As soon as I see Bertha’s rear end backing down the tailgate towards me, I think there has been some mistake. They told me they would find a nice quiet mare, given that I have never been riding before. Advancing upon me are the towering bay buttocks of the biggest horse I have ever seen.
In a daze, I mount the stool, held for me by Di Grisselle, joint master, shove one foot in the stirrup and try to swing myself over. Bertha chooses that moment to reverse, and I begin my first day’s hunting, in the last week of that ancient custom, by slowly and dreamily falling to the concrete farmyard floor.
So let us leave me there, between the stirrup and the ground, and review the reasons for this desperate act. ‘You’re very brave,’ everyone keeps saying, ‘not to say foolhardy.’ In fact, by the time I come to grips with Bertha I have been made — I suspect deliberately — apprehensive. ‘When I took up hunting again in 1997,’ said my host Charles Moore as we drove to the meet, ‘I hadn’t done it for 25 years, and I didn’t sleep a wink the night before.’ Really? I said, as it dawned that I had slept last night in the tranquillity of ignorance.
We passed a single magpie, and I could not help noticing Charles’s long mumbling prayer of propitiation, all about ‘say hello to Mrs Magpie ...give her my best ...my name is Charles Moore,’ and so on at such length that I became seriously rattled. Charles is a veteran, a pro. He is entitled to the pink, green-collared jacket of the East Sussex and Romney Marsh. He is never happier than when he is hurtling from the saddle, collarbone first, towards some dry-stone wall or briar patch, and if he was so spooked about events ahead that he was doing magpie prayers, what hope was there for me?
Apart from an hour on a camel in Egypt, and a few hours on an elephant in India, I had never been properly transported on a large mammal, and though I have done some things that are arguably brave, such as attending the births of four children and driving at 160 mph on the M40, I have never ridden a horse at speed. My father and grandfather were known to have hunted with the Devon and Somerset staghounds, but somehow the option never cropped up for me.
There was only one reason for doing it now, and that was to show my anger and my support; though I speak as one who has never had any particular urge to kill animals. Indeed, when the stag hunt used to appear in our valley, and ring the basin of the hills like Sioux, our overwhelming feeling, as children, was for the deer. When they came through the yard, with the glutinous grins that all hunting folk bestow on civilians, we would rush out and scream, ‘He went that way! He went that way!’ like French peasants trying to save an airman from the Gestapo, and the hunt would grin their glutinous grins and ignore us. And as anybody who has seen it will know, there is scarcely anything more terrible and pathetic than the sight of a deer brought to bay — facing the music, as they say, of the hounds.
To say that the final stages of a hunt are not in some sense cruel is to talk nonsense; but that is not the point. The extinction of hunting will lift scarcely a pebble from the mountain of British cruelty to animals. This is not about cruelty. It is a Marxian attack on something Labour absurdly believes to be a class interest. It is a selfish attempt by the Prime Minister to repay his lobotomised backbenchers for their acceptance of the war in Iraq. It is an utterly contemptible way to govern a country. I may have secretly backed the deer against the hunt, but I still want deer running through our valley on Exmoor; and if — as all the evidence suggests that it will — the deer population dwindles when there is no hunt, and the farmers shoot them to extinction, then I will hold this Labour government and all its supporters in a cold immortal resentment and hound them until I die; because they will have killed off something that is part of England for no other reason than spite.
That is the anger that impels me to turn out now, in borrowed gear, and to haul myself again aboard Bertha. ‘He looks very pale,’ says a woman. ‘Here,’ says a man going around with a flagon of yellow liquid, ‘have some Dutch courage.’ Charles introduces me to the other master, Tom Arthur, red as a letterbox, who shakes with his left hand since his right has been freshly trodden on by a horse. I try to stay on, as Bertha backs randomly through the meet, and notice that the burst capillaries in the cheeks of my fellow hunters have turned not so much purple as black.
I notice how fine the hunt looks, in their black coats and white stocks (Charles, a stickler, says the correct term is ‘hunting tie’), but mainly I think how tiny we are, as a group. There are plenty of irritatingly proficient Thelwell-style children, but the East Sussex and Romney Marsh has only 50 full subscribers, and it occurs to me how cowardly it is of Labour to pick this minority off. Before I can defend them properly, however, I feel I must understand what they do, and that is why I am now having a crash course in riding from a sweet blonde called Jenny.
Normally Jenny Yeo likes a vigorous day of bouncing in the saddle and leaping five-bar gates, but she has agreed to help, and frankly, I need it. I have taken to kissing Bertha’s aromatic neck and saying, ‘There, there, darling, you don’t want to kill me, do you?’, but before I can master the rudiments of steering, a man parps a horn and we are off, down the farmyard, through the thin crowd, for the beginning of the hunt.
For the first few hundred yards Bertha is led on a rope by a groom called Zoe, but by the time we have reached the end of the first field she is so spattered with mud that it seems inhumane to ask her to continue. So then Jenny takes the rope in her spare hand, and I know, with dread and rapture, that I am sooner or later going to have to manage on my own. But for now I am able to follow Jenny, like some clapped-out first world war general, and try to grasp what is going on. It is quite mysterious. It is like war, in that there are long periods of inaction, followed by terrifying exertion and ludicrous bravery. Detachments of horses seem to get trapped in the wrong field, and wheel and curvet in the sodden grass.
Jenny and I come to rest opposite a wooded escarpment, where the dogs can be seen writhing in the undergrowth. ‘The hounds are speaking well,’ says Jenny. ‘They are giving good tongue,’ she says, and they are certainly making a noise. Then Jenny and a nice lady called Polly talk about how they are looking forward to being locked up before we inexplicably move on, through the waterlogged kale and the Brussels sprouts, to another part of the same wood.
‘It’s really all about jumping, isn’t it?’ I say to Charles as he returns, painted with mud, from surmounting some obstacle. ‘No, it’s not,’ he says. ‘It’s about hunting.’ That, I am afraid is true. We are kidding ourselves if we think the joy of hunting is just to do with mucking about in the open air, or comradeship, or pageantry. At the heart of the thing is the death of the fox. It is possible simply to have a great time on a horse, as I do, even if it is initially painful.
Trotting, for instance, proves — how shall I say — wearing on the goolies, and when I gasp my distress to Jenny she laughs richly and points out that she has no goolies herself. Such is our exhilaration that we both find this tremendously funny. Then a bystander shortens the stirrups and before you know it Bertha and I are trotting and bobbing in unison. And then there is the glori ous moment when the whole hunt is heading uphill towards a distant council estate; a pale sun is shining on the windmill; the earth is starting to grumble under the accelerating hooves; the hounds are giving heaps of tongue in an adjoining copse; Bertha and I are trot-bobbing like crazy, and any second now I know that my beast is going to break into a canter, and then Jenny gives a little cry of ‘here we go’, and we do.
Doing my best to hide the sick rictus on my face I hang on to the neck-strap as Bertha attains a speed of — oh — 20 mph, but it feels like 90, and it is yeehah thunder thunder thunder all the way from one magnificent end of the field to the other; and by the end of the afternoon I have formed my own aesthetic of hunting. It is like skiing, in that you are personally tracing, at speed, the contour of the landscape, and then there is the added interest of the weird semi-sexual relation with the horse, in which you have the illusion of understanding and control. There is the military-style pleasure of wheeling and charging as one, the emulative fun of a pseudo-campaign.
As the day goes on, I begin to pick up inklings of the etiquette, the elaborate courtesy about gates, and the need to shout ‘Ware hole!’ (or Warhol!, as Charles puts it, perhaps in honour of the artist) if you see a hole. Out of the corner of my eye I am continually watching the sun, and as it sinks and gilds the soggy fields of Sussex I know that I have virtually attained my goal, which is survival.
But everyone else has a different understanding of the objectives, as they continually point out. ‘I’m sorry you haven’t seen a fox,’ says Di Grisselle, the joint master. ‘I’m afraid we haven’t shown you much sport yet,’ says someone else. ‘Bit of a slow day,’ says Tom the other master, when we get back to the boxes in the dusk. According to Charles, the hunt did kill four foxes (‘two brace’, he speedily corrects himself), but they died at the hands of the terriermen; they weren’t properly chased, and this, it seems, is a disappointment.
My friends, there is no getting round it: the chasing and killing of foxes is what this is all about. And does that make it wrong? As it happens, I have already seen a dead fox this morning, on the A20 near Sidcup, so chopped up by traffic as to resemble sodden grey cardboard. Ten times as many foxes die on the roads as are killed by the hunts, and unlike the hunted fox they have a truly cruel and lingering death, haemorrhaging from glancing blows. Is the Labour government going to ban cars?
Therefore it must be that Labour objects to the mental state of the hunting people, the fact of the bloodlust. Well, let us leave on one side the disgusting impudence of a government passing judgment on our mental states, when we are all asked to tolerate deviancy of one kind or another. In banning this trivial and ritual expression of bloodlust, they are doing something literally immoral. They are going against the grain of human nature, and using legislation to suppress an instinct as old as man. And yet the real reasons for the ban have nothing to with cruelty or bloodlust.
This ban arises from hatred, Labour’s hatred of what they think of as ‘Old Britain’. It is an attempt to exterminate a section of our culture; not just the hunt, but everything that goes with it, the hunt balls, the hunt suppers, the Jilly Cooperesque brayings and fumblings, and the dependent livelihoods of the men and women in green tweed and badges, like characters from Lord of the Rings, who see to the hounds and the foxes and the horses and whose pride it is to ensure that we have a day’s ‘sport’.
It is a brutal and pointless liquidation of a way of life. They ban it just because they can; and the people I really despair of are those idiots who say that they ‘don’t care much one way or another’. About five or six years ago I went to see Blair, and asked him why he was banning hunting. ‘Oh, I’m not one of those who would go hunting on a Saturday, nor would I go out protesting,’ he said. Is it not therefore doubly revolting that he has imposed this tyrannical measure, and voted for it himself?
I loved my day with the hunt, and hope they have the courage and organisation to keep going for ever. They are going out with the hounds this Saturday, and if the hounds pick up a fox, so be it. How will the poor cops prove mens rea? And will they not have to produce a fox in evidence? I hope that the hunt holds up the ban to the ridicule it deserves, that they defy the police and the magistrates and the government, until a new government can rescue an old tradition and restore it for the sake of freedom and freedom alone.