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Writing Animals: Shooting an Elephant

It is with rather astonished and delirious delight that I can say these words: the current issue of Ambit Magazine (no. 224) features one of my short animal stories, ‘Shooting an Elephant’. I’m beyond thrilled to be featured in Ambit and a special mention needs to shout its way out to my good pal (and perennial door-opener) Dan Carpenter who helped me out with an early draft of this tale. Thanks for your wise advice Dan. Incidentally, Dan and I had a chat for his lovely Paperchain Podcast and you’ll be able to hear our gabblings very soon when the next episode is released on the 28th July.

‘Shooting an Elephant’ was one of those stories that just fell together like a self-completing jigsaw. It will forever remind me of the benefits of patience: I had a sketchy idea in my head for ages which I couldn’t quite work into a tale. It kept bugging me, kept trying to tempt me to the keyboard, but I resisted, somehow sensing that the concept was incomplete and had no basis in a story quite yet.

The idea was to write about big game hunting in some fashion, but to isolate it away from the exotic and boil it down to something stranger and clearer. I had this concept of anonymous businessmen in a rich city paying to have animals 3D printed in a warehouse just for the purpose of being shot. A way of fulfilling bloodlust and allowing power-hungry rich boys the satisfaction of the kill-shot without implications, inconvenience or having to leave the office for more than an hour. In the end ‘Shooting an Elephant’ became quite a different – and stranger – beast, but retained that idea of containment, convenience, commercialisation and isolation.

The practice of big game hunting abhors and confounds most of us, and so it should. All we usually see is the aftermath; the hunters themselves posing beside their kill, insanely-huge rifles held aloft, the dead animal slumbering beside them, pristine save for the single bloody bullet-hole (to save us all from an actual picture, here's lovely Spielberg in a similar pose). It’s the smiles on the faces of these people that always get me; the same smile you’ll see in wedding photos, holiday snaps or on a winners’ podium. Not the smiles of evil, but the smiles of fun, of pleasure and sporting triumph. When people are ashamed of something they don’t take a photo to preserve it. For big game hunters, there’s no sense of shame at all. In fact, for many there’s a stronger sense of duty to some ancient mythic ‘right’ to engage in nature’s contest of predator and prey, which, in reality, is not so much a game as a necessity – one which we no longer have any need or right to participate in. It’s the same bond of archaic tradition the trumped-up fox hunters of this country like to drag out in defence of their own endeavours (which still happen with gay abandon thanks to one of the weakest ‘bans’ that’s ever been put in place). It’s an extremely strong belief system that is highly unlikely to die away, despite all our best vehemence. It also forms the basis of meat-eating, which I’ve touched upon before. It quickly becomes a tricky subject to delve into.

Worse still, however, is the practice of canned hunting, which dominated my thoughts in the construction of ‘Shooting an Elephant’. For those uninitiated, canned hunting involves raising animals in captivity, allowing them to get used to the presence and proximity of humans before they are released into a large enclosed area to be easily found and easily shot. Diluted hunting for the lazy tourist. Defenders of this practice claim its fairer because the animals in question were brought up for the purpose – much like cows are for milk, and geese are for fois gras. Sacrificial lambs to help better protect the wild brethren. It’s a roundabout of contradictions.

The abstract extension of this, for me, was to explore that ‘boxed-in’, caged notion hand-in-hand with commercialisation – the offering of a service to satisfy an apparent need. Lacking the expertise of first-hand experience with any form of hunting, I shied away from a Serengeti setting and, eventually, also moved away from the animals themselves. It was an act of animal liberation on my part by stepping away from the 3D printer and replacing it with an abstraction of an animal, thereby freeing the real thing for the life it really deserves (a life kept firmly off-stage). With the animal gone, where did that leave me? The chance, more directly, to explore the theme of bloodlust. To see what it really was that hunters wanted out of ending a life. Power, satisfaction, the apparent ‘right’ to dominate. So, figuratively, I killed off my real animal and replaced it with humans. Specifically, acrobats.

The seed of this, I think, came from Cirque du Soleil. Many years ago in a circus tent outside the Trafford Centre I witnessed their show Quidam and remember being utterly stunned by the whole thing. It was one of those moments when a piece of theatre suddenly and beautifully ruptures your whole perspective on life. That good. But in amongst the clowning, the acrobatic displays, the haunting imagery, I remember spying a simple side-performance of dancers imitating animals. There was a sea-lion, a dog possibly, and certainly some monkeys. I remember being completely delighted in the accuracy of the depictions and warmed by the idea that skilled human performers can replace maltreated circus animals and provide something infinitely more magical.

It was a simple leap from there to a fully-sized elephant made of acrobats – which is just about the perfect level of possible/impossible for a piece of weird fiction. Once that idea fixed itself down, the rest of the story slotted beautifully into place. But I’ll say no more about the details. If you want to find out how to hunt an elephant made of acrobats, you’ll have to track down a copy of Ambit 224 yourselves. And for those of you that know your Orwell, yes the title is borrowed from his essay of the same name which did have an influence in the detail of the piece, but only in a small way. I considered changing the title, but in my book any link to Orwell is a good thing so this is my official tipping of my hat to the great man. Cheers George.

In a curious coincidence, the tragic story of Cecil the Lion broke while I was in the midst of the first draft of ‘Shooting an Elephant’. Cecil’s demise brought the collective foghorn of internet outrage to bear upon big game hunting for a brief angry burst, but the impact still resonates and the incident has now become something of a touchstone. Perhaps it is a sign that the tide of public opinion rushes against big game hunting (and hopefully by extension, all hunting) which will see the practice diminish and shrink. But we cannot underestimate the compulsions and myths that bolster the urge to pick up a gun and shoot something - whether it’s a vermin or a trophy, wild or tamed, real or imagined. Nor can we underestimate the chilling joy and comfort offered by the crook of a trigger in an obliterated world where traditional vestiges of power have fallen into the deep cracks and ended up far, far out of sight.

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