I was reading the other day about closed-down shipyards and came upon a reference to Swan Hunter. This served to remind me of a fellow I met recently whose business card – which he handed to me – announced his business as a swan hunter. We were guests at a swish sophisticated cocktail party and he was leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece. He apologised that the card was smeared with blood, explaining that it was the blood of a swan and that such smearage was an occupational hazard.
“Surely,” I said, “There is not much hunting to do to find swans? Do you not just head for the nearest body of water, such as a pond or a canal, which swans are known to frequent?”
“There is a measure of truth in what you say,” he replied, bringing up an unseemly gobbet of catarrh and spitting it into a napkin, “But first one must find the pond or canal. Though swans are almost invariably found on ponds and canals, it does not follow that all ponds and canals have their resident swans, as a moment’s thought will confirm.”
“Fair enough,” I said, “But identifying those ponds and canals where you might find a swan hardly counts as hunting. You just need to obtain a map and mark with a pencilled X those ponds and canals shown on it which are known to be populated by swans. You can do that while sitting in an armchair.”
He spat into his napkin again.
“I could indeed,” he said, “But that would take all the thrill out of the hunt. I prefer to go a-roaming through the countryside, or through a large municipal park, sniffing the air and studying the terrain until I track down a pond or a canal. And even then,” he continued before I had a chance to interrupt, “There can be no guarantee that the pond or canal I come upon will be swanful. The uncertainty adds to the excitement.”
“It might be more accurate to say, then, that you are a pond and canal hunter, rather than a swan hunter,” I said.
“Bosh!” he shouted, slopping some of his cocktail onto the hearth-rug, “Where no swans are in evidence upon the pond or canal I have stalked, I press on, indefatigably, come rain or shine.”
“So let us assume,” I said, “That you have arrived at a pond or canal teeming with swans, whether in the countryside or in parkland. Do you then take potshots at them with a Mannlicher-Carcano sniper’s rifle?”
“Heaven forfend!” he cried, slopping more cocktail onto the rug, “Where would be the sport in that? No, I go unarmed. Swan hunting, when executed properly, is the pitting of man against swan in a primal struggle. Having selected an individual swan, I engage it in combat. That is why I have had my arms broken several times in several places.”
“Ah,” I said, “I was wondering why you held your cocktail glass at a rather curious angle.”
Actually, I ws not wondering this at all. I was just making conversation. It has never been my habit to examine in any detail the angles at which swish sophisticated cocktail party guests hold their cocktail glasses, nor, for that matter, am I much exercised when in their excitement they slop some of the contents of said glasses on to the hearth rug, unless of course it is my own hearth rug. But it never is, for I do not host my own cocktail parties. I am temperamentally incapable of organising sufficient sausages on sticks due to my cackhandedness, which invariably means I prick my fingers and thumbs repeatedly with the sharp wooden cocktail sticks, drawing blood. No one in their right minds wants to attend a party, however sumptuous the cocktails, if the plates are littered with sausages lying unpunctured beside piles of bloodied wooden sticks. A business card smeared with the blood of a swan seemed to me a far less gruesome sight. In fact, the more I thought about it, my own reservations about hosting a cocktail party seemed immeasurably more interesting than listening to a man wittering on about his experiences of unarmed combat with swans, fighting to the death. Only my impeccable manners prevented me from saying so, in a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone else in the room.
It was only then, looking around, that I noticed the swan hunter and I were the only guests still present. Everyone else had tiptoed out, through the open French windows. Peering out into the dusk, I saw approaching, marching relentlessly across the lawn, a gaggle of savage and vengeful swans.