`I have always said that the best way of curing depressions over love affairs, financial matters or ill-health is to give oneself a good fright." This is T H White, from England Have My Bones, a strange, lyrical three-stranded meditation on foxhunting, fishing and learning to fly. "We were flying straight. I had got her altogether. We didn't fall out of the air," writes White of his first training flight.
Meanwhile, in another part of the wood, here is George Sherston, hero of Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man, trying out his first proper hunter in equally ecstatic vein: "We went on, jumping a few easy fences, and my heart leapt with elation at the way my horse took them, shortening and then quickening his stride and slipping over them with an ease and neatness which were a revelation to me."
Read from one perspective, the whole of English (and Irish) hunting literature forms a vast composite account of the attempts of the rural population to stave off ennui during the interminable dark winters by giving themselves a fright. "What do you do in the summertime?" a non-hunter is supposed to have asked the chatelaine of some particularly hunting-mad Irish household. "We wait for winter," came the austere reply.
The other thing they do, while waiting, is write. The 18th- century foxhunting squire Peter Beckford was a more exotic figure than that rustic term implies. His biography records meetings with Rousseau, Voltaire and the composer Clementi. He also endured with stoical patience a tremendously indiscreet affair between his wife, Louisa, and his artistic cousin, William. To take his mind off his misery, he wrote an astonishing treatise, Thoughts upon Hunting, which was first published in 1781 and, as a practical description of the technical aspects of foxhunting, has still not been superseded. …