Jane Shilling's The Fox in the Cupboard is a memoir. It tells the story of how Jane, a single mother living in London, decided to use a spare couple of weeks to learn to ride a horse. And how, having learnt to ride, she began to go fox hunting.
The book is published in the UK by Penguin, and in the US by Touchstone; I have been reading the American edition.
As it happens, Jane Shilling's decision to go hunting was made at almost exactly the time when our Glorious Leader and his cronies began to talk about making fox hunting illegal in England. This is a circumstance which inevitably colours what she has to say. But I would be doing the author a great disservice if I gave any impression that this is a political tract.
Absolutely the opposite: what this book is, is a wonderfully well observed account of the life of one young woman amidst a host of English 'characters' and eccentrics. Jane Shilling is a columnist for the London Times, so she knows how to write; and by page 15 she had already begun to evoke for me a convincing sense of the atmosphere, sound, smell, and social context of an average English hunt.
The portraits of some of the characters of the hunt are exceptionally well drawn. Mrs Rogers, who taught Jane to ride, and who shortly thereafter became a Master of Fox Hounds, is one of those terrifying Englishwomen who are totally competent, don't suffer fools gladly, but have an underlying sense of sympathy and care.
There are marvellous descriptions of some of the social functions, both grand and down to earth, in which hunt members tend to get involved. There is a particularly funny account of a hunt ball. (And yes, all the stories that you have heard about hunt balls seem to be true.)
Afterwards, Mrs Rogers comments that it was great fun. 'But,' she adds, 'at the Tally Ho club dances [the Tally Ho club being the hunt's foot followers, of modest means] they never feel the evening's complete until there's been a knife fight.'
Yes, I thought, when I read that. This is the book for me, all right.
Of course, no book about hunting can possibly convey the physical effort involved in going hunting. In Jane's case, she has to get up at 5 a.m., spend an hour driving into the country, and then two or three hours preparing her horse. Then she goes out and hunts for perhaps six hours. Then she spends another two or three hours washing down the horse and cleaning the equipment. And finally she has another hour's drive home.
Hunting, it should never be forgotten, is a highly dangerous activity. People get killed. It demands courage, and Jane tells us that she was regularly sick before the hunt began. She clearly had to struggle to force herself on at times; and that, in my opinion, is admirable.
It has to be said that this book is a trifle over-written in places, and some judicious skipping may be needed. Overall, however, it a very fine book indeed, and I'm glad that I read it.
And now, for those who care, here is an appendix with some details of the social and political background to fox hunting in the UK, over the last few years; plus some remarks about my own attitude.
Fox hunting is an activity which had its rules and guiding principles set out in writing by King Edward II's huntsman, William Twiti, in 1327. Over the centuries it has been heavily supported by landowners, noblemen, the rich, and the leisured; but it is also a pursuit popular with country people generally, even those who can afford to do no more than follow the hunt on foot or by bicycle.
In recent years a case against hunting has been developed on the basis that it is cruel to animals. However, this argument was never very convincing; and we have a statement from a former Chairman of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to the effect that a ban on hunting will not, in fact, reduce the overall level of cruelty to animals, because of its knock-on effects.
The truth is the most support for a ban on hunting is based not on concerns for animal welfare but on dislike/hatred of the English upper classes. Anti-hunting sentiment is chiefly fuelled by some very unattractive human characteristics such as envy, jealousy, and spite.
'The countryside,' one Labour MP told the chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, 'represents everything that we despise -- wealth, exclusiveness, feudalism and cruelty.' In accordance with that view, the Hunting Act turned out to be a thoroughly mean-spirited piece of legislation.
The anti-hunt brigade regularly turn out whenever a hunt meets. And they are equally unattractive in their mores. 'Whore!' they say, in low intent voices as Jane passes. 'Cunt! Murderer!' Charming people.
Now for my own attitude.
So far as I remember, I have only even caught sight of a hunt on three occasions. In short, I am wholly uninterested in hunting. But I am interested in personal liberty. And the decision to ban hunting seems to me to be an entirely unnecessary interference with personal liberty.
When the Countryside Alliance invited those who were against the proposed legislation to take part in a march in London, to demonstrate the strength of the opposition, I went along. So did Mrs GOB and 400,000 others. This march, though impressive at the time, was not sufficient to impress Kim Il Blair, and a ban on hunting took effect on 19 February 2005.
So far, the ban has proved to be largely unworkable. By making a few minor alterations to the ways in which they conduct themselves, hunts have been able to continue their activities; and there has not, so far, been one prosecution for illicit hunting with dogs.
The Independent, in a leader column on 7 November, declared that 'The debate over hunting with hounds will go down as one of the greatest wastes of time in political history....The Hunting Act has become a tragic symbol of the follies of the Blair era.'
It is said, incidentally, that the debate on hunting took up more Parliamentary time than did the debate on whether to go to war with Iraq.