Tuesday, March 01, 2005

last tally ho

I live within 155mm mortar range of Wells, a quiet little town with a rather impressive cathedral, a good market, an even better Tesco's, a very high opinion of itself, and the worst cinema in Europe. the owner of the cinema - an upgraded scouts hut - has been known to confiscate kids sweets as they go in as you're only allowed to take in what you buy at the counter. I don't know anyone who hasn't had a run-in with him at some time. I once got so pissed off with the movie we were watching being out of focus that I went back out and up to the projection-booth - where I found no-one at the helm, and an inarticulate gum-chewing fifteen-year-old usherette leaning aganst the wall outside not having a clue or caring less where anyone was (at least that's how I interpreted her shrug).

there was a demo in Wells the other day - first ever, as far as I know. blocked High Street. disproportionate police presence. chanting. slogans. the gist of it was that our democratic rights were being undermined yet again, and that the government was acting like a bunch of arseholes - the usual sort of thing, and the sort of thing that I'm usually totally up for. except that this was a demo by supporters of the local hunt on the first day of the coming into force of the law forbidding the hunting of mammals with dogs. red jackets, trot-trot, hunting horns, Barbour coats, flat caps. they were well-organised and excruciatingly polite, but angry, dashit! in a jolly good-humoured way.

what's interesting about the Countryside Alliance is that it's facing up to something that the Northern mining communities had to face up to twenty years ago when She Who Cannot Be Named (*hawk - spit*) was busy dismantling the miners unions: that 'democracy' is something that bends and sways in accordance with the current political breeze. this Wells demo was a pale shadow of all those held in every major UK city during 1984 - 85, and an insignificant squeak compared with the million-strong anti-war demos held in every major city in the world prior to the latest invasion of Iraq, but, for once, the people demonstrating were from that class formerly assumed to represent the establishment. their arrogance in assuming that they'll eventually get their way and have the ban overturned through either the House of Lords or the European Commission only further highlights the marginalisation of their constituency. they're energetically trying to assimilate and convert the tactics of political militancy to their own cause, and they can't see how desperate and irrelevant that makes them appear. there's a certain pleasure - a schadenfreude - to be gained, it's true, in witnessing their dawning dismay that, finally, to the tune of the swansong of their beloved Conservative party, which is busy immolating itself in a positively Dickensian conflagration of issue-twitching and marginal-seat-targeting, they're going to be sidelined. history is just passing them by. they've become as much a social anachronism as those back-to-back mining communities, who didn't have the benefit of their land and inheritances to fall back on.

the pro-hunting lobby still has plenty of fight left in it (proportionate to its plethora of resources), and I'm looking forward to seeing the first physical skirmishes between the hunters and the police on the news. these people have assumed, for as long as Chief Constables have been guests at the Rotary Clubs, that the police are instruments of their will. they are about to discover, however, that they command little if no natural respect in the average bobby, and I have no doubt there's many a constable from Taunton to Yeovil to Exeter who's looking forward to the moment when he's given permission to crack a few of these arrogant bastards heads.

police have their sport, too.

pro-hunting arguments fall into four defensive categories: tradition, pest-control, sport, and the local economy. the antis are more simplistic, and a little monothematic: cruel, uncivilised, anachronistic.

I'm the first to heave at the saccharine sentimentalities of Disney anthropomorphism. I find it superficially interesting, the way kids who were brought up to shed buckets at the evil threats upon countless large-eyed dumb beasties from Dumbo to the Dalmatians learn to adapt to the realities of life on the farm. and, if I had to choose, I trust I'd save the human child before the fox cub - who wouldn't? but I recognised a long time ago the politics behind the reverse sentimentalism that demonises the fox. yes, I've seen what a fox can do in a chicken-coop, but what's a chicken coop to an intelligent animal like a fox? it's like a free supermarket: once in, you're going to kill as much as you can before grabbing as much as you can in your jaws to haul away to your family and hope you can come back for the rest later. there's nothing more evil or sneaky or malicious about a fox than there is about any other feral predator. the red fox is not on the official MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food) list of agricultural pests. the perception of foxy's pestiness far outweighs the reality. yes, if you happen to want to rear free range chickens, you'll consider him a pest, and a threat - if much less so - to the more vulnerable stock like newborn lambs, but the people who really really hate him are the owners of the shooting-estates who rear game-birds.

as anyone who's accidentally wandered onto the wrong part of the moor knows, they're very serious, those shooters, about their sport. and as anyone who listens to the Archers knows, it's a very lucrative business, shooting. foxy kill pheasant. pheasant= many £. foxy must die. dial S for Superaristo.

only a bunch of aristocrats - genetically feeble-minded and as imaginative as a pondful of newts - could have concluded that the best way to control a local fox population was to get a bunch of mates together with a pack of dogs and go hurtling around the local fields on horseback knocking over fences and punching horse-sized holes in hedgerows in hopes of finding one and killing it. it makes about as much sense as letting a party of five-year-olds with mallets rampage around your kitchen in hopes of catching a mouse. the miracle is that they ever catch anything. 'they' don't, of course. the dogs do. messy. always. (no messier, I concede, than the chicken-coop, but forget that bullshit about the Master quickly despatching the beast with his pistol: a) he's got to drag a pack of up to thirty blood-crazed dogs off first; b) he's got to have remembered to load his pistol; and c) it'll misfire most of the time so he'll end up bashing what's left of its head in with his heel.)

the relationship between the hunters and the shooters is symbiotic - the one has evolved out of the same set of social and economic conditions as the other. it's a function of the endless existential struggle to fill a meaningless life with meaning, which, in the aristos case, has meant huntin an shootin an fishin for as long as anyone can remember. god-given right, apparently. be sure that if the fox had evolved to predate on, say, cats or mongrels (the kind of animals that the hoi polloi own), he'd be running around free as a bird (well, not as free as a game bird, but you catch my drift).

the only rational justification for hunting with horses and hounds (all the others are more or less emotional) is, if you're an aristocrat, to keep your local pool of conscriptable arms-bearing men and your fellow mounted cavalry up to scratch between wars. the way you (or your chief huntsman) organise your tactics and signalling methods and marshal your men and negotiate the terrain will correspond very closely to the way you'll expect things to go in battle. it's a wargame, but not one that's had any real correspondence with real wars for about three hundred years.

the 'traditional country pursuits' argument is the feeblest and easiest to dismiss. if 'it's traditional' were a legitimate excuse, we'd still have cockpits and bear-baiting and the stocks (although, as a matter of fact, I'm personally in favour of reinstalling the stocks as a more effective alternative to hilarious things like ASBO's), and, by default, we'd have to defend other cultures' rights to bind feet and cut out clitorises and god knows what else.

the 'pest-control' argument is equally lame: the local Master of Foxhounds is quoted in the local (mostly pro-hunting) paper as saying that this is as dark a day for the foxes as it is for everyone else - referring to the transparently ludicrous and totally unchallenged belief that, unless they cull them, they'll overbreed and then all manner of hell will be let loose. as for the efficiency of this form of pest-control - pull the other one.

the 'don't interfere with our sport' argument is fair enough, provided you come clean and explain why chasing a live fox is better than drag-hunting (chasing a trail laid down by someone who's gone ahead dragging a sack impregnated with foxy-smelling stuff). obviously, foxy is going to be a lot more imaginative about where he or she goes when in full flight from the hounds than some oik running cross-country dragging a smelly sack behind him. I readily concede that, were it not for the ignorant obnoxiousness of the company of the aristos (and, indeed, there are hunts that consist of lower ranking, slightly less obnoxious mortals) the idea of spending a day on horseback chasing around the countryside in a dashing red jacket is quite appealing (jodhpurs! down, boy!). but the hub, the kernel, the essence of the chase is that the object and the end of the hunt is the kill, and killing things is fun. it's thrilling. I happened to be strolling through some woods in Devon with a couple of friends a few years back when we came across a stag-hunting party that was just finishing its work. hugely impressive collection of powerful, steaming horses, stamping about in the undergrowth between the birch trees where the beast had been finally brought to bay. happy, tongue-lolloping, panting, tail-wagging hounds, ecstatically receiving the affectionate compliments of the dismounted hunters. the beast itself - huge, steaming, many-tined, bloody, dead, beginning to be dragged, by the antlers, with enormous effort, by four big men, straining at the limits of their strength, out of the little stream where it had been brought down. everyone flushed, elated, lots of laughter, mid-orgasmic. thrilling.

no-one will admit it - it's a form of sex.

the final argument - the socio-economic one - is a toughie, but equally lame. it's true that all hunts keep a number (a relatively small and exaggeratedly significant but nevertheless a number) of local people in work - work that, compared with what else is on offer in what tend to be economically depressed rural areas, is reasonably interesting and fulfilling - working with animals usually is - if not particularly remunerative. but to justify something that is wrong on the grounds that if you take it away you're taking away people's livelihoods is nonsense. it's a form of blackmail, which the aristos are masters at, but which is employed all the time by far more egregious employers. whole communities have become involved in ethically dubious industries, from weapons-manufacture to cigarette-manufacture, where the choice is presented as either/or - either you're in or you're out of work. very, very few people have the luxury of being able to choose not to compromise their moral scrupulousness in selecting their field of work. obviously, if your livelihood depends on the hunt, whether it be working in the kennels or the stables, you're not going to admit any distinction between what you're doing for the hunt and what your friends and relations might be doing in the Big House - what's one fox against a roof over your head and food on your family's table? it's a trivial thing.

except it isn't. the terrorising of an animal in the name of sport or tradition or anything else is not a trivial thing.

the only argument that's hard to counter is the one that goes 'fuck off milksop townies - we likes killin' things, we's allus done it, we's'n gonna go on doin it and none of your namby-pamby townie ways is going to change any o' that - we don't come into your towns an' start tellin' youse how to run your lives, do us?' it's hard to counter because it's not an argument, just an excuse to pick a fight, but that about sums it up.

no-one's summarised the fox-hunting fraternity better than Oscar Wilde: "the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable".

Man has been hunting for a long time. we used to do it the hard way - our canines are evidence of that - but, once we'd learnt how to make throwing weapons and how to organise ourselves into tactical groups, we got better. I don't think that millennia-long learning curve will ever get totally erased from the genetic memory. there's always going to be something in us that remembers what it was like, hunting for a living. it's clear, for instance, that the prehistoric hunters developed a great respect for their prey. the earliest works of art attest to that. and I think there's something of that - an atavistic epiphany - in the common use of the word 'beauty' by hunters - the moment of finding a twelve-pointer in their sights being one of 'beauty'. breath catches. heart hammers. this 'beautiful' creature's life is, literally, in this moment before (exquisite suspension of time) they squeeze the trigger, in their hands.

but we don't need to hunt for food anymore. we haven't needed to for a long time, although it's a not-so-bad thing to do, now and again, if only to remind ourselves of what meat really is. in order to hunt and kill an animal you have to learn a little about it, although it's ludicrously easy to actually kill it (with a gun) when you've finally found it. then the skinning and the gutting and the butchering and the cooking and the eating - all good, if done in a spirit of respect for the animal whose life you've taken in return for your sustenance.

food-hunting good.
trophy-hunting bad.
really - it's as simple as that.

to reduce an animal to a lifeless object for the sake of a photo-opportunity is as sick as it gets. we don't have the right, simply because we can do something, to do it. great power must be moderated by great restraint, otherwise we have failed all the lessons of civilisation. if we use the power of a high-calibre rifle to assert our authority over the animal world for the sake of nothing more than a photograph, it's only a few steps away from doing the same to a man. all it needs is a few tweaks of the conscience-gland (a steady drip-feed of macdonalds and coke seems to do the trick) and to be sufficiently persuaded that the man is a beast. it goes on all the time.

No comments: