Magazine article The Spectator

Leaping to Conclusions

Magazine article The Spectator

Leaping to Conclusions

Article excerpt


Christmas in hunting means the Boxing Day meet. This is the sport's annual photocall, when everything is at its most picturesque and the numbers in the field get too large for the hunting to be fun. I've got nothing against all this Dingley-Dell-ism, but I'd rather write about something else.

Alun Michael, the minister appointed to forge a policy out of Mr Blair's indecision, agonises about the balance between 'cruelty' and 'utility'. No one knows how this balance could be struck, or how one could be usefully cruel or cruelly useful. I want only to observe that Mr Michael's concept pays no attention to the fact that hunting is a sport.

But what sort of a sport is it? The 200year-old row about this centres on the role of the horse, and of jumping. Surtees asserts somewhere that `real sportsmen take no pleasure in leaping'. What he is saying is that the act of hunting is the thing: you can ride if you want, and jump if you must, but this is only the means to the end, which is to understand and assist the work of hounds. Everything else, the purists believe, is showing off. It's a definition of utility, I suppose, though not one that would please Mr Michael. Who's in the right, the jumpers or the `real sportsmen'?

In our own dear Vale of Tears Hunt (VT), we jump a good deal and think well of our courage in hurtling into woods with low branches, but ours is not `big country'. I recently went off in search of some.

I shall call my hosts the Wild Welsh Watkins. I entered their country under the inadequate protection of my friend the MP, whose reckless courage and innumerable injuries suit him for life in the modern Conservative party. The Wild Welsh (who hunt mostly in England) are famous for jumping fast and big. Their Master, Lord Pegasus, rides beautifully in his dark coat with silver buttons. His groom is beside him to cut away wire. His horses are perfect. At his side are his guests, ante-bellumstyle Americans, blue-hatted like UN troops, but a lot less pacific. Lord Pegasus will jump five-foot metal gates from concrete on to concrete and go straight across country whatever the obstacles. He is, therefore, to be avoided at all costs.

I avoid the MP for the same reason, and so seek guidance elsewhere in the Irish eyes and modest confidence of the huntsman's young wife. I do not admit to her that I have hardly ever jumped a hedge. In the VT country it is almost all post-and-rails, where you can see something of the other side. Hedges are more absolute and opaque and concealing. She says I can tuck in behind her.

In the melee, though, things go wrong and I find myself behind an elderly gentleman on a grey who makes slow progress towards the first fence. …

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