Where would we be without our ingenious little Paleolithic ancestors? Naked, probably, and sitting shivering in the cold and dark with no means of getting meat for our bellies and nothing to eat it off even if a passing deer did conveniently drop down dead before us. For it is to the Paleolithic era that the key building block inventions of human civilisation date: fire, clothes, ceramics, knives. And, it turns out, the bow and arrow.
The bow and arrow is one of the few recognisable survivors from those distant days, because it’s simple concept has aided human survival ever since: for around 12,000 years it was in continuous use in hunting and warfare, and since its usurpation by the gun has endured as a key fixture of mythology and legend in cultures worldwide. And, of course, it lives on as a sport, to which I had my first introduction this week.
Ordinarily I would not be thrilled by the prospect of using a lethal weapon, even for non-lethal purposes. I abhor guns and gun ownership and find the clinging in a certain country to an individual’s right thereto baffling and deeply saddening. Knives I approach with equal circumspection – even more so since I almost chopped my thumb off while cooking this week. But holding a bow for the first time I confess to have been rather exciting. It must be the historian in me. Or perhaps the romantic. It’s certainly not the athlete, for were my first shots my only testimony, I would have made something of a rotten archer. The sort of wide-shooting spindly peasant Henry V might have hinted would be more helpful with the baggage train than on the field of Agincourt.
The range was only 13 metres, the day was bright, the sun behind us, and the air carried barely a breeze. We archers were lined up in pairs, one Olympic Recurve Bow between two, with six arrows each. After the speediest of instructions on technique and some pointless terminology tutoring (apparently “fast” means “stop” – why not just say “stop” then? The man surely knows that if in an emergency he ever needed to say “fast” he would have to follow it up immediately with the reminder: “that means stop, remember? STOP!”); after this, we were allowed to begin.
On my first attempt to loose six arrows at the target, only two hit it. Two flew over. Two hit the neighbouring target. At least a target is better than no target, I reasoned. Maybe the air wasn’t quite as breezeless as I perceived it to be.
I had anticipated that archery would be a physical test, and I expected my upper-body strength to be somewhat wanting when drawing the bow. What I discovered though was that strength was needed not in drawing the bow or indeed in drawing it enough to ensure the arrow flew the whole distance, but in holding the bow steady to aim. It is rather tricky to line up a small arrow head with a small yellow circle when the arrow head tauntingly circles around it.
Remarkably though, as I relaxed I improved. My second lot of six arrows all hit the target, two in the red, and – to my astonishment – one in the gold! I can’t remember ever being more surprised by myself. Barely minutes earlier I had thought it lucky to even hit the target, and now I was almost dead centre. There was hope for me yet, perhaps my childhood fantasy of running off with Robin Hood’s Merry Men might still come true.
Alas, my early gold was but an aberration. I only hit gold once more during the lesson, and that bizarrely was with a 1950s bow that was much more resistant to draw. But I did fall into a groove, and with one or two exceptions my arrows thudded into the target with satisfying regularity from then on. The secret to this sort-of success was, I think, my habit of drawing as I raised my arms (rather than drawing after raising them) and firing as quickly as possible. For budding archers out there, I may say with all the confidence of two hours practice: not only is this technique easier on the back and potentially more accurate. It also looks cool.
Then again, you’d be a pretty poor sort of peasant not to feel cool with a bow and arrow, the evocations are too many. The bow is Artemis, the bow is Cupid; the bow is Mongol hoards and Native American tribes. And above all the bow is Robin Hood. Everybody knows he is a bit of a sexy pin-up, but it turns out it’s not all about the green tights.