Christmas in hunting means the Boxing Day me. 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 200-year-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 fight, 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 homes are perfect. At his side are his guests, ante-bellum-style 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. I can just hold my keen hireling until he’s over it, but then I realise that the grey is slowly but surely gone down, enmeshed in thorn and wire, and we are jumping on to him. Down we go, too, and I feel soft ground and hard horse on my shoulders. Remounted, we gallop on. When we eventually meet the old man on the grey, my embarrassed eyes fasten on an unmistakable hoof mark on his horse’s flank.
Suddenly hounds find and we’re away, first clattering down the road and then queuing for a swollen stream whose bed permits only a narrow crossing place between deep pools. Several horses plunge wildly in and soon we see their riders dripping on the bank as in 19th-century cartoons. A black hat bobs on the water.
Away again, more road, and then steeply down into a great river valley where harmless-looking fences turn out to have great gleaming ditches just beyond them. Second horses now, and I’m on a gallant little grey, well away from all sane humanity and in the company of three `thrusters’ who lead me straight at a line of hedges. Throw your heart over it and the rest will follow after, one is always told, but how can you throw your heart when it’s in your mouth?
We make a line of our own for a section not yet jumped and somewhere from the other side of the hedge I hear a warning shout `Left! Left!’ My horse seems to understand better than I and veers slightly, leaping big and bold over barbed-wire rather than into the morass where I had been heading.
A sharp turn, and then a sharp hedge that’s four-foot-six now and will be five-foot-three by the time I tell the VT about it. As we jump I mix the feeling that we can’t do it with the knowledge that we just have. Now we’re heading for the last in the sequence at full pelt. As we do so, I notice too late that a hound is cutting across to jump just as we do, and that on the other side is not more grass but a public road. To avoid the hound, my horse jumps bigger than ever and we skid across the tarmac with him just losing balance and me beneath him. As I pick myself up, I see him turn away into another lane, and disappear. Kind people catch my hero, and reunite us, and we proceed in good order as the day begins to die.
Two things I notice. One is that I have not seen the fox all day. The other is that I’m suffering from what Somerville and Ross call `the unexpected intoxication of foxhunting‘. So who’s right about `real sportsmen’ and leaping? Neither! Both! I don’t care.