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Hunting is cool. Ten years ago no one in her right mind would have dreamed of writing a novel about hunting, but now Candida Clark has done exactly that. Just as George Bush’s ‘war of terror’ gave a huge boost to al-Q’aeda, so Labour’s attempt to impose a ban has actually invigorated hunting. Today it’s more popular than ever, given an extra shot of adrenalin by the thrill of dodging the law.
Parliament spent 700 hours debating hunting, and the result was a botched and unworkable law which makes things worse, not better, for the fox. The reason for this fiasco is simple. As Charlie Pye-Smith explains in his excellent essay, Rural Rites, the ban was driven by class war, not by a concern for animal welfare. ‘For most of the MPs who voted for a ban it was all about pay-back time for the miners,’ says pro-hunting Labour peer Llin Golding. Pye-Smith is fascinating on the politics of the 2005 Hunting Act. Tony Blair and Alun Michael, the minister in charge of the bill, were not in favour of a ban. Both preferred ‘licensed hunting’, which was the policy of the Middle Way Group, who have published this pamphlet. This was also the conclusion of the Burns Committee which the Government had set up. The ban was the work of Gerald Kauffman and his friend the late Tony Banks, for whom animal welfare was a Trojan horse — a way of avenging the miners’ strike by attacking the Tory classes. The unintended and tragic consequence was that foxes were left far less protected than before.
Labour MPs voted for a ban out of bigotry. They were ignorant about hunting but paid no attention to the debates because they had already made up their minds. Their constituency parties forced them to vote for a ban because many had received cash from the League Against Cruel Sports. The scientific evidence quoted by the anti-hunting lobby was much of it flawed. Stephen Harris, the scientist from Bristol university who was regularly trotted out to argue that hunting had no effect on fox numbers, is revealed here to be playing at politics in a way that must surely destroy his credibility. The RSPCA was shameless in the lies and dubious information it fed the public in its zeal to ban ‘blood sports’.
Charlie Pye-Smith has written a shocking exposé of the rottenness of our political system. Candida Clark, on the other hand, is interested in the dramatic possibilities of the Hunting Act. The action in her latest novel, The Chase, all takes place on Friday 18 February 2005, the day the Hunting Act came into force, and the following Saturday, the first day of illegal hunting.
The scene is Eastleigh, the Wiltshire country house belonging to Sir Leo Domeyne and his wife Celia, where a house party assembles on the Friday the ban was passed, in order to hunt the following day. Clark’s story depends on tightly structured plotting, and the hunting ban ideally fits her purpose, bringing together all classes of rural life as well as the Labour MP who comes into the countryside to gloat over the triumph of his bill. She writes lean, taut prose, deftly evoking the country house as an island of privilege and beauty which is under threat. It is threatened from without, by the city, by the Hunting Act, by violence from the lower orders, and also from within, by secrets about abusive childhoods or rape buried deep in the characters’ pasts.
This is a novel about misunderstandings and failure to communicate. Celia Domeyne is suspected by her husband of being unfaithful, but in fact, on the contrary, she is going to save his estate with her new inheritance and a pregnancy which will provide him with a longed-for heir. She thinks her world will end with the banning of the hunt. But a far greater danger comes from the hunt itself, from the terrier man who once raped her and has now returned for more.
One sometimes has to pinch oneself and ask whether this is really 2005; the women especially seem to do nothing much except be wives. And Candida Clark hasn’t quite caught the language of fox-hunting — hounds do not arrive at a meet ‘in full cry’. All the same, she is a storyteller of exceptional skill, and knows just how to ratchet up the tension to make this a country-house novel which is a truly gripping read.