Hunting thugs and education in forelock-tugging - tales of the class system


As Parliament shaped up for yesterday's vote on blood sports, Carlton, in a rare fit of serious-mindedness, put on a televised debate, The Hunt, on Wednesday. At the start there was film of a fox being shown the error of its ways by a hound. You could tell it was absorbing the lesson by the way its head was nodding vigorously. Unless that was because its neck had been snapped.

The shot made you think that perhaps the programme was coming clean about its anti-hunting bias, but then you remembered that in some quarters such a sequence would have been seen as positive propaganda, pornography even, that in a few households up and down the country the scene would be inducing a certain stiffening.

There was another piece of film later on that suggested a more honest approach to hunting, and indeed even suggested a new sport. A deer, which had already been shot four times (I had a mental picture of Rasputin who had to be poisoned, shot, beaten around the head, put in a sack and thrown into the River Nevka before he finally succumbed) was being chased by hounds across a shallow river, when one of the hunters leapt up, grabbed its antlers and pulled it under the water. Nice clean kill, that one.

But instead of deer-hunting, why not deer-wrestling? (You could have teams of two and call it stag-wrestling). And rather than set the hounds on the fox, why shouldn't one of the huntswomen take the creature on in hand-to-hand combat? L!ve TV would surely be interested in buying up the rights, especially if Lady Braindead was as naked as her opponent.

The first speaker on the programme, a lecturer in agriculture who got things off to a bizarre beginning with the pronouncement that hunting is "good, clean and kind", was both interrupted and cheered, and by the second speaker it was a virtual free-for-all. You got the feeling it was going to be one of those debates in which every single speech gets heckled by one half of the audience and cheered to the rafters by the other half. And so it was. There was about as much danger of the two sides reaching any kind of concord as of cock-fighting taking over from football as the national sport.

Among the fascinating panoply of characters there was a huntswoman turned saboteur, while a more intriguing personal transformation was suggested by a saboteur turned hunts-woman. There was a lurch courser who looked like Lurch and a former member of the League Against Cruel Sports who had "broadened his views", which was a euphemism for a U-turn that politicians could use to good effect.

There was also Patrick Moore, who, to be a mite uncharitable, has been withered by age somewhat. A passionate anti, he was none the less a liability, repeating the same point, word for word, in his two contributions. He did, however, set up the line of the programme when he called hunting "the culture of the thug." "It's not thuggery", some Barboured saddo replied. "Lots of my friends take great pleasure from it."

By the end of the programme, 750,000 people had voted in a phone-in poll. This, anchorman Trevor McDonald told us with a grandiose excess of ambition, made it "the vote the politicians can't ignore".

At the Countryside Rally in the summer, blood-sporters congregated in Hyde Park, to be addressed, among others, by Michael Heseltine, and in The Englishman And His Horse the previous night (C4), there was a nice shot of a girl - presumably a hunt supporter but Labourite - shouting "F--- off you bastard!" as Hezza took the stage. It was a tangential cameo in a programme whose title hinted at far more than it could possibly deliver, being as it was a portrait of The Jockey Club, the august body that administers discipline in racing and is, as the programme put it, "the most exclusive club in the country".

"She's a bit kinky but she's a pretty nice filly," said trainer Peter Walwyn, which also promised more than the programme could possibly deliver. But the programme centred on the work of the stewards, and was a fascinating portrait of the privileged at play. To be a steward you have to give up lots of time for no money, which means they tend to be rolling in it.

There was Mark Horne, who owns a printing firm, the Hon David Sieff, of Marks and Spencer fame, and Richard Hambro, whose name speaks for itself. "You've got to have a company that will let you have the odd day off," Sieff said. Not too difficult if you own the company.

As they lurked in the ring between races in their white coats and trilbies, they looked like a sinister version of the Red Cross men who used to visit POW camps. But life is tough for Horne and his colleagues. "There are a few jobs and chores to perform, then we have lunch and get on with the racing. It's hard work." Indeed. Jobs and chores. And lunch. And then there's all that racing. Poor petals.

More than most sports, racing, like its kissing cousin, hunting, embodies the British class system, the jockeys virtually given classes in forelock- tugging. "I'm sir or guv'nor," Walwyn said. "I don't have first-name terms with my staff, though I call them by their first names." It's all about standards, apparently. If "Sir" became "Peter", the entire fabric of society would be rent asunder. No bad thing too, if you ask me.

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