Illustration by David Rook
This was part of last year’s Christmas acquisitions, I think. Picked up by my Mum in a sale in some Donegal library, probably because it reminded her of my childhood obsession with Colin Daan and Tom McCaughren. Unlike them, Joyce Stranger is as interested by the human society within and around which her animals must find their place, and chooses a neutral, pastoral tone rather than the uncompromisingly pro-animal narratives of the others. It was quite lucky that I happened to be doing some reference checking for someone way outside my field when reading this actually, so that I encountered William Empson’s theorisation of the pastoral, with its kinship to proletarian literature. The Running Foxes would probably fit quite nicely into his framework for these things, where harmonies can be found among controversies by the use of a double plot.
The book tells the story of one year in a Cumberland valley in the 1960s. The two strands are: the rural life of a small community, centred on the men who hunt foxes on foot with their fell hounds, and the wild lives of two fox cubs born to a wily vixen, whose territory overlaps with that of the hunt. I compare it to Empson’s pastoral because of the nobility of the poor hunt that is portrayed: in Cumbria their dogs are rougher and tougher than the usual foxhounds, and they’re contrasted with the rich hunts that go about on horseback in their pinks. The huntsman is a retiree, leading the pack for the love of it, whilst each man raises and cares for his own dog, often sacrificing his own dinner for the sake of the dog’s comfort. If you’re going to write a ‘neutral’ take on fox hunting and rural life in twentieth century Britain, you want your human characters to have that shine of the simple life, people who are proud and stoic in the face of the changes around them, the ‘deserving poor’ in essence, who work hard and never ask for a handout, but represent the salt-of-the-earth, half-imagined pastoral pre-history of our own society.
I grew up in the countryside, and my first best friend, the only primary school friend I still have any meaningful contact with, is from a great hunting family. My Mum’s family were once the same; a great aunt’s hunt-wedding was covered by Pathé news. But whist I loved horse-riding, I was a sanctimonious little child who had no time for those who gained pleasure from killing wild animals. I’m still inclined that way, but eventually my uncompromising views softened for all the usual reasons, and although I’m glad we have the ban now, I’m also — with reservations — pleased the communities built around hunting can survive as drag-hunting groups (providing that is indeed all they are). They’re not large communities anymore, and the landscape fondly remembered by older generations doesn’t exist anymore, nor do the networks of local alliances between landholders work in the same way. But there is something to be said for the way the meet functions in rural society, and for the great affection the people involved have for their dogs and their horses, and for the joy of riding in a group, over land that you know well. There’s a combination of hardness and pragmatism with a soft-hearted irrationality in it that rings true to me from Stranger’s book.
Joyce Stranger, despite choosing an easily sympathetic community to portray, does also love her animals. She has a keen eye for the details of changing seasons and for the ecosystems she describes, writing scenery with breadth and depth, linking the movement of the foxes across the land to all other watchers with twitching whiskers or watering eyes. She also strikes just the right tone when depicting the actions of animals, both domesticated and wild, never sliding too far into mawkish or sentimental anthropomorphism. The vixen’s bewilderment at her injury, the thoughtless gamboling of the escaped dogs, and the instincts of the aged terrier all hit home emotionally without her ever ascribing human emotion to an animal: it’s the lack of conditions attached to them that make us respond so willingly to an animal’s apparent affection or its needs, and Stranger understands that intimately.
There’s a similar unconditional nature to her people that can be effective in bursts, but is part of the picture of idealised poverty presented. The old man, Jasper, on whom the perspective so often settles, is a human reminder of the progress that marches on around the valley. He’s a leftover from the nineteenth century who makes the young men as uneasy as thoughts of future council estates, or the prices Americans are willing to pay for old farmhouse tat. Yet despite the changes and tensions in their world, and one inevitable incident aside, Stranger is kind to her characters: there’s peril here and there, but surprisingly little of it has lasting consequences. Life goes on inexorably and good luck comes to people through accident and coincidence, so that they come to associate the two wild foxes with a surprisingly prosperous outcome to an otherwise dire winter.
Bad people aren’t really to be found in Stranger’s community either. The ones who abuse their dogs are away a few villages over; the chap sent to jail, leaving behind a homeless hound, is never encountered; the trappers are never shown setting their traps. Indeed, even the foxes in this valley are better than others — over the way, those foxes were lazy and stupid and stole from the farmers coops. Now if only foxes could be smart like the two in Stranger’s book, and if people could be decent and respectful of them, like the people in the book, then we’d never have any controversy about the subject at all! Hm. Unlikely. But despite the idealised view of things, the book’s still full of gorgeous nature writing, and the relationships — both cultivated and natural — between people, animals, land and seasons, are lovingly described. It’s a bit of a never-was world, but it sees the best in what was real, and maybe offers a level of nuance that’s more surprising to those previously unaware of the motivations of one side or the other.