On reading, and running with, Siegfried Sassoon
My year of graduate work in Cambridge, England was a somewhat bleak and desperate affair, coinciding with a bout of depression that could perhaps have been shortened or ameliorated if I had been assigned hard agricultural labor, a daily column of local news to fill, or double shifts as a postal carrier, rather than being given an apartment and a library card and complete freedom from all responsibility. I was in my then-usual attire and position – smelly pajamas, blanket over shoulders, cold oatmeal managed with the left hand and laptop managed with the right – when a mass email came over the university transom. The Cambridge Drag Hounds Club was looking for a “fox.”
I grew up in rural Pennsylvania surrounded by deer hunters. Our yard, a former apple orchard with trees in variously picturesque or grotesque decline, was perennially attractive to wild animals. In consequence, my mother was continually shooing away hunters building surreptitious tree stands at the bounds of our property, where they’d wait in silence and camo facepaint for a deer to step into their crosshairs after glutting on half-rotten windfall fruit. Hunters were silent, spooky presences, like green plastic GI figures blown up to life size. They did not seem to move, unless it was to fall out of trees, as my sister’s friend’s father did, breaking his neck.
British fox hunting is another matter, loud, kinetic, and vicious. The medieval sport was rendered more humane, if more bizarrely abstracted, in 2004, when Parliament passed the Hunting Act, which banned using more than two dogs to hunt a live mammal. (Until Theresa May’s government hit a new low in popularity this year and mere survival became the imperative, she had kept a repeal of the Hunting Act prominently on the Tory to-do list, citing the usual “way-of-life”/”values”-y rhetorical readymades.) Drag hunting – chasing after animal scent in lieu of actually fleeing animals – arose to fill the void. This Drag Hounds club was apparently in search of a human who could run ten miles on a Saturday morning such that a subsequent pack of dogs could, at some point later in the day, follow their nose and lead their brightly-clad masters on a pastoral romp. Runner gets forty pounds sterling.
From where I sit today, this looks like one of the more heartbreakingly clownish manifestations of the so-called gig economy. At the time, though, the email seemed to betoken some kind of providence. The salvific potential of a run that I would be constrained to complete!
I should explain here that running seems to be both a cause and an effect of my temperament’s autumnal and vernal equinoxes, when darkness and light are in balance. When my inner calendar is summer solstice, all highs, I am not running because I am likely falling in love, tossing off poems, shopping for outrageous attire, performing splendid feats of procrasti-baking avant la lettre. At my winter solstices of mood I am likewise prevented from running, being nearly always asleep, in tears, or curled on the couch reading Simone Weil in multiple sweaters, whatever the objective calendar date. More and more I live at my equinoxes, but in my late teens and early twenties it felt like all solstices, the bright and the black. Perhaps a run would force a reset.
Early that morning, a pickup truck arrived for me, headlights still ablaze in the February dark. The truck in itself was cheering – I wasn’t even sure they had these in the UK, and clambering in the back made me feel that I was in some way home, in the land of my own childhood. Every other aspect of the rendezvous, however, was discomfiting. The two young men in the front seats, Jack and Inscrutable-Mumble, were scarcely intelligible, speaking at a pitch of posh crossed with a rurality of the landowning that made words seem to effervesce not from the mouth but directly off the nasal septum like a pedal steel. They wore matching and spotless Barbour coats over equally luminous button-downs and trousers, with pretend-to-work, faintly glowing boots.
I generally stand behind my principle of avoiding specific accouterments of running – what appeals to me most, after its psychotropic properties, is its democratic vistas, that billions of humans can do it – but that day I regretted my pit-stained sweatshirt and pilled, thinning tights, my small and close-fitting cap perhaps best described as surgico-religious in form. After several repetitions of the same phoneme patterns, I came to understand that the young men were asking me if I knew friends of theirs who resided in my same Cambridge college. I did not. The truck cab lapsed into silence. This was England’s coldest winter in years. Though the Lenten rose and the crocus had already come up, the morning was still jagged with occasional five-minute bursts of snow.
As an undergraduate in the U.S., I’d taken a class on the English poets of the First World War. I see now that I was too young for it; I didn’t deserve them. In the solipsism of my twenty years, their rising indignation felt suitable, a ready-to-wear garment for life’s small affronts – petty academic injustices, treacherous frenemies, the image of President George W. Bush frozen in a post office or animate like a pet-shop window in one’s peripheral vision on a waiting room TV. The incipient realization, taken very personally, as though I had been singled out for duping, that a “drone” was not just an insect, a drudge, or the bass-line of a bagpipe tune. Poetry decorated these angers. But only the very young or very stupid treat the corpus of poetry as an anthology of potential captions for the reader’s own life.
Where I could most reliably comprehend these poets as, invaluably, not-me, was in reading their prose. It is perhaps for that reason that their memoirs and autobiographical novels (Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, Siegfried Sassoon’s Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, Edward Thomas’s essays and letters) have imprinted on me more than their more famous, objectively better, poetry. Sassoon’s first volume of an autobiographical trilogy, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928), sprang to mind as soon as the email advert had arrived, and I likely would not have finally agreed to board the pickup truck and set off for the unspecified estate if it hadn’t been for Sassoon’s assurances.
Sassoon’s title is somewhat misleading, as there are some fox-hunting scenes but a great deal more ink spilled on youth itself, outdoors and in. The author’s continental name, courtesy of an English mother who loved Wagner (hence “Siegfried”) and an originally Iraqi-Jewish father (“Sassoon”) was likely felt at times as an inconvenience upon its bearer, his life having coincided with two major wars against Germany, one of which he fought. Needless to say, most English of his period didn’t particularly favor Germans, and those who did were unlikely to particularly favor Jews. (It was for this reason that real-kid Sassoon wore brass knuckles on the schoolyard.) The story of adult Sassoon’s growing disgust with the First World War, his near-suicidal acts of martial bravery, his open-letter “Soldier’s Declaration” on the war’s rapacity and absurdity, and his subsequent commitment to the same psychiatric hospital as Wilfred Owen is all well known. (If it doesn’t ring a bell, read Pat Barker’s Regeneration in a pinch.)
Less known outside England and a few American oddballs like myself is Sassoon’s alter ego George Sherston (the much blander name seems deliberate), particularly the bucolic George of the first volume of Memoirs. Young Sherston grows up in Kent, learns to hunt and play cricket, and generally manages to excel at childhood and youth while maintaining a dreamy, melancholic nature that keeps his aesthetic sense intact without in any way compromising his horsemanship. In general shape and ambition, it’s Proust’s Combray plus sports, except the war comes much faster, not three thousand pages later but at the end of the very first volume, when Sherston heads to the front and almost immediately suffers the deaths of nearly every male character encountered in the preceding two hundred pages.
Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is a kind of modern Georgics (see what S. did there?) in which the ethic of the land is codified and revealed. Days are punctuated by “the soft clatter of pigeon wings… at the approach of one of the well-nourished cats,” or “Aunt Evelyn with a green bee-veil over her head.” Cats will stalk pigeons and humans will expropriate honey from bees; the country life is rude but just in its predictability. The same rude justice holds in the world of the hunt, where the worst mortifications seem to be the accidental dropping of one’s riding crop, a muddy fall, and a reflexive, embarrassing cry of sympathy at the sighting of a fox pursued. All these are quickly righted by invitations to co-ed dances and the next cricket match or hunting meet. Prior to the inassimilable and impending war, life is brave and amusing, and displeasures are quickly redressed.
Sassoon’s scandalizing 1917 open letter “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration” ends as follows:
On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.
That the author of these lines could, a decade later, set himself to write an autofiction of such willed and thorough naiveté is nothing short of astonishing, and part of the book’s eerie Kindertotenlieder appeal.
It was with Sassoon/Sherston in mind that I arrived at the manor, comforted by the idea that among the hunters and ritzy types there would be secret Siegfried/Georges, closeted lefties and war protesters and poets manqués.
As we approached our destination outside Peterborough, Inscrutable-Mumble got on his phone. By now the soft murmurings between him and Jack had gone on long enough for me to have deciphered the accent.
“Hello? Mum?” Inscrutable asked his mother to bring whiskey and a crowbar to the meet. He appeared satisfied with her response. After he hung up, I waited a few decorous minutes, then asked after his intentions. He explained that his desk at college had gotten jammed shut so many times that he couldn’t bring himself to ask the porter to have a go at it again. Hence crowbar. The whiskey, obviously, was just hunt tradition.
Having been reawakened to my presence, Jack thanked me again for agreeing to run. It was such awful work, and so hard to convince a runner to do it more than once. They’d blown through most of the local cross-country teams, and the marathon junkies too. It was hard to know what to say to this besides “you’re welcome.”
Jack then went on to tell me that if I ever did run for them a second time, I’d be wiser not to wear tights. The older hunters were a lewd bunch. The gardeners and groundskeepers were worse. He might’ve told me at my doorstep, I thought, thinking of my large collection of ratty, airship-wide sweats.
We arrived at a beautiful old mansion hidden in woods. Still in the parking lot, I was immediately introduced to one of the men whom I’d expressly been warned by name to avoid in leggings. Jack and Inscrutable disappeared. The man offered me a ride in his truck to show me around the course. Caught between possibly imminent harassment and the certain indignity of getting lost in the woods, I chose the former and got in the truck. Plus, he was clearly some form of hired help, like me. Maybe Jack had only named him out of class prejudice. To my relief, there were three antsy hound dogs sharing the space between him and me.
He gave me a baffling terrain map and then pointed out the route from the truck. It turned out that the run was not a single ten-mile loop but rather three three-mile loops. I already had the sinking feeling that I was not spatially intelligent enough for this – particularly with the new snow, the patchwork of fields and woods seemed to radiate identically from every angle, a pallid kaleidoscope with me at its center. Not wanting to corroborate a probably benighted view of the female sex, I kept nodding enthusiastically while taking notes on the back of the map. We
returned to the parking lot, where people in beautiful green coats were already tending to their horses and hounds. I was told to wait for a man named Henry, who would “give me the scent” and send me on my way.
By this time it was about 11 o’clock. The boys I’d come with had never re-materialized. I was frozen, ridiculous, hungry. The green coats had become a puffing, boot-stamping crowd with adorable vintage thermoses and occasional glints of smaller flasks, the latter less and less covert as the morning went on. I overheard someone say that the riders and hounds would start at – was it one o’clock? I was too chastened by my attire and my middling decipherment of local speech to ask.
I did a quick calculation to assure myself that there was still plenty of time for my run, then hunched further into my coat to keep warm and go over the map. The map made no sense. I tried closing my eyes and walking the course in my head – down the slope, past the bramble hedge, sharp turn after the sheep with the black head – no, not a reliable marker, it might have moved. I checked my handwritten instructions. They were much more hurried and less detailed than they had seemed half an hour ago while composing them. Mostly phrases like “RIGHT @ OAK. UP HILL. JUMP. LEFT @ FAT TREE. STRAIGHT. JUMP. RIGHT @ BUSHES. JUMP.”
Around 12:30, the house’s fine gravel car park grew deserted as all the riders, horses, and dogs assembled on the front lawn. I could no longer feel my feet from the mid-arch out. I sat on the hood of someone’s car, the warmest spot I could find.
A woman drove up in an SUV and rolled down the window. “Are you the runner?” she called. Yes. “Well, you’d better get going – everyone thought you left hours ago.” Very close to tears, my voice came out in a whine – “But I haven’t met a Henry yet, and I don’t have the scent!” She drove off. A few minutes later, a portly
older man bustled towards me.
“Don’t I need ‘the scent’ or something?”
“Yes, yes, go and grab it from the truck. You’re late.”
“I don’t even know what I’m looking for!”
We stood in mutually incensed standoff. Then he turned and dug into one of the truck beds, coming up with a shriveled, matted fox corpse tied to a few yards of rope.
“You can hold the rope, or you can tie it round your waist. Just make sure the scent touches ground the entire time.” It was 12:55.
“Scent” is not, I think, the right word for an animal’s body. It completely misses the other four senses, the sight of the greasy coat, the sound and weight of its slithering behind one. But it is completely correct in making odor the most immediate and unforgettable feature. Tying the rope around my waist would have brought this flesh a little closer to me, whereas by holding the end of the rope I gained a few feet of distance. So I began running, far too fast, dragging the scent like a kite that refuses to launch.
What happened for the next ten minutes is very hard to recollect. I was running very fast, getting the route about half-right. A taste like dirty pennies was in my throat. The “jumps” turned out to be much higher than they had looked from the truck, and I was losing precious seconds lumbering over them and reeling the dead fox up and over along with me. And as mentioned, I had not been running in some time, not since some dimly-remembered equanimity, and my body was almost immediately tight with distress and fatigue.
After about a mile, the first of the hounds caught up, grabbed the fox corpse, and refused to let go. I kept running, slowly dragging the hound along with me. Reverse dogsledding. Soon there were over a dozen hounds, all happily jumping on me and the scent. The first rider called them off and urged me to run on ahead. The dogs were called off and the riders stopped in a puzzled heap, gave me about five minutes, then shouted whatever goonish cry gets the hounds going.
The Romantic poet John Clare, himself eventually driven mad by the predations of poverty and drink, is the single greatest portraitist of prey, how the hunted become simple, stark, robbed of reason by the relentless of the chase.
With nose on ground he runs an awkward pace,
And anything will beat him in the race.
The shepherd's dog will run him to his den
Followed and hooted by the dogs and men. (“The Badger”)
I was exhausted from nerves and my earlier sprint, so in the whole five minutes I probably advanced less than half a mile. In a few instants, the hounds were at my heels, rending my leggings, delighted with this new game.
The Master of the Hunt, identifiable by his singularly baroque and ugly jacket, rode up to me.
“Everything all right?”
“Well, we’ll just hold the hounds again and give you another head start.”
The idea of another humiliating half-mile was unbearable.
They get a forked stick to bear him down
And clap the dogs and take him to the town,
And bait him all the day with many dogs,
And laugh and shout and fright the scampering hogs.
The frequent stone is hurled where e'er they go;
When badgers fight, then every one's a foe.
Unsurprisingly for my age, sex, and nationality, my first instinct was to apologize profusely for the petty catastrophe I’d wreaked, and, moreover, the ugly picture I made. My second instinct was to complain, and defend myself: the poor communication, the labyrinthine terrain, the snow, the ill-mannered dogs. The third and middle way, finding both options unacceptable, was simply to avoid his gaze and eke out a flat, unmistakeable “No.”
There was a long silence. “You’re sure you can’t? Well then.”
He turned to the pack of riders. “Jack?”
Jack trotted forward, looking intensely distraught – though whether
out of pity, disappointment, or embarrassment at our faint connection, I’ll never know. Jack reached for the rope, I handed it to him, and away he rode. This time I stood with the riders and hounds while Jack got his head start. Then they left, too, and I was alone in a field except for a line of cars I hadn’t noticed before, parked at the crest of the ridge, full of families watching their loved ones ride so beautifully on the sharp winter day.
A few minutes later, Henry drove up in his truck and offered me a lift. The warmth of the car was delicious. He told me not to take it too hard, that lots of other runners had quit – most had made it a touch farther along – and that I had heart. I must have still looked despondent, since he then tried to cheer me by
showing how he could pop his dentures in and out of place with his tongue, or wiggle them side-to-side. This was indeed distracting. He told me about his six grandchildren and his hope to retire soon. He asked about my life, and I told him that I studied literature but now found myself at loose ends, utterly disgusted with my life and situation. He had no advice. He did, however, offer me cookies and cigarettes, in the most generous act I had witnessed all day.
When the chase was over and we returned once more to the parking lot,
I was in the difficult position of wanting to find Jack, my ride home, as quickly as possible, while being seen ideally by no one. I skittered around the edge like a morose sandpiper. As at any sporting event, people were rehashing each play in numbing detail – but unlike most sports, this one features dogs and dog-owners, the latter of whom tend to be the globe’s most intransigent old-school gender fanatics when it comes to their chattel, such that I kept hearing things like “Can you believe what that bitch did?” or “And then the bitch went completely mad!” or simply, “What a bitch!” Needless to say, this did little for my peace.
Eventually I resumed my post on the hood of Jack’s car, and eventually the crowd began evaporating as mysteriously as it had just before the chase. I was cold again. At last Jack strode towards the car, sandwich and steaming mug in hand.
“There’s tea in the gun room if you want.” He presumably wouldn’t drive off with another family’s nice porcelain mug. Perhaps I had a minute. I was shamefully ravenous, considering the brevity of my part in the hunt. I piled a plate with coffee cake and found a spot next to the fireplace where I could slouch, half-hidden by the projecting mantel. I counted over thirty taxidermied creatures on the
walls, always in positions of theatrical, glassy-eyed surprise. “The dead are more real than the living because they are more complete,” Sassoon wrote in his diary. More complete, and in their resistance to our advances, our pleas for attention and care, more honest than those niceties of the living that are extended and as abruptly withdrawn, having often come about by social reflexes and narrative templates driven by their own internal devices, in which we recipients of those almost accidental exertions are minor characters played by an available understudy.
I am braced by the astringency of Sassoon’s words in the “Soldier’s Declaration” about insufficient imagination being the force that created and prolonged war. He does not say, as others have, that with proper exercise and airing – perhaps a few book-clubs and field trips and visualization techniques – the imagination can become a more sculpted, muscular thing, and the populace more empathic and less inclined to violence and predation. There is simply an atrophy in most or all of us. We act according to the shrinking diminutives of what we know and are pleased by. Sassoon’s line of thought may not be absolute truth – I think it is not – but it is a good deal more honest than the Panglossian carnival-barkers invoking “imagination” and its pop-gun, “creativity,” as so many hobby sports that are not just diverting, but additionally and salubriously improve our moral aim.
Someone cleared his throat next to me. It was Henry, counting out forty pounds. Jack was at his side. I demurred, not having fulfilled my end. Jack looked pleasantly surprised at my correctness, but Henry was determined. This went on for some time, Jack’s pleasure shaded towards a bored distaste where small haggling was concerned, and he walked off. Finally Henry suggested that I take half, to which I agreed.
“And,” Henry added, his hand on my hand with the money pressed between, “the old man gets a kiss.” Before I could interpret this, much less react, I found his lips on mine for an excessively long moment. He turned away immediately to take his portion of tea and cake, hanging back, of course, for all the people of consequence to have their share first and take their ease. Thus ended for certain my career as a scent-layer for the foxhunters of England.