The romance of fall

24 October 2013

2:00 PM

24 October 2013

2:00 PM

The fall: one of the few instances where American English is superior to English English. ‘Autumn’ has a comfortable charm, but ‘fall’ captures the pathos of evanescence. This might seem curious, for in New England the fall is grandiloquent. Nature is rarely so glorious, so defiant. In Glen Lyon last week, there was more of a sense of fall. When the sun shone, the greens and yellows and browns still danced: mid-autumn spring. Outside my bedroom window there was a rowan tree, with an exuberance of blood-red berries. Yet there was an aura of transience — the natural world falling gently into winter’s grasp — and the hills were swathed in mist. In a few weeks, the Glen will be ice and bleak midwinter.

Our party had come to shoot stags. Apropos of glory and defiance, a hillside full of roaring stags is hard to surpass. But we killed in comfort. A well-run Highland lodge is a fine place for chateau generalship. Lying in a huge old-fashioned bath, up to one’s face mask in peaty water, a glass of peaty whisky close at hand: there are worse billets. The cellar was endowed with the mellow fruitfulness of previous autumns. We ate and drank well. Liz’s venison Wellington was a three-rosette dish: Simon Bize’s burgundies a superb accompaniment. 2005 is a great Burgundian vintage. The Bize ’05 Bourgogne rouge: I have drunk premier crus which were lesser wines, and the Savigny-les-Beaune is coming along magnificently. I remember hailing Natalie Tollot’s 2005 Savigny as the best I had ever drunk. Now, I am less sure.

As Natalie demonstrates, girls make excellent vignerons. They are also good with a rifle. Deer-stalking is a stressful business. You can pursue a stag all day before finally getting a shot. If you cock it up, you are condemned to a black fog of profound self-loathing. But male stalkers are often vulnerable, because they are under intense machismatic pressure. The ladies are more relaxed. They absorb the stalker’s teachings. They then perform well on the target, so that their confidence is boosted before they face the real thing. They put the cross-hairs where they ought to be, squeeze the trigger, and…

It is delightful to see a girl contemplating a beast rather larger than herself which is lying dead in the heather, fallen to her gun, while she is asking ‘did I really do that?’ before being blooded. The joyous faces in the gun-room at the end of the day, still wearing the triumphant war-paint, telling and re-telling the story of the stalk,  incredulous at their success: Earth has not anything to show more fair.

Stalking is like Wagner. No one ever says: ‘I can take it or leave it.’ You will either recoil, damning the whole business as incomprehensible, or you will succumb to the obsession.

Some start young. Miss Florence King is a girl of whom the world will hear more. At the age of three, taken to Glen Lyon, she was bitterly disappointed when she was not allowed to shoot a stag. To quell her lamentations, Florry was given an antler, which she took to bed to cuddle. Her teddy-bear was forgotten. She and the antler were inseparable.

This year, still not shooting, she was allowed into the game larder as a consolation. She watched entranced as the stags were beheaded, their legs cut off below the knee, their hearts removed for the stalker’s dogs — and their tackle sliced off. That goes to China, where dried stag’s pizzle is used as an aphrodisiac (anything that spares the rhino horn). One evening, Florrie was reluctant to finish off her carrots. Mummy was obdurate. If you don’t eat those, no game larder. Capitulation was instant.

Game larders are seasonal, and rare in cities. But if your toddlers will not eat their greens, it might be worth bribing them with visiting rights at the local butcher’s, or slaughterhouse.

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