Fox hunters on the run

September 27, 2004|By Al Webb

ITS RAIL SYSTEM is described as the worst in Europe, Iraq hangs about like a vulture and the hospitals are breeding grounds for "super bugs," but what really has Britain's tights in a twist is the spectacle of folks with horses and hounds chasing small, furry animals across the countryside.

"The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable," is how Oscar Wilde once described fox hunting. But more than a century after he coined that pithy aphorism, the ruction this singular activity still creates is proof that class warfare is alive and lurks as ever in Britain's green and usually pleasant land.

"Absolutely vile bloodlust," fumes citified Helen Clark, a Laborite member of Parliament who despises it as "a violent sport run by violent people." Not so, counters Brian Friend, a hunter in the lush Devon countryside of southwest England: "It really does embrace dukes to dustmen and has been part of our culture since the Iron Age."

There you have it. Never mind the specter of terrorism, the 60 or so tax increases since 1997, the highway network that regularly turns into gridlocked parking lots. This is a nation in vague distraction by another sort of battle, of an 18th-century traditional pleasure vs. 21st-century modernist pragmatism.

Now, no art museum in the world worth its Rembrandts and Gainsboroughs is without framed examples of riders in scarlet jackets and black helmets mounted on great stallions, galloping across the countryside behind a score or so of hounds on the heels of a small russet dot - the fox - in the distance.

With only a bit of imagination you can almost hear the cries of "tally-ho!" and the tooting of horns as they tear across field and dale, hell-bent on an end game that essentially involves the dogs tearing the hapless fox to shreds.

And thus has it been year after year, since the late 1600s, when fox hunting first was conceived as a method of pest control, to evolve into a field sport a century or so later. But it was, and largely remains, a sport practiced by rich owners of the countryside - and accordingly is despised by the cash-strapped denizens of cities and towns.

But Britain is, above all, a land of tradition - and that's what visitors love about the place. Tourists don't come here to see London's "Erotic Gherkin" and other high-rise building monstrosities, which the Americans do so much better, or its expensive and often dilapidated shops, or its filthy, aged trains and buses (except for London's red double-deckers).

They come to see history - the Tower of London, the grand cathedrals of York and Canterbury, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, the town and village fairs and their often centuries-old pubs and inns.

Inadvertently, the nation maintains other traditions. Traffic in large parts of London still trundles along at an average 9 miles an hour, a bit slower than in the dying days of the 19th century. Trains often keep to schedules worthy of the days of Queen Victoria. Hotel services can at times be described as quaint, a la Fawlty Towers.

These are the popular views of Britain as a whole - a landscape of tradition of which, for better or for worse, fox hunting with hounds has been a part since ancient times. It both attracts and appalls foreign visitors, many of whom would like to see it banished but nevertheless cannot take their eyes off the spectacle.

The difference with this tradition - and what threatens to wipe it out - is that fox hunting with dogs has many enemies. In this particular form of class warfare, the rich dandies in the countryside are far outnumbered by the poorer city folk - and the latter's political leaders, the heavily urbanized Labor Party, now wield parliamentary power in the land.

Fox hunting was doomed from the day that Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Laborites came to power in 1997. It has taken another seven years, but Parliament has finally voted, 339-155, to ban this ancient pastime for good, starting in July 2006.

It's not over yet. The class warriors are still afoot. Five of them, pro-hunters all, slipped by guards and invaded the sanctity of the House of Commons and screamed their anger. Anti-hunt saboteurs, for their part, can be expected to launch more attacks on the 300-plus hunts that are grimly determined to continue chasing foxes - perhaps even in defiance of the law.

It is city vs. country, rich vs. not-so-rich, dandies vs. workers, pro-hunt vs. antis. Somewhere in the middle are Britain's estimated 250,000 adult foxes, which may be saved from a particularly savage fate, and some 20,000 foxhounds and hundreds of horses that may be slaughtered when the hunting business goes under and their upkeep can no longer be afforded.

Blood, it seems, is the price of some traditions, whatever their fate.

Al Webb is a freelance journalist who lives in a village outside London.

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