Book review: Hindsight – In Search of Lost Wilderness, By Jenna Watt
Playwright Jenna Watt offers some refreshingly novel perspectives on the vexed question of deer management in Scotland, writes Roger Cox
Jenna Watt is an award-winning playwright, and in her career to date she has shown admirable commitment to tackling big, complex issues head on, as in her 2016 play Faslane, which offered a carefully-balanced analysis of the UK's nuclear deterrent, or Flâneurs in 2012, which looked at street violence and the bystander effect. She has also exhibited a talent for homing in on moments of extreme emotion and then finding novel and arresting ways of presenting them on stage: smashing apples into the audience with a baseball bat in her short monologue It’s OK, It’s Only Temporary, for example, or deploying indoor pyrotechnics in her two-hander How You Gonna Live Your Dash, which she described as a show about "the moment we choose to detonate our own lives."
In Hindsight, her debut work of non-fiction, Watt seems to bring together these two strands of her theatrical practice. The big issue under consideration is the vexed question of deer management in Scotland, and in particular the ethical issues surrounding culling and how deer numbers impact on attempts at re-wilding. In the wrong hands, it's a topic which could get very dry, very quickly, but happily Watt's penchant for bringing visceral, lived experience to the fore in as dramatic a fashion as possible is deployed to good effect. Rather than simply discussing deer hunting in the abstract, she decides to experience a stalk for herself, and so, woven through the book, there is an account of her tracking a hind around the Corrour Estate on the edge of Rannoch Moor. The first words of the first chapter are "I won't shoot her", and this will-she-won't-she tension is sustained almost until the end.
Watt also brings a fascinating dual perspective to the issues at hand. At first glance, she's a liberal urbanite – both physically and emotionally out of her comfort zone on the stalk. At the same time, however, she is – as her guide points out – "a Highland lassie", being from Inverness, and it also transpires that her great-great-grandfather was a gamekeeper at an estate in Drumochter Pass. As a result, she feels a strange sense of dislocation, at once alienated from the upland landscapes she visits, in terms of some of the things they represent, yet also deeply connected to them. In addition to this, she brings a clear-eyed feminist perspective to everything she sees – a refreshing change, in an area almost exclusively controlled by and most commonly deliberated over by men.
Watt travels widely and interviews extensively, and if there's one thing that comes through loud and clear, from all her various meetings with gamekeepers, ecologists and landowners, it's that the question of how to manage Scotland's upland areas is less of a debate, with clear-cut right and wrong answers, and more of an enormously complex and constantly evolving conversation.
Hindsight: In Search of Lost Wilderness, By Jenna Watt, Birlinn, £14.99