Constants, by their very nature, exist due to life’s little fluctuations; the ups and downs that we all experience. Some are extreme in nature and can cause incredible harm, but most just throw us off kilter momentarily, if we’re lucky. There have been many things in my life which have caused me to deviate from my core beliefs, and most of them I haven’t even noticed happening. When I mention core beliefs, the chances are that you will all have different ones to me, but I bet they don’t deviate too much. I’m not talking about politics here either. I know hunting men and women who will be staunch socialists, allow me to go off on a slight tangent here. I know some who are equally as committed to the other end of the political spectrum, but it’s this common ground we share, this love of the countryside; this love of hunting, that is the constant which I refer to. I don’t think I would consider political persuasion to be a constant, certainly not in terms of a particular political party. How many of you reading this magazine, would have considered yourselves Labour supporters 20-25 years ago? Some of you will be nodding; I was myself. Some of you will be sitting there reading this on the bog (come on…. I know you do) and planning to go out and vote Labour at the forthcoming General Election. But allegiance to a political party can change; should change, if that party no longer caters for its core beliefs that were held so dear when you first pinned your flag to the mast. We all know there are folk who will vote Labour/Conservative/Monster Raving Loony for the plain fact that they always have; they were brought up that way. I’d like to think that there are more people who judge everything on its merits though, and to them, changing a blind allegiance to a party because that party no longer represents its core values, wouldn’t necessarily be a major hurdle. Anyway, this is not an article about politics. It’s about blood and soil.
If any of you will have read the works of Knut Hamsun, particularly The Growth of the Soil, which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, you will understand these constants that I am referring to. The main character Isak sets off into the wilderness and despite the years taking their toll on him and his surroundings; and the perceived progress of modern life and its related change in morals which swirl and break upon Isak, he remains the same. In the words of the translator of this book from its native Norwegian into our tongue:
It is an epic of earth….its dominant note is one of patient strength and simplicity; the mainstay of its working is the tacit, stern, yet loving alliance between Nature and the Man……who faces her himself, trusting to himself and her for the physical means of life, and the spiritual contentment with life which she must grant if he be worthy.
Modern man faces Nature only by proxy, or as proxy, through others or for others, and the intimacy is lost. In the wilds the contact is direct and immediate; it is the foothold upon earth, the touch of the soil itself, that gives strength.
And it is the same for us hunters. We don’t face nature “by proxy.” We face her head-on and we see the blood and the soil for ourselves on a daily basis. We are not removed from the reality of life, and there’s nothing that can replace that, for me anyway. As the translator says, it is this that gives us strength.
My wife has asked me in the past, when we’ve been sat watching Time Team, or some other historical or archaeological based documentary, just how things got buried over the years. Invariably it’s not some great landslide of earth that covers the artifacts. It’s more a process of tiny layer upon tiny layer that has been building up over the years. So fine is each layer that you don’t even realise it’s happening, until before you know it, what was there, exposed to the daylight for so long, has disappeared to the world. Sometimes for years, decades, centuries; sometimes for ever. For as long as I can remember, hunting has been part of my life. My Dad never took me hunting, as hunting was never one of his constants. It was something he had a brief flirtation with as a young fella, but then grew out of it as his constants showed themselves to be in other areas. I don’t think you have much choice over these things either. You can enjoy doing something for a time, but then things fade, or wither, and other interests take their place. I believe a true constant is in you and whether you like it or not, it’s always going to be there. It’s always going to pull you back to it no matter how much you think it’s hidden. One day you might be sitting there at a country pub, and you may not have hunted for years, but something, and it might be the slightest thing, will trigger a switch inside you. And like those bairns in Hamelin, you hear the Pied Piper calling and there’s nothing you can do about it.
I don’t know about you, but one of my earliest hobbies, or pastimes, call them what you will, was nesting. Most of you will have read A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines, or at least seen the film adaptation of it, called Kes. I read this at the age of about 9, and it was the first book I can remember reading that was about “me.” I don’t mean that in a literal sense of course, but it spoke to me about the things I did, the experiences I’d had and it still remains a favourite of mine to this day. It was hard going reading it, as Barry Hines wrote a lot of it in vernacular Yorkshire dialect, so whilst I didn’t speak that differently to the characters in the novel, reading it with any sense of fluency as a 9 year old was another matter entirely. I think that my generation was probably the last where “nesting” was seen as a legitimate and healthy interest for a young lad. It had actually been illegal since 1964 (I think…can anybody help me with that date please?) but we didn’t know that. I had a nice little collection going from the age of about 6, and I displayed them all in a nice little wooden box, with a Perspex sliding top which showed them off to fine effect. I can remember a policeman coming to the house once, and this would have been about 1980/81 and although he was there about one of my other little indiscretions, he sat and admired my egg collection after delivering his sermon on the legalities of digging up the daffodils in the council flower beds, even though they were destined for my Mam. I still see news items regarding nesting on various websites, and I always find myself clicking on them. Time after time, the same names come up, and to these boys, this is their constant, or at least one of them. For me, it wasn’t. It was something that I did as a young bloke, and still have fond memories of, but it’s not something I do now. Looking back, it was probably a stepping stone to other things for me; an introduction to birds, the countryside and hunting, of sorts, and for that, I am glad I did it. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t have shoeboxes full of Chough’s eggs secreted around the place, but I did have eggs and I look back on those times with great affection. But it wasn’t “me,” meaning I learned to live without it. I still marvel at the beauty of a bird’s egg, be it from a lowly, caterwauling gull, or a fine, delicate Wren but the urge to collect them just isn’t there anymore and my quality and enjoyment of life is not affected by that. Not the case for hunting though.
Like many blokes out there, I met a lass when I was a teenager, and “I” started to get buried. Just like the Saxon Great Hall, or the Roman villa, as time went by each layer of sediment, or earth began to build up gradually, and I never even noticed it happening. Even if I had noticed, I don’t know if I’d have actually done anything about it. I’d spent most of my teenage years running around with air rifles and dogs, peering over fences and generally being an opportunistic little bugger. All of that was put on the back burner when this bird came along, not because she asked me to, but because I just lost sight of it for a while. But not for long. I can remember going round her house one Sunday afternoon and as soon as I’d had a cup of tea and said the obligatory hellos to her mam and dad, I was away out the back into the chestnut woods that surrounded her house, BSA 240 Magnum tucked inside my fishtail parka, searching for pheasants that had strayed from the nearby shoot. That didn’t go down too well. This was towards the death of the relationship though, when, like those houses in Orkney (or is it the Shetlands?) that are thousands of years old that the weather has gradually exposed, “I” started to emerge again from underneath the years of dirt. How many of you have experienced that? I genuinely wonder how people cope when they aren’t lucky enough to have constants like most of us have. What do you do to fill the void? There is so much to occupy a teenager these days, and not all of it is wholesome and healthy. Some kids (the majority?) are so far removed from the real world that they wouldn’t know the first thing about the countryside or hunting. They might hear it mentioned on the news (do kids watch the news?) or some drivel from a biased teacher, which seems to be happening more and more these days. What chance have the buggers got? How can they ever get the chance to see whether hunting is one of their constants? Unless they are lucky enough to experience an epiphany, they could live their life filling the void with junk, literally in some cases, and metaphorically in others. I don’t know how we change this though. More and more people are pouring into Britain, and the cities expand at the sake of countryside. Urbanisation is on the increase and the old ways are disappearing. We are creating a society that knows nothing about where it comes from and who it is, and we wonder why there are problems. Let’s face it; we have the internet now, and this has made hunting of all types much more accessible to the common man. Whereas in the past you’d have to actually put some effort into finding out about hunting (presuming you had a flicker of an interest), now you just log in to THL or Moochers and see what’s what. A quick flick through the CMW to order yourself a hybrid bulldog and bingo…you’re all set. There’s no need for an apprenticeship anymore. I think that, and the fact that certain dogs and sports are illegal, which let’s face it, lends it all a misguided sense of legitimacy, has increased the numbers of lads and lasses out there, who aren’t all there for the right reasons. When this knowledge had to be sought, and worked for, and strived for and effort had to be expended, there were fewer. Now, it’s as easy as typing an address and having some spare time. Dogs can be bought and sold on whims as weak as trainspotters squash. Hopefully some will stay for life, but many will fall by the wayside. I’ll get off my soap box now.
When the death knell was finally sounded on the particular relationship that I mentioned above, of course there was a sense of loss, not of years wasted, but the sadness that something that started so good, had become wounded, festered and died. But as well as this, the thing that I remember most, is the sense of liberation, and I don’t mean that to the detriment of the girl concerned. It was like I was sloughing off all the crappy layers that had built up, and returning to my constants, to me. What amazed me was the realization that I hadn’t even noticed I’d been buried. As well as the physical things changing such as giving back each others records (I could finally say out loud that I f’ing hated U2!), it was other things that were more important to me. Suddenly, a Blackbird’s song meant something to me again and I got the urge to be out before the dawn once more. The positives outweighed the negatives and I took myself off into the fields.
I can remember one of my first journeys back into hunting again like it was yesterday. It was a Saturday night/Sunday morning (incidentally, another of my favourite books), and I’d forsaken my usual few pints with my mates in favour of an early night. I had to be up and out when some of the local clubs would still be chucking drunks out onto the streets, where they’d wander off in search of a bus, or a kebab, or more likely for some where I lived, a lager fuelled fight which added weight to their feelings of alcohol induced remorse the very next morning. Been there, done that. Not for me though.
The alarm sounded at 0200 and actually physically hurt me, if that’s at all possible. It wasn’t with a groan that I jumped out of bed though. There was a spring in my step, as I’d got things to do. I was going somewhere. With a pull of the choke, the Vauxhall Nova coughed into life, and with the dog loaded into the tiny boot, off we went. A push of a button and the cassette player lit up and the strains of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by The Beach Boys came through the tiny speakers sunk into the bottom of the car doors. Optimism; a wide-eyed welcoming view of what was to come pervaded that little blue car as we wound our way through the Kent countryside in search of rabbits. Things were good; everything was alright. After a journey of about 40 minutes, I parked up on an estate at the foot of the North Downs. The very first permission I ever had was but a short walk away. I’d gotten this at the age of 16 and it was only a few acres, but there were plenty of rabbits to keep me busy and I’d rid myself of many bad shooting habits there over the years as I honed my style into something resembling accuracy. I wouldn’t be going there now though. I had (still do) an inquisitive nature and this naturally led me to look over the fences that marked the boundaries of my permission, and lo and behold, there was some nice land about in that part of the world. There was a small wood not too far from my land and on one side of it was a few acres of scrub, and on the other side there was a gently sloping grassy hill. It was here that I intended to have a mooch with the dog, and to get there, I had to travel a narrow lane that wound between the massive gardens of some of the local mansions. I’d given myself plenty of time to get to where I wanted to be, so it was with a slow and steady step I made my way down the lane. No sooner was I on my way, two massive great mastiff type things were haring down their garden towards me! It was at this point that I hoped to God that the owner of the property had not skimped on their fencing materials as these dogs were monsters! In later renditions of this story I think I may have said they were Tosa Inus, but allow me that artistic licence won’t you? They certainly looked like the buggers!
As I put some distance between me and the snarling hounds of hell, their barking died away and I hope that they hadn’t scared away much of the wildlife. I needn’t have worried as through the gloom I could still see rabbits in the secluded gardens of the wealthy locals. Excellent. When I finally made the wood, I plonked myself against an uprooted tree trunk, amongst the flint and chalk on the ground so rudely disturbed by the big storms of 87. Fishing around in the bellowed pockets of my Belgian army surplus jacket, I pulled out a packet of ten Embassy Filter (something I hadn’t managed to slough off at that point), and struck a Swan Vesta, oblivious to the fact that this wouldn’t be helping my situation. As I pulled in lungfuls of smoke from those stumpy little cigarettes, the dog sat at my feet was alert to his surroundings to a much greater degree than I was. His ears were like little radar dishes, as his head swiveled to every little noise produced in a nocturnal wood. We were sat on the north side of the wood, with the grassy hill in front of us, and there were rabbits out there feeding. The only light I had with me was a large Maglite, and this was far from adequate for lamping, so my faith rested in the young dog’s ability and guile, rather than trusting to my skill and cunning. First run and the rabbit was chased back right to my feet, where I missed him with my boot, and so did the dog. The torch picked up a few sitters that hadn’t been scared of the commotion, and it was one of these that the dog went for next. Same scenario – a short run by the coney into the safety of the wood, and we were again left empty handed. Undeterred, and with the exuberance and optimism of youth, my young charge and me kept on at the bunnies and we were soon met with success. The night air was pierced with the screams of the hunted in the jaws of the hunter. Like so many before and since, the rabbit dithered at a hedge line and that was its undoing. I’d love to say it was brought right to hand, but I won’t lie to you, it wasn’t. I broke from the confines of the wood and ran, doubled over to my left and took the rabbit from the lurcher. With his neck stretched, I again ran doubled over back to the disruptive confines of my hidey hole. An amazing sense of well-being descended upon me, and I was absolutely elated to be out and about again. The time between runs had been getting longer in direct correlation to the lightening of the sky, and as dawn approached, barely a rabbit could be seen. The sweet song of the dawn chorus replaced the sinister sounds of a wood at night, and it wouldn’t be long before I would feel the warmth of the watery, winter sun start to sink into my bones. Time for home. Time for bed.
With strict instructions not to eat the gutted rabbit, the dog jumped into the boot of the Nova, and we were soon off on our way home. All was right with the world. Life was good. I’d returned to my constant and I never left again. One rabbit you might be thinking…..big deal. Well it was to me. That was nearly 20 years ago and as I said earlier, I can remember it like it was yesterday. Things have changed for me over the years. Too many dogs have come and gone, one wife has fallen by the wayside and I now live in a very different country to the one of my birth. But, and this is a big but, I will always have hunting. That cannot be taken away from me and is, and will always be, my constant. I will always strive to stay true to myself and I wish the same for all of you.