Friday, 12 February 2016

Gone to Earth

I do not think you could call the lads real animal lovers. It's not that they actually hated animals, but just that they never thought about them, or if they did then it was with a cold detachment quite alien to our national character. This antipathy extended even to dogs. I doubt if any of the lads ever owned a dog, and if they did then the poor bloody mongrel would have had no doggy vitamins to slaver over, but would have had to make do with common steak like the rest of us. The image of Big Harry, for example, squatting on his massive haunches and murmuring "Poochy, poochy, poochy," to one of those little miniatures is not one which springs readily to mind, you must admit. He once kicked a bulldog up the arse, mark you, but that was because the savage brute bit him for tresspassing, so it should not be construed as a sign of affection.

I am fully aware that this sort of attitude puts the lads beyond the pale for many people. I mean all those animal lovers who spend hours grooming their horses so that they can hunt foxes, or pat their dog with real affection as they wait to empty both barrels into some unsuspecting grouse. And yet, despite this, the lads had a compassion which went deeper than one would imagine, looking at their craggy, weather beaten faces.

It puts me in mind of the time Sorrowful Jones took part in a fox hunt: not officially, of course, because Sorrowful was not really one of the county set. It happened one spring in the Lake District, when Sorrowful was out of work and spending a few idle days alone, wandering the fells and sleeping rough. He had started his walk in Langdale as usual; had a flaming row with a couple of blokes at the Wall End Barn, and escaped into a westering sun over Rossett  Ghyll to Wasdale, there to commune with nature. He made his bed by some big boulders below the awful scree slopes which sweep down from Scafell Crag: a cliff of sheer, black, forbidding rock and not the sort of place I would choose to sleep, myself. But Sorrowful is funny that way, something of a masochist. He's the only bloke I know who prefers to sleep on hard rock. I reckon he has a Japanese ancestor somewhere in his twisted family tree— although the permanent yellow cast to his skin comes from not washing too often.

He slept until the warm spring sun was into the sky, then he rose and stretched, batted the dust out of his clothes, and scrambled over to a nearby beck where he obtained a panful of water for the coffee which formed his breakfast. He had two sweet cups that morning, bulked out by a forgotten crispbread which he discovered in his rucksack, then he packed away his petrol stove and mug and prepared for the forthcoming day. And a lovely day it was too: such a day as can only happen in the Lakes in spring. The sunshine made the rocks glow with warmth, the becks tinkled like fairy pianos, and the new lambs bleated for their mothers in the valley below. The sky was blue, with puffs of pure white cloud to break the monotony, and even old Scafell itself seemed less broody, as though it acknowledged the day as perfect. What with all these signs of Nature's annual rebirth, and the warmth and promise of the day, Sorrowful felt pretty good. As he walked towards the cliffs he even burst into snatches of song: "Caviare comes from the virgin sturgeon, The virgin sturgeon is a very fine fish, The virgin sturgeon needs no urgin', That's why caviare is my dish.'

He was trying to remember the second verse of this immortal ballad, which had something to do with grandpa chasing grandma up a tree, when he came face to face with a fox. Now there are a great many foxes in the Lake District but this was the first time that Sorrowful had ever seen one so close, and it is difficult to imagine which was the more surprised of the two. On balance, I reckon the fox — seeing as how there are lots of foxes but only one Sorrowful Jones. Whatever effect the appearance of Sorrowful had on the fox's mind we shall never know, for the animal was already in a state of terror. It made no move to escape; instead it just lay on the ledge where it had ensconced itself, panting away so that its shaggy golden coat heaved in and out like the bosom of a film starlet doing weight lifting exercises. Although Sorrowful was not much of a judge of horseflesh, he could tell the fox was a young one, that it had been running hard, and that it was all but buggered, as the saying goes.

"Poor little sod," said Sorrowful, aloud to the fox. "What you been up to, then? Been tryin' to get up the crag, 'ave yer?" The fox just lay, panting, its eyes not leaving Sorrowful's grubby face for an instance. "You don't seem 'urt," Sorrowful mused on,"but yer must 'ave been runnin' like 'ell to get in this state." Then, cutting through the soft spring air like a butcher's knife, he heard the excited yapping of hounds, and looking up he saw the tiny piebald bodies of fifteen or twenty dogs rounding the shoulder of the mountain and scrabbling like mad things up the steep scree, darting this way and that, looking for the scent, their long tails waving with pleasure. Some way behind the hounds came the huntsmen, stumbling and cursing among the boulders but intent to be in at the kill. " 'Ello then", exclaimed Sorrowful to the fox, grasping at once the essentials of the situation. "You're in a right fix, ain't you mate? A bloody great crag up your backside an' a howlin' mob out front. They're out to get you, mate, an' no mistake." The fox kept its brown eyes steadfastly on Sorrowful's as if appealing for help.

Now I must make it clear that in the normal way of things, Sorrowful Jones doesn't give a bugger about foxes. He is not anti-blood sport and he thinks aniseed is the stuff you make sweets from, but right then, at that moment in time, he could no more have stood by and seen that fox slaughtered than if it had been a suckling babe in the path of advancing Dervishes. He had a sudden inner revulsion at the idea that people should turn one of God's cathedrals- Scafell- into a sacrificial altar. Before the fox knew what was happening, Sorrowful scooped it up and with a deft movement thrust it down the front of his anorak. Then he turned and ran towards the mountain for sanctuary. 

Scafell Crag does not show up well from a distance unless you happen to pick exactly the right vantage point, so that when you come up to it, it is something of a surprise, not to say shock. It is easily the biggest mass of rock in the Lakes; towering walls and aggressively thrusting buttresses seamed with steep, dank, gulleys, From the middle distance it looks formidable; from close by it looks impossible. And yet, when you know the place and have done mortal combat with it, you know it can be beaten. There are ledges and ways between ledges, and Sorrowful Jones knew them well. Clutching the fox to his breast Sorrowful scrambled to the foot of the rocks. At first he thought he would escape up the long shoot of loose scree known as Lord's Rake, but the idea of toiling up such a steep slope under a hot sun did not appeal to him one bit, and anyway, he quickly realised that the dogs could follow and even overtake him. Then he thought of Slingsby's Route, which is a climb generously supplied with holds, but he remembered that it involved a rather nasty chimney overhanging a big drop, and whilst there might be room in the chimney for him-self he was not sure he could manage it carrying a fox. So in the end he just hit the cliff slap on and began to climb.

He was barely in time, too, for as he stepped onto the rock the first of the dogs snapped at his heels. Their frustration at being so blatantly robbed of their birthright was something awful to hear. The going was easy and within a few minutes Sorrowful reached a broad, grassy edge, where he paused to wipe the perspiration from his brow and to see how the fox was getting along. He opened his anorak zip and the creature popped out its head to grin,wickedly at the howling dogs some twenty feet below. At this piece of impertinence they yowled even louder. "They're dead narked, Foxy an' no mistake," observed Sorrowful, giving his charge a pat on the head. Now, it is common knowledge that a dog is an animal with a fair degree of nouse, and these particular dogs being born and bred in the mountains, did not intend being thwarted by a bit of steep rock. When they discovered that they could not make a direct frontal assault on the cliff they switched off the old scent gland and reverted to natural cunning.

They scouted around to see whether they could reach Sorrowful (and his fox) by an outflanking movement. The moment Sorrowful realised what the dogs were about he knew he was in trouble. The ledge upon which he rested sloped down 70 his right and came so close to the ground that any dog with a bit of spring in its legs could easily reach it. Quickly, he pushed the fox's snout back inside his jacket again and so began to climb higher. A dozen of the dogs had meanwhile found the key to the ledge and had jumped aboard like four legged pirates. When they found that their prey had gone once again, their fury knew no bounds. They wasted no time in baying for the moon, but got to work sniffing their way around the problem. It was positively uncanny the way those dogs could find ledges and flakes with which in to ascend the cliff.

Before long some of them were once again level with Sorrowful, and of would have reached him had he not beaten a quick, upwards retreat. Fortunately for Sorrowful, the climbing was easy, but the dogs managed to follow, somehow. No sooner had he reached a ledge than some dog would appear on the one below. They were literally chasing him up the cliff. Of course, things couldn't go on like that for too long. The climbing got progressively more difficult and the ledges small and less frequent. The dogs began to feel the strain. They became fewer: half a dozen, four, two, until at last there was only one big hound, a black bastard with a brown eye patch, which kept up the chase. It seemed able to follow Sorrowful wherever he went, that dog. It scrambled up a chimney after him, and Sorrowful claims it even laybacked a crack, but that I find hard to believe.

He insists, however, that it was a damn sight better climber that Piss Eyed Pete, which I am prepared to accept.By the time the black hound called quits, they were a considerable way up the cliff and Sorrowful was dead scared. The holds had diminished to almost nothing and the ledges were negligible. He was lost on that gaunt crag, with only a fox for company. Somehow, he managed to keep going; always choosing what seemed the easiest way, until eventually he came to a great amphitheatre in the rocks. He recognised it at once as the bowl which funnels down into Moss Ghyll and his confidence came storming back. This was home ground. Within half an hour he was standing on the rocky summit of the mountain. He glanced around apprehensively just to make sure the black dog had not followed him, but the only thing to meet his senses was the distant barking of hounds, far, far, below, mingled with an occasional huntsman's shout and the frantic parping of a horn.

The fox scurried off, the moment Sorrowful opened his anorak, without so much as a glance back at his rescuer. "Ungrateful bastard," murmured Sorrowful. "I wonder if foxes 'ave fleas?" He scratched at the thought, but if the fox did have fleas it had taken them with it. The din from below grew to outrageous proportions. At first Sorrowful pretended not to notice but after a while the cacophonous sound jarred his nerves. It seemed as though the whole of Wasdale was a pit of howling canines. With a heavy sigh, Sorrowful picked up his rucksack and made his way towards Broad Stand, the easy way down. The noise disturbed the peace of the hills, and made him restless, but more than that he had developed an intense curiosity. He wanted to see what was going on down below. It took him far less time to descend the mountain than it had to climb it. There was just one short, nasty bit which demanded his attention and then he was able to slide down a groove which landed him on the narrow ridge dividing Scafell from the neighbouring Pike. From there it was only a matter of minutes before he was once again at the foot of the great crag.

Now, Sorrowful Jones is not the kind of bloke you can easily surprise. He has a poker face which he got through playing poker, and he has been around a lot. In his short but crowded life he has seen most things so that there is little left with which to surprise him. But when he reached the foot of Scafell Crag that day, he was amazed. Above him towered the great black buttresses of the crag, soaring for hundreds of perpendicular feet into the blue sky. At its foot, a group of huntsmen were dancing a kind of jig which at first sight, Sorrowful took to be some sort of ritual — like you see on those travel films from Nepal. When this flash of fantasy had passed, however, he could see that the huntsmen were not dancing at ail. They were hopping with rage. And they had just cause. Scattered all over the soaring face of the cliff on ledges great and small was a multitude of dogs. There were brown dogs on black ledges and black dogs on brown ledges. There were sitting dogs, standing dogs and dogs on the trot like caged lions. Above all there were howling dogs—for every single hound in the pack was stuck fast.

Sorrowful ambled over the scree to the dancing huntsmen and struck up a conversation with a fiery countenanced old boy who seemed to be in a position of authority,. "They're stuck, mate," remarked Sorrowful, indicating the dogs. The Master of Foxhounds gave him a look which would have withered a fully matured oak, but Sorrowful pretended not to notice. "How did it 'appen, then?" he asked, innocently. "The damned brutes must have followed the fox up the crag", replied the Huntsman "Extraordinary business, what? We were all too far behind to see it clearly, or stop 'em. Now they're stuck up there." He looked at Sorrowful hopefully and added, "You look like a climber, young fella: can't you get 'em down?" A young pup, which had been too small to keep up with the rest of the pack, had been standing by its master's legs, when suddenly it smelt the scent of fox on Sorrowful's anorak. With an infant bound it sprang at him, yapping excitedly. "Down Brutus! Down boy!" Commanded the Master. "Dammit! Don't you know the difference between Man and Fox, yet?

Can't think what's got into the blasted creatures today!" "I'm used to bein' hunted so don't mind me," said Sorrowful, catching the dog a clip on the earhole which immediately stopped its malarky. The pup looked hurt and puzzled: nobody had ever told him that if you came too close to a fox-smell it belted you like a steam hammer. "What about the pack?" moaned the Master. Sorrowful shook his head. "I'm only a poor soddin' rambler, mate, so I can't help yer.

He wandered away, leaving the huntsmen to solve their problem as best they might. Down the scree he went, then along a sylvan greensward until he came to the valley floor and the cluster of cottages and the whitewashed old inn from whose windows men first gazed at crags with eyes that saw truth and adventure. He bought a pint of ale and some bread and cheese and consumed his repast in the glowing warmth of the afternoon sun. That night he found again his old shelter spot on the rough stones and he lay down, contented. In front of him Scafell rose blackly etched against the purple night sky; an ebony outline of serrated towers. Less than an hour before, with the aid of torches and miles of rope, the last of the dogs had been recovered from the crag and the caterwauling had died away as the huntsmen returned home. Now it was still and dark and as Nature intended. Sorrowful belched loudly, turned over, and fell asleep.

Walt Unsworth: First Published in Climber & Rambler: May 1978.