If pest control could win you medals for bravery, Jim Corbett would have won the VC. The citation would have read something like this: ‘Regardless of his own safety, he repeatedly exposed himself to the greatest danger for the sake of others and by his heroism saved the lives of hundreds of his countrymen.’
I should never have known about Jim Corbett if my paternal grandfather, a colonial policeman in Ceylon, had not given me Man-eaters of Kumaon when I was 8. The stories gripped me, and they grip me still. Recently I lent the book to a grown-up son, then to a friend who is a property developer, and to another friend who is a well-known orchestral conductor. All confessed to being mesmerized. It is easy to explain the effect of such stories on a child brought up in the 1950s. The tiger was the most fearsome creature imaginable – T. Rex had not yet reached us – and to read of an Englishman in India who went out on foot, alone, to shoot man-eating tigers lurking in the jungle made one tremble with apprehension and excitement.
But why should that sort of stuff continue to grip us as adults, in an age when to shoot a tiger for any reason is morally repugnant? The answer, I think, lies in the artlessness of the writing. So incredible were his exploits that Corbett was afraid his stories would be disbelieved, and so unconsciously he followed the sound journalistic maxim that a good tale needs no help: it tells itself. The man’s stamina was astonishing. He walked for miles every day, sat up for nights on end motionless with a rifle, surviving on snatched meals and hot cups of tea; and he did this into his mid-60s. But then his opponents were exceptional: some of these man-eaters had killed between 200 and 400 people apiece. The contrast with travellers’ tales today, when minor hardships are blown up into major dangers, could not be greater.
In the books Corbett wrote of his tiger-hunting, the method is always the same, rather l
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in