By Ramsay, Allan | Contemporary Review, May 2000 | Go to article overview


Ramsay, Allan, Contemporary Review

Happy the young man who can, for a time, entrust his education in life to an experienced member of the opposite sex. I am fortunate enough to have had two such mentors, both ladies past their prime whose charms were of the maturer kind. One was Najma, meaning 'Star', a three-quarter bred Arab with everything of the thoroughbred about her in looks and comportment. The other quarter I fancy owed itself to a drop of Waler blood in her genealogy, from one of the thousands of Australian horses shipped to the Middle East in 1914 as Cavalry remounts. But before her came Poppy. Despite her plebeian name she shared with Najma the three essential attributes for a good mount: intelligence, good manners and a bottom like a barmaid. She had been a hunt horse before she came my way and looking over the tops of her ears as she gazed intently at the hounds feathering away across the patch of ground in front of us I truly believed, with Snaffles, that it was 'the finest view in the world' only it was not across the smooth pa stures, neat copses and well made fences of the Shires, but onto acres of tussocky, dun coloured grass pockmarked with the vivid green of shallow bog and fringed by brown moorland. Not that it mattered: on Poppy one was on a level with the best, and a young man's insecurity and diffidence seemed to fade away. Reflecting on today's controversy about hunting I find myself wondering whether it is not perhaps that simple transformation which others so resent: 'A nation of gallant men [ldots] and of cavaliers' said Edmund Burke. Would that we were.

It is difficult to write objectively and dispassionately of something about which one feels strongly, for or against. 'Tell me a man's a foxhunter and I loves him at once' said Mr Jorrocks. Today he is more likely to be an object of censure, Mr Jorrocks too. The future of hunting hangs in the balance, a prospect unthinkable to Will Ogilvie who wrote in the twenties:

This is our heritage that none can take

The gift we hold, the gift we give again;

And this the spirit that no time can break

So long as England and her fields remain

But it is true, for all his confidence, and the arguments on both sides continue to be articulated with growing passion. There have been protest marches, notably that organised by the Countryside Alliance in London on 1 March 1998, and counter demonstrations. Hunts have been targeted by animal rights activists and there have been violent clashes between them and hunt supporters. The more prominent have been the recipients of hate mail of a kind normally reserved for child molesters. There have been innumerable letters and articles in the press and extensive media coverage, generally ill informed. The government, the Prime Minister included, have contributed to the furore by seeming to favour a ban and then equivocating, declining, despite impressions to the contrary, to make time for the Foster bill then reverting to earlier undertakings in favour of legislation in (apparently unscripted) remarks in a press interview given by the Prime Minister. He later appeared to include hunting among those 'forces of con servatism' criticised in his speech at the Labour Party conference in Brighton. Under pressure the government finally decided to remit the issue to a commission chaired by Lord Bums, the former Permanent Secretary at the Treasury. This is a wise decision: since the committee's terms of reference are wide the issue is likely to be examined in all its aspects, economic and social, as well as others. But whatever the outcome of the committee's deliberations and any subsequent government decision, hunting has a long history and is representative, in many people's eyes, of quite another, less creditable, Britain.

Given the tenor of my opening remarks it is necessary to declare my hand before going any further. I have hunted, though not regularly nor very often, certainly not so often or so regularly as to consider myself a hunting man, yet always with enjoyment and appreciation of what the sport has to offer (and it is a sport in the way that bear and bull baiting -- with which its critics occasionally bracket it -- were not). …

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