A few years ago I had a funeral which involved a burial in an unfamiliar churchyard. The morning October mist was still over the graves and I went quite a way ahead of the procession to find the grave, and to stand as a marker in the cloud to ensure it would be occupied by the one for whom it was intended. As I stood sentinel the quiet was pierced by a scream, and I caught the red eyes of a stoat, his teeth deep into the neck of a struggling rabbit. I took off after the stoat which persisted, eyeing me from behind successive gravestones before vanishing into the mist.
As one raised as an urban kid, my images of rabbits came from the stuffed variety, and the crimson glare of the stoat lent itself readily to looking demonic, which convinced me of what I thought was the right thing to do. I failed the rabbit in the end by not finishing it off humanely, which I would have done if my instincts had been properly country.
Six years later, I am accustomed to being told the name of the chicken I am eating, and am well adjusted to rural life being about the sharp end of life and death.
So when Old Labour is baying for blood in calling for the abolition of the hunt, its instincts are as skewed as any townie who serves food on the table, the provenance of which is lost in a trail that ends on the supermarket shelf.
The ban against hunting with hounds has to be the most misguided and wasteful cause our representatives can pursue. Old Labour is urban, its roots are industrial, just like my own. While the anti-hunting lobby claims to be caught up in the fate of a fox, what is driving it is a deep disdain for the culture of the people who ride with the hounds.
I think, if Old Labour is still wanting to build a new and fairer world, it can be more effectively occupied.
The hunt is only partly about the fox, it is mainly rural ritual. Like any ritual there is a beginning, middle and end, there are conventions to follow, costumes to wear and patterns of deference to observe as you enjoy, for a brief season, the freedom to ride across the land unfettered and free. In the past, the hunt leader was at the head, and those who followed were in their appointed order according to their position in the rural community. The hunt was a ritual rehearsing the social makeup up the community.
The very fact that it is possible to even consider the demise of the hunt is not because we want to be kind to foxes, but because the social hierarchy which it depicts is fading quickly from country life. More often these days, whether you ride at the head or the tail of the hunt, you are likely to be found in your grey pinstripe on the platform waiting for the 0610 to Liverpool Street.
This is the 100th year of the Harley Davidson, the steed of choice for the classic biker pack. Fifty years ago, bikers had the same fantasy of riding free, the road coming to meet you, and an open horizon. The biggest and meanest dudes rode at the front, while the weakest followed behind. These days, the only people who can afford Harleys are middle-aged accountants in mid-life crisis. I’m certain that, after the bike is in the garage, today’s bikers check to see their grey pinstripe is where they can find it when they all stagger for the 0610 on Monday morning.
Old Labour should leave the hunt alone, it is already a changing institution, and can safely be left in the hands of history. In the meantime, Old Labour would be more true to its vocation if it turned to championing the cause of the availability of public services for the rural elderly and poor.