The dog leapt forward and picked up the leveret hidden in the grass - and suddenly we joined the select band of hare-owners. As Mother Hare would have rejected a baby covered with dog-slobber, we saw no alternative to adopting the leveret, which we named Flossy, after a great-aunt. The poor thing spent all her time pining for the great outdoors, until one day when, startled by neighbours, she gave a great bound and broke her neck on the inside of her hutch. After that we stuck to rabbits, all of which we also named Flossy, even if male.

One Greek term for "rabbit" is "half-hare", and certainly a bunny is less than half the man, or creature, that a hare is. Hares are quite a different ball of fur: the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin found them a welcome contrast to bourgeois bunnies.

In Hare, Simon Carnell trawls through the art, legend, law and literature of this elusive quadruped that has had a more-than-fleeting presence in our culture. Br'er Rabbit derives from African tales of a trickster hare. Until a century and a half ago, more packs of dogs hunted hares than chased foxes. A statute from the time of Richard II insists that only landed gentry be allowed to hunt hares; peasants used the sport as cover for seditious gatherings. Coincidentally or otherwise, Karl Marx reported on the Rhine Provincial Assembly banning the peasants from hunting hares - and immediately wrote his first explicitly political essay.

Hares are so elusive, being able to hit 45mph and jump sideways to avoid leaving a scent trail, that bizarre legends grew up about them: they had tiny horns; they changed sex; they slept with their eyes open; they turned into witches; they kept one ear forward to catch the wind, like a spinnaker on a racing yacht; eating Lepus timidus made you timid.

They were supposed to suffer from depression. How could you tell? It would be tricky to get a hare to free-associate on a couch. However, they certainly attracted psychiatrically challenged poets such as John Clare, who wrote a sonnet about them, and William Cowper, who had several as pets. Edward Lear wrote a limerick in which "hare" is rhymed with "despair". I can't be precise about the sanity, or lack of it, of the 20th-century German artist Joseph Beuys, but one of his "performances", How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, involved his pouring honey and gold leaf over his head and walking around a gallery with a dead hare in his arms while lecturing to it about the exhibits.

This is such an intriguing survey that it seems cruel to split hairs, or hares, with the author. However, like his subject, he does tend to leap about all over the place. Given that the book is concerned with our misapprehensions about this animal, and the cultural baggage with which we have lumbered its slender frame, there should have been a concise factual section to establish a few basics. It doesn't help to bound, as Carnell does within the space of a single page, from a wild hare's probable survival time of a year, to an epigram by the 4th-century poet Ausonius, to the increasing loss of habitat, to Robinson Crusoe, and finally to the 1972 horror film Night of the Lepus.

Most distressing is the way in which the author loses himself in the thickets of cultural studies-speak. In the 12 pages he devotes to - or, rather, squanders on - the honey-headed Beuys, he says of that laughable lecture to the animal corpse: "The piece partakes of that secret narrative in Beuys's work which has to do with obliquely evoking and mourning Nazi atrocities." Lewis Carroll's March Hare and Mad Hatter together couldn't have put it better.

Fortunately Carnell is infinitely better at discussing the real artworks, which are strikingly reproduced on the glossy paper of this well-produced paperback. Dürer's Young Hare, probably the first picture based on a live animal and still celebrated five centuries later, is "curiously dignified". Hares became a striking feature in still-life - or still-death - paintings: "There are perhaps few things deader or 'stiller' than a dead hare." It is a reminder that if death can snare this lively creature, there is certainly no escape for us plodding human beings.

There is more hare-brained (in a good way) literature than you might think, from Piers Plowman to Ted Hughes. Carnell concludes with a poem of his own that sums up the material very satisfyingly. Missing from the literary chapter is anything theatrical. There is no hare-ish equivalent of the excellent War Horse. We await a dramatist brave enough to take on this theme. David Hare springs to mind.

Simon Carnell
Reaktion Books, 224pp, £9.99

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis