Magazine article The Spectator

The End of Part of England

Magazine article The Spectator

The End of Part of England

Article excerpt

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. …

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