a hare, a partridge, a pheasant, a pigeon. …

Hunting had no pains—or rather, its pains were both private and shared, and sharpened its joys. That I was nervous almost to the point of throwing up at every meet, hearing the crack as my horse’s forelegs hit the top bar of a gate, the crunch as one of its hooves came down on my skull, was at the same time an internal matter and something in which I was not alone. During the waiting about before the field moves off, many people are likely to be either unusually silent or unnaturally hearty. The more frightened you were, the more miraculous the vanishing of fear as soon as things started to happen; the more exciting the thud of hooves, the creak of leather, the more triumphant your thrusts ahead by risking a blind bit of fence while others were queuing for a straightforward bit. What instinct it is in a horse that gives it its passion for following hounds I do not understand. It is not only the obvious herd instinct, for I have often known horses who continued to quiver and dance, to be alert in every nerve, when we had lost the field and were riding alone, stretching our ears for the hounds’ voices, and I once had a pony who was so mad about the sport that she would not eat when she got home after a long day but would lean against the door of her loose-box, straining to hear the intoxicating sounds from which I had had much trouble turning her away several hours before. Whatever it may be, it is shared by the rider, and it is not lust for blood. I used, whenever possible, to avoid being in at the kill, and of all the many people I have known who enjoyed hunting, not one took pleasure in the chase’s logical conclusion.

A long hack home after a hard day could be physical torture: cold, stiff, often wet, you could reach a stage when your mount’s every stride seemed a jolt, and every jolt drove your spine into the back of your head. That, and the nerves, were part of the game that made it more than a game, that extended you more than you thought you could be extended. At the Manor there would be a groom to take our ponies when we got in, but in Hertfordshire and at the Farm, where we looked after them ourselves, it went without saying that we rubbed them down, fed and watered them and put on their rugs before we plodded our own aching bodies up to their hot baths (oh, the agony of numb fingers coming alive in hot water) followed by tea-with-an-egg. Absurd though one may think the English gentry’s obsession with animals, a child gains something from their care. To be able to feel your own chills and fatigues in the body of another creature, to rub them away with a twist of straw and solace them with a bran-mash, is to identify with a being outside yourself.

My family’s way of talking about its animals—horses, dogs, and goats—would have sounded absurd to anyone who had no experience of them or liking for them. We saw them not as docile or bad-tempered, ill- or well-trained, but as personalities with attributes similar to those of humans. ‘Poor Cinders, he gets so bored in the lower shed,’ we might say of a pony; or of a dog, ‘Lola is in a very haughty mood.’ This anthropomorphic approach to animals, despised by those who do not share it, can be taken to foolish extremes but does not seem to me to be an error. I think Freya Stark put her finger on it when she described the death of a lizard she had once owned. She was grieved to a degree she thought exaggerated until it occurred to her that the distance between the lizard and herself was far less than the distance between her and God, and in that way she expressed a truth which urbanized people forget: that Homo sapiens is not a creature apart, but one development of animal life. The more subtly developed animals do share with human beings certain muscular movements and actions which express similar states of consciousness; in them these actions are released more directly, by simpler stimuli, but at bottom they are not different and we natter ourselves if we suppose too great a distance between our own behaviour and that of Pavlov’s salivating dog.

I have always taken great pleasure in the company of animals, or even in their neutral presence—a rabbit hopping across a lawn or a bird teasing at some berries in a tree—and I am glad that I was brought up in such a way that this pushing out of feelers into a part of nature other than my own is possible to me. I am also glad that circumstances enabled me to go one step further in this than most of the people among whom I was raised, and ask myself the question ‘If I feel like this about dogs and birds and horses—what about those poor foxes?’

It was hares and stags in my case, for ours was not a fox-hunting county and we had to make do with harriers and a pack of staghounds which hunted deer maintained for the purpose and captured alive after the day’s sport, to be returned to their paddock. It was sometimes argued that the older, more experienced deer knew that this was going to happen and fled from the hounds for the fun of the thing, but they did not look as though they thought it fun. I hunted in order to ride. The subtleties of working hounds meant little to me, and throughout my youth the pleasure I got from riding was so great that I averted my eyes and shut my mind to thoughts of the creatures the hounds pursued, but the images registered, all the same. I cannot be certain whether I would have acknowledged them if those months between school and Oxford had ‘gone on forever’ and my country pleasures had continued unbroken, but I believe I might have done. My father did: he did not merely give up shooting, but came to loathe it.

As it happened I was living in London, and no longer killing anything, by the time I acknowledged that to kill for amusement was barbaric. Now I detest blood sports. I would never hunt again, nor would I go out to watch anyone shoot, nor even, I think, catch a fish unless I were without food. Living creatures have to prey on each other in order to exist, but not one of them can annihilate another for its own amusement without committing an outrage.

Athill, I think illustrates here beautifully the contradictory mindset of the Trans-Atlantic leftwing intelligentsia.

Their devotion to sanctimony and the conformist ideology of their class buries their personal experience of life and truth as thoroughly as the ashes from Vesuvius buried Pompei. Athill has just argued that Homo sapiens is not a creature apart, and she has remarked noticing just how fond horses are of hunting; but, look out! here comes the Labour Party political correctness, we musn’t chase poor little foxes. Why, we must not even fish!

Intelligent as she is, Athill completely overlooks the fact that the chicken, steak, or sole, she had for dinner at some agreeable little boite was recently just as alive as the pheasant pulled down by a load of sixes at the end station of the drive at Sandringham. So too, she overlooks the fact that Charles James himself delights in hunting and makes his own living thereby. If we and other animals are not creatures apart, how is that friend Reynard can hunt innocently, or for that matter my cat, and not me?

Once the renowned editor has left the country house of her childhood behind and sits in judgment in the Metropolis, she seems to forget that no system of National Health or Old Age Pension scheme has been established for the fur, fin, and feather set. All flesh is grass, and the unshot pheasant does not escape misfortune to retire to a villa in Spain. Nature has in store a wide array of unpleasant ends for wild creatures, a great many of which are more considerably frightening, painful, and protracted than falling quickly in hot blood to gunshot or the chase.

Athill has acknowledged recognizing that the intimacy and understanding of the hunter for the game cannot be equaled elsewhere or otherwise achieved. Logically, she is obliged to make the connection between field sports and the preservation of the wild. Non-sportsmen will never understand wildlife properly, and without the emotional connection provided by sport, the human relationship to wild creatures will attenuate to indifference or sink to the cynical exploitation of anthropomorphized fantasies.


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