Thursday, May 05, 2011

29. The Gamekeeper by Barry Hines

What a great book! The Gamekeeper vaults to the top spot of the books I've read so far in 2011. I know its early days still, but it is going to take some competition to unseat this book. I would almost argue that, within its limited category (documentary fiction?), it is a masterpiece.

I can't even remember where I found it, but the price on the upper right corner says I only paid a dollar for it. It's been sitting on my shelf for a couple years now, tempting me. I was both strongly attracted to its subject matter but also quite nervous about its dangers. It's the story of a gamekeeper on a Duke's lands in Northern England in the '70s. I was quite excited about reading about the nature of the work, the setting and the social relations. My fears were that it would either be masochistically self-pitying throughout like some British works from that period or that it would have some terrible turn of events, such as a brutal and forced change of lifestyle for the worse for the protagonist or some terrible cruelty to animals. I'm sensitive about these things and generally won't read books where I know that the plot hinges on those elements. To me, it is a form of pornography for certain readers who get off on feeling others' pain. I have nothing against pornography, it's just my kind of literary pornography involves capable men dealing efficiently with difficult situations.

I actually had this trepidation throughout at least the first half of the book. It wasn't until I was very close to being done that I realized, with a great deal of satisfaction, that Hines was not going to pull any kind of narrative trick to force an emotional response. On the contrary, by simply telling the story of a year in the life of a gamekeeper, he elicits a powerful sympathy to the plight of the working man and lays bare the utter insanity of the hierarchical social system in England. Even that social argument is delivered subtly and really only comes out at the end. Most of the book is a beautifully written and detailed account of the life and work of a man whose responsibility is to raise pheasants and grouse in a privately-held forest in Northern England so that the owner of the land, the Duke, can come and shoot them once a year.

I would not recommend this book for everybody and I recognize that a part of my appreciation for it is that its subject matter touches on so many of my own personal interests (the pastoral countryside, self-sufficiency, British class relations). Nevertheless, I can definitely argue that this is an excellently-written book. The descriptions of the land, the sounds, the colours and the activities will take you away from whereever you are and put you right in that countryside. He also describes geography, interior layouts and technical procedures (how certain traps work, the different processes for hatching pheasant eggs, the cleaning and loading of a weapon) with a facility that makes it easy to picture and understand for the layman (as well as making it interesting and engaging even for someone who may not care about such details). The book has no chapters, with sections separated by double spaces, and it just flows from one activity to the next. The focus of each section is what the gamekeeper is doing, but it includes all the small side details and especially the human element.

George Purse, the gamekeeper in question, is stoic, hardworking and conscientious about his job almost to a fault. You learn that he took the lower-paying job to get out of the steel mills. He has an equally hard-working wife and two boys. They live in a small cottage on the property that isolates them socially from the families that live together in the council housing estates. His job is to raise as many pheasants as possible and to do this he captures them every year, mates them and oversees the hatching of their eggs. He also encourages wild propogation as well. He has to constantly battle against predators such as foxes, rats and crows and he goes after them with a cold efficiency and a nation's memory of tricks. He also has to fight against poachers, who hunt the birds to supplement their own meagre income or for their dinner table.

There is a lot of subtext about who has the right to the land. I don't know if the situation is still the same in England today (this was written in 1975), but it seems insane that there are huge tracts of country that are solely dedicated to the hunt. This argument, I suspect, is a big one in Britain and I will do some research into it later. On the other hand, these gamekeepers take very good care of the land (though in a very controlling way that emphasizes pheasant growth over all the other creatures), probably better than if nobody or private interests owned it. The contradiction of spending a year taking great care of these birds only to have them massacred is not lost on George either.

And the hunt itself really is weird. I've heard of beaters before, but I never realized how totally lame this entire method is. Basically, a bunch of aristocrats show up (these are called Guns). Each has a loader who has prepared their two guns. They go into a butt (a little hut) and wait. The beaters walk in a line, beating the ground and trees, driving all the birds forward so that they come out in a clearing and the Guns just start blasting away. Once they shoot, the loader hands them their second gun and re-loads the first. This goes on intensely for 45 minutes or so until the beaters come up to the butt. Then they take a break, pick up the hundreds of dead birds and start from the other side. There is some skill in aiming and firing steadily, but otherwise, for the Guns, this is not even something I could honestly call a hunt. It's really just a shooting gallery.

I note that there is an economic element. The Guns all get some birds to take home and the host cooks up a bunch for their meal, but the majority are sent to markets and restaurants all over Britain. I think there is a traditional day as well, the Twelfth, when people dine particularly on pheasant. The whole operation from beginning to end is so work-intensive and involves such a complex hierarchy of labour and money that it can only exist in a society that is firmly entrenched in its rigid social structures. You can see hints of these structures finally starting to break down in the book: the land that was once all owned by aristocrats is going over to industrialists, the beaters organize a minor strike for a raise, schoolboys tear down some butts (which is seen as an act of pure vandalism, but is actually misguided political will). And every now and then Hines will juxtapose the incredible wealth of the upper classes with that of the men that serve them. A single hunting shotgun is worth far more than several years of George's salary for instance. The shotgun was given to a landowner by his tenants as a gift for his 21st birthday during the height of the depression and massive strikes in Britain.

I did some reading on Hines and he is considered to be a part of the Angry Young Men movement of Britain in the 60s and 70s. It's not super obvious from The Gamekeeper, but you get hints of it. I suspect in his other novels the politics are much more apparent. His first is about a working class athlete who conflicts with the system (sounds a lot like The Sporting Life) and his best known about a working class boy who can only relate to a bird of prey he tames. Based on the total success of the Gamekeeper, I'm very curious to read more of Hines' work, but I'm a bit freaked out about the others being not as subtle as this one. If anybody else is familiar with his work and has some recommendations, I'd love to hear them. In any case, a great book.


Jason L said...

Interesting stuff. Very thoughtful review.

That sort of "hunting" is done all over Europe and accounts for the serious decline in all types of native birds.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Yeah, they don't just kill the pheasants, but everything that comes running or flying out of the field. It's quite the slaughter. No surprise that some species don't survive centuries of that.

Book Glutton said...

I've had this book for several years but have never got around to reading it - and I never thought I would ever read a rave review of it like the one you just posted. I bought it (cheaply, same edition) because I am fascinated by accounts of how people used to work the land not so long ago - knowledge that was once commonplace that is now (seemingly) largely forgotten.

Like Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male - everyone raves about how it is such a great thriller but to me, the amazing part is the way he writes about the hunting and survival skills Lord No Name has. That stuff might be deadly dull in nonfiction but in a novel, it can be utterly fascinating. I got the feeling I could learn about similar things in The Gamekeeper. I've taken my copy off the shelf and hope to get to it soon.

Jen said...

My husband is a gamekeeper, and I work on the shoot with him . But, I'm American. I find the social system fascinating and horrifying in equal parts.

You also highlighted the odd position the keeper inhabits between hatching and caring for young pheasants then watching them shot only months later. I wouldn't use the word 'slaughtered' perhaps - at best only a third of the birds raised are shot, the rest escape and remain as part of the countryside fauna.

I'd never heard of this book before, and I've just ordered a copy to read for myself. Thank you for bringing it, and gamekeeping, into the wider world.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Jen, thanks a lot for your comment! I just went and checked out your blog and it is most impressive. I'm glad to know that there are still gamekeepers around today, but I hope the class relations aren't quite as severe as they are portrayed in the book. I'm very curious to hear your take on it.

Thanks again and now I'm going to go start working my through your back posts!

Jen said...

Thanks for the kind words. If only things had progressed. No, sadly, the system is still based on the same class divide. It hasn't changed since the Edwardian period. In fact, we work for an Earl and Countess.

One day we can walk away, which makes some of the difficulties bearable (unlike our counterparts a hundred years ago). Blogging about it helps too, though I have to be careful to respect privacy. Can't wait to read the book!

I will be checking back with your blog for more book suggestions. Good luck with your project!

Anonymous said...

If you liked The Gamekeeper you should also try Kes(or Kestral for a knave) by the same author as well as The Goshawk by T. H. White. There is a film of Kes, please read the book first, and it is I can assure you true to life.

Neil Jackson said...

I also have this edition of The Gamekeeper. It's not just an amazingly subtle dissection of the English class system, but also a great example of writing about the English countryside in an unsentimental way, showing us the darker side that the peak-season tourist doesn't notice. In this respect it's similar to All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills - just slightly more rooted in gritty realism than Mills.

OlmanFeelyus said...

All Quiet on the Orient Express, hmmm. Never heard of it. Thanks for the comment and the tip, Neil!