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Patrick Evans on George Ewart Evans & David Thomson, The Leaping Hare

A Hare’s Breadth

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‘I hate ’em meself. They’re too bloody stringy!’ said the gamekeeper, holding up a pair of dead does. I leant out of the poacher’s Range Rover and stroked one of their bellies. The doe was still warm, her tummy full of young and her teats ripe for suckling.

‘Fiver each if you want one?’

We didn’t.

‘I’ll give ’em to the lady vicar instead,’ he said, tugging my sleeve conspiratorially. ‘Big woman, likes her food. She has ’em jugged.’ He sniggered.

This was my first real contact with hares. I had travelled with a hundred Cornishmen to a large Wiltshire farm bordering Stonehenge. The farmer invited us to catch as many live hares as we could for relocation to the South-West, where they are in decline. We caught the hares in long, low nets; their shrill screams rang out over the frozen flint-strewn fields, and three or four died from shock. The Cornish wanted them for sport, eventually, but they had immense respect for the animals. My own emotions about the catch were mixed, and I retreated from the cold February air wanting to find out all I could about the lithe, elusive, beautiful creature I had just met.

The librarian passed me a disintegrating copy of The Leaping Hare, by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson.

‘Spring’s the time to find out about hares,’ she enthused. ‘That’s when you’ll see them most, gallivanting on the new corn.’

Reading the opening chapter, I was immediately sucked into a magical world. The hare’s behaviour confounds science: it may move in a great drove like deer; it sucks milk from cows at pasture; it swims the Suir estuary in Ireland; it is intoxicated by snow, and makes tunnels in it for fun, despite not being a burrowing animal like its cousin the rabbit. And as part of an elaborate, little-understood mating ritual, it will sit transfixed in groups of thirty or forty, watching dancing, boxing males and females spar for attention.

In writing the book, the aut

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‘I hate ’em meself. They’re too bloody stringy!’ said the gamekeeper, holding up a pair of dead does. I leant out of the poacher’s Range Rover and stroked one of their bellies. The doe was still warm, her tummy full of young and her teats ripe for suckling.

‘Fiver each if you want one?’ We didn’t. ‘I’ll give ’em to the lady vicar instead,’ he said, tugging my sleeve conspiratorially. ‘Big woman, likes her food. She has ’em jugged.’ He sniggered. This was my first real contact with hares. I had travelled with a hundred Cornishmen to a large Wiltshire farm bordering Stonehenge. The farmer invited us to catch as many live hares as we could for relocation to the South-West, where they are in decline. We caught the hares in long, low nets; their shrill screams rang out over the frozen flint-strewn fields, and three or four died from shock. The Cornish wanted them for sport, eventually, but they had immense respect for the animals. My own emotions about the catch were mixed, and I retreated from the cold February air wanting to find out all I could about the lithe, elusive, beautiful creature I had just met. The librarian passed me a disintegrating copy of The Leaping Hare, by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson. ‘Spring’s the time to find out about hares,’ she enthused. ‘That’s when you’ll see them most, gallivanting on the new corn.’ Reading the opening chapter, I was immediately sucked into a magical world. The hare’s behaviour confounds science: it may move in a great drove like deer; it sucks milk from cows at pasture; it swims the Suir estuary in Ireland; it is intoxicated by snow, and makes tunnels in it for fun, despite not being a burrowing animal like its cousin the rabbit. And as part of an elaborate, little-understood mating ritual, it will sit transfixed in groups of thirty or forty, watching dancing, boxing males and females spar for attention. In writing the book, the authors consulted the people who knew the hare best, those who saw it in the fields where they worked and hunted: farmers, gamekeepers and lurchermen. Yet these men’s knowledge was not just based on experience, it was influenced by a mythological tradition dating back to primitive man. Cave drawings hint at this tradition and Celtic and Saxon practices confirm its transition into a relatively modern era. This includes the celebration of Easter, so named after the pagan goddess Iastre. Her primary talisman was the hare, and our Easter ‘bunny’ is just a corruption of the original image. The eggs we hide in the garden as children (or adults) were traditionally believed to have been laid by hares, a symbol of the forthcoming fertility of Spring. At one time the hare was thought to be androgynous, just as a human embryo of either sex is initially identical. The hare also has a rare ability to conceive when already pregnant. Both its early and latter-day hunters believed it had the power to metamorphose into human form, and they celebrated this in totemic rituals, donning hares’ ears and imitating its shrieks and leaps. The poacher with whom I travelled to Wiltshire wore a hat made of the head and forepaws of a young dog fox: a glance at him confirmed there was more to our relationship with hares than I had realized. When George Ewart Evans and David Thomson began to collaborate on The Leaping Hare in the early 1970s, they had long been friends. Evans, the son of a Welsh shopkeeper, had for thirty years been working as a writer and oral historian. Thomson, a Scot, and also a writer, was a producer on the BBC’s Third Programme. Each suffered from a disability. Evans was virtually deaf, and applied for a tape recorder. Thomson provided it, and together they subsequently made many programmes about rural life. Thomson himself was more or less blind; he gained an Oxford degree despite having all his books read to him by a female helper. But their greatest bond was a shared passion for stories first told in ancient times that had survived to the present day. They divided the writing of The Leaping Hare chapter by chapter. Originally the book was Thomson’s idea, but he was depressed and unable to tackle it alone: he had already spent two years working on his classic Woodbrook, and it would be another four before that was published. So he asked his old friend George for help, and after writing their respective parts, they swapped and edited each other’s chapters. Reading the book, I became fascinated with trying to decipher whose voice I was hearing. Both men were keen pursuers of a disappearing past: they loved to record the knowledge and folklore of people whose intimacy with the countryside was being swallowed up by mechanization. Evans’s first book, Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay, published in 1956, was the result of eight years’ spent interviewing old people in the Suffolk village where he lived. Many of his sources of information about the hare and its behaviour came from people he got to know in this period. And their voices, like that of Percy Muttit, warrener and gamekeeper, call to those of us who have lived in the British countryside like the bells of a village church:
I see a hare only last year come through the hedge when there was a chap a-rolling a piece o’ corn; came through the hedge with a little leveret in her mouth on to the field and leave it.
Both men, too, owned the sometimes uneasy conscience of an educated mind that revelled in the value of the stories told by the poor and the socially repressed. For all that, The Leaping Hare has little political emphasis except for a wariness of an urban-dominated society. This, it argues, will diminish our understanding of the natural and supernatural forces that once coursed deeply through popular culture. When it was first published, the book’s use of oral history to explain British fauna came under attack from the senior academic establishment. But a younger, less entrenched readership (including Seamus Heaney) embraced the originality of The Leaping Hare’s arguments. Opinions and insights from both scholars and country folk are layered successively, reflecting an oral tradition built on teaching that remained intact in the countryside for centuries. Direct quotations powerfully evoke conversations with gamekeepers and shepherds. We visualize them leaning on a gate, hands clasping the ash shaft of a fork or staff, looking out over the land they are describing and which they know so well. Through their voices the authors explore the dichotomy of our relationship with wildlife: the pleasure we derive from its beauty and vitality, and the sadness we experience in killing it for food or sport. The book laments the increasing distance we feel from such animals in the modern world of supermarkets and ‘managed’ wilderness, and it also reminds us that it is stories that form the fabric of our existence, and that sustain us amidst a transient, evolving universe. It sees man and the hare as spiritual kin, and our relationship with this archetypal creature as emblematic of the ways in which we seek to fathom and control our natural surroundings. For me, too, there was an additional pleasure in reading The Leaping Hare: it introduced me to the work of two often undervalued writers. Though they worked together, they were very different in character. David Gentleman, a close friend of both men and illustrator of some of their books, recalled:
David [Thomson] was a real Scot, a heavy drinker; whenever he stayed with the Evanses, George would be obliged to come home early from the pub, because his wife was a devout Quaker. But David always stayed till closing time, and turned right out of the pub instead of left, and got a lift back with the police.
David’s widow Martina Thomson described Evans to me as a man of ‘proper’ social behaviour, whereas her husband was altogether more emotional: ‘You could see what he was feeling just walking around a room.’ Whenever I see a hare now, I think of what I feel for the countryside and its inhabitants, both human and animal, and I raise my hat and quote from the book: ‘Good day to you, Sir Hare.’ And I also think of the coincidences that united these men in their work, a union for which the reading public (and hares) should be grateful.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 5 © Patrick Evans 2005


About the contributor

Patrick Evans spends a lot of time deciphering regional accents. He is currently writing his first book, about a Cornish boatyard.

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