Sometimes, early in the morning, walking down our London street I suddenly catch the scent of a fox. That sharp, suggestive, overwhelming smell takes me straight back to the Dorset of my childhood all too long ago and to powerful memories of the acute joy of foxhunting.
People who have never followed a hunt cannot possibly imagine how deep that pleasure is, just as I cannot understand the joy of coarse fishing. For me it had little to do with killing a fox, though that must have been part of the elemental excitement and fear I felt, and that everyone seemed to share.
It had much more to do with the feelings, close to ecstasy sometimes, of becoming part of a beautiful and much-loved landscape, right there inside the hunting pictures that are only memories to me now, down in the mud and the crowded streams, scratched by the branches of dark woods, out almost flying over open country, hanging about in the wind and the rain under dripping hedges, jostling anxiously among bigger horses in front of an enormous fence, afraid of jumping but still more afraid of admitting it, with all the dizziness of a whole field of people together in full cry, the danger and speed, the romance of the hunting cries, and the strangeness of it, for all its familiarity.
Hunting reunites people, though only temporarily and ritualistically and fairly safely, with all kinds of profound and dangerous longings.
For years I somehow forgot about hunting. My brothers and I grew up and left home to lead urban lives, and the unmistakable scent of a fox, so closely associated with sharp hunting mornings, was something I never smelt again until quite recently when foxes arrived in Notting Hill. Now I catch the scent of those memories quite often.
I have even recently hung a fox’s head, or — as people used to say in my hunting days, and still do, for all I know — a fox’s mask, on the wall, and only partly to annoy any repressive guests. It is there because it has retrieved some intense memories for me.
This long-forgotten mask was given to me out hunting when I was about nine, just after a kill when I was first blooded, and my mother had it mounted on a wooden shield with the date painted underneath, as people did in those days.
I rediscovered it recently, clearing out her attic, and every time I look at it I’m reminded extraordinarily clearly of that bright cold day at Waterston with the South Dorset hunt, and my enormous pride in taking part in this atavistic ritual and in having a dab of blood on my face, and the bloody head swinging from my saddle as I rode home.
Today I feel rather differently. I would no longer want to hunt, partly because I feel that hunting was dying anyway, even without the moves to ban it. The saboteurs must have made it miserable, it has become too self-conscious for my taste, and the West Country is rapidly turning into suburb. Still, for many people hunting remains one of life’s great pleasures.
And what strikes me as hateful and disgraceful about last week’s vote to ban on hunting is that it is a ban on pleasure, for no good reason, or without a good-enough reason. This is the worst kind of destructive Puritanism — denying other people cakes and ale because you’ve never enjoyed them yourself.
The reasons put forward for banning foxhunting fool nobody. They are hypocritical or ignorant or trivial. No serious person can think the quick death of a few foxes matters as much as the prolonged torture of millions of factory-farmed chicken and pigs and cows. No animal lover can think it’s worth putting down 26,000 foxhounds for the sake of a few wild foxes.
No informed person can think that foxes are cruelly torn to death by the hounds; that happens after death, after one quick bite, and is much more merciful than being trapped or maimed by a gunshot. Only a hypocrite would ban foxhunting but allow the more proletarian pleasures of fishing, which is quite clearly a form of drawn-out torture.
Only a hypocrite would say it is all right to turn a blind eye to the distasteful ritual slaughter of millions of animals according to Jewish and Islamic law out of respect for those ethnic traditions, but that the ancient traditions of an old English ethnic minority must not be so spared. Some minorities are more equal than others, it seems, and there’s only one minority here that can be tyrannised by Tony Blair’s “majority”.
People on all sides seem to agree that the real explanation is class hatred pure and simply, or what you might call a different kind of blood sport; the Labour party (old and new) hates toffs and wants to tear them apart, and Blair feels he must let the socialist dogs have their sport or else they may get out of control, as blood-thirsty dogs do when their appetites are thwarted, and turn upon him instead.
Actually, as everyone ought to know, there are plenty of people who hunt who are not toffs at all. But even supposing all foxhunting men and women were indeed toffs, what then? What good would it do any of us if a few toffs were deprived of a pretty much harmless pleasure? If the horrors of 20th-century socialism and communism have taught us nothing else they must surely have demonstrated that there is absolutely nothing to be gained and a great deal to be lost by punishing and robbing people just because you don’t like the cut of their gib.
My new colleague Rod Liddle once notoriously spoke out against the Countryside Alliance demonstration in London, denouncing “the belch-filled dining rooms of the London clubs”. He makes my point exactly. Surely there can be nothing uniquely offensive about an upper-class belch? Perhaps Liddle has not stopped to consider what fills the atmosphere of the nation’s pubs and bingo halls.
And even if somehow the upper classes belch differently from the lower orders, surely we are a nation now committed to celebrating diversity and the rights of minorities to pursue their ancient traditions, including belching, without fear or favour. Belching is after all considered polite in some of our newer British ethnic minorities.
Toffs can, I admit, be tiresome. They can be patronising and rude and even when trying to be charming they quite often, perhaps unconsciously, display an extreme sense of entitlement that is irksome. One needs to feel quite full of oneself to deal happily with a roomful of toffs.
This annoyance is not relieved by the fact that quite a lot of them, as well as being titled and rich, are often tall, good-looking, clever and slim, and even rather nice. People who are not toffs may prefer to think otherwise but they are deluding themselves. None of this amounts to a reason for despising toffs, or affecting to despise them, still less for persecuting them.
Now when I smell a fox I will remember, instead of hunting in green and pleasant Dorset, the stench of political hypocrisy and the painful tearing apart of British traditions of tolerance and civil liberty.