Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Jane Shilling: The Fox in the Cupboard

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.


Anonymous said...

There is the small bit you missed out of the fox being ripped to pieces by a pack of dogs, many of whom will be put down (shot in fact) when the are not fit enough to hunt (about 6 years old)...

Yes I think the countryside had it coming to them really. They conveyed an attitude of "laws are for those oiks in the cities who are all criminals anyway..." They thought they could simply do as they like and no one would stop them... They live in an idealistic place of privalage and family wealth.

The fact that they are not going to obey the law, simply because they see it as unjust, shows them to be largely what they are: spoilt children who have had their favourtie toy taken away...

Its time for them to grow up and to realise that democracy and laws dont just apply to anyone who is rich enough that they don't have to work for a living!

Flame on!

Fence said...

When I was younger I was opposed to hunting. But now, while I wouldn't go fox-hunting, I don't really see anything all that dreadful about it. Yes the fox gets ripped to shreds, but is tht any better or worse than being shot. And possibly only wounded and so facing a lingering death?
Have to say that I agree, a lot of the anti-hunting feeling does seem to be based on class hatred. here in Ireland hunting isn't really a major issue at the moment, apart from Irish hunts making statements that English hunters aren't all that welcome as there isn't room for them.

Bill Sinclair said...

Re: hunting ban and "an entirely unnecessary interference with personal liberty." Yes, well..., er...whose liberty? Whilst people who hunt have enjoyed such liberty since, as you say, 1327, ordinary people who may have had a desire to exercise by simply walking across fields have not enjoyed the same liberty.
Further, 20 years ago, when peaceably travelling through the Dales in northern England in search of caves to explore, as was my companions' want was then (They would risk life and limb in pursuit of underground sport whilst I would wander across the surface with a good book and/or notebook for observations) we (8 all told in hired minibusn)were coralled into a lane by a policeman aboard a motorcycle. The policeman escorted us along the lane, refusing us permission to turn left or right and continue our journey. Unbeknownst to us a hunt was in full cry in the fields just over the hedge. Eventually we were pulled over onto the verge and ordered to remain parked and in our vehicle until the hunt had passed. By any understanding of the language such behaviour is best described as unlawful detention.Whose liberty? All we wanted was to continue our journey and go caving. The policeman, aided and abetted by some pretty tough looking men with pickaxe handles (I think they're called hunt followers or some such passive nomenclature)had assumed, without bothering to ask any questions, that we were hunt saboteurs. I'm pleased and proud to say that their tactics were self-defeating. So enraged by this unwarranted delay and hindrance to our liberty to enjoy the countryside we vacated the vehicle, evaded the followers and solitary policeman, and set off across the fields to hunt down who we assumed to be responsible for our troubles. We joined up with some real hunt-sabs and had some fun. Hunters do not like being hunted. It was the first and only time I've sabbed. I noted then that the larger percentage of those in the hunt were city dwellers. I recognised two Lancaster based solicitors, a very senior policeman, a hotel chain owner and a business magazine publisher. I asked one of the hunters why she didn't go shopping like ordinary people on a Saturday (yes, the hunt this day was a Saturday). The huntress replied, in the most imperious way, " Because we own the shops dear."
When we returned to the hired minibus two of the tyres had been slashed. And, on taking the minibus back to the hire shop, we were told that the van hire manager had been visited by the police demanding to know not just who had hired the vehicle(we hired it through a company name)but were insistent that he tell them everything he knew about the occupants. Before leaving the premises they advised the hire shop manager that he would be best advised to refuse any future hire requests from any of us. Whose liberty?

Ten years later, in the north-east of England, whilst working for a local authority, a colleague, the countryside ranger, showed me the hateful correspondence he had received (via the Chief Executive's office) from the local hunt (on headed paper) and individual hunt supporters. The correspondence accused him, amongst other uglier epithets, of being an unwashed, sandal wearing, muesli knitting (?) Trotskyite. His offence? That despite negotiating what he took to be a binding voluntary agreement with the hunt to avoid a former mining site which he was patiently re-developing as a countryside amenity area (for local towny families to enjoy walking, bird-spotting, orienteering etc.) and in which he had re-established various habitats, the hunt had persisted in charging through the wood, terrifying a few parents with babies in pushchairs and toddlers in the process. In response he prepared a report recommending that the local authority advise the hunt that it should in future avoid using the wood. The woodland was, and remains, a very small island of municipally owned green space amid a very large landscape owned by just three estates (Zetland, Gisborough and Skelton & Gilling). Not content with sending hatemail someone connected to the local hunting fraternity arranged to have a dead deer dumped on his doorstep in the middle of the night. Whose liberty? Those of council tax paying "land owners" to freely enjoy a small part of the local landscape? Or the liberty of the ranger's two young daughters to not have to step over the bloodied carcass of a deer on their way to school?

Earlier this year I had the very good fortune to stay with George Briscoe, of the legendary (it is no exaggeration)Briscoe family in County Meath, Ireland. George is the most amiable, and, after an Irish (whisky) or two the most entertaining and garrulous of hosts. We spent many an hour discussing his family's glorious, and inglorious, past. His grandfather was at the centre of a huge controversy involving Maud Gonne, W.B Yeats, and Pearse who pitted themselves against group of Masonic British Israelites who were (bizarre but true)digging up the Hill of Tara in search of the Ark of the Covenant. (If I could learn how to post links I could point you to a fairly recently published book all about this bizarre case which goes to the very core of early Irish nationalist(crypto-fascist)sentiment.) Most of George's stories have hunting at their cores. He is a very well regarded and highly respected huntsman. He told us of his times with (the late, great)Jack Lemmon, even showing us Lemmon's class photos in a series of year books, (my partner's uncle Charlie was in the same class as Lemmon) and modestly regaled us with other stories (Braveheart was partly shot on his family's former estate)often involving American visitors.
George is a gentleman. George has opinions about local issues which he expresses frequently in the local press. However there is never a trace of arrogance - he has opinions which he defends - but he would never ever impugn another person, let alone threaten them with hatemail, should their views disagree with his. Unlike my experience of the hate-filled, arrogant, small minded supporters of the so-called Countryside Alliance who believe that they have a God gven right to literally ride roughshod over other people's property, and values, without conscience, and without liability for any compensation for any damage or injury they may cause.
George, 83 years old, egged on by family and friends, is currently engaged in writing a hunting based memoir. I've read large chunks of the typescript, edited by his good wife Jean, and I'm sure, if ever published, it will put Shilling's account in the shade. George is very modest about his writing skills (but, by George! I think he has the skill of anatural storyteller) George is an avid reader, as well as accomplished gardener, and I'm sure he will enjoy reading Shilling's account, which, thanks to your fulsome review, I will seek out and buy as an Xmas gift for George. (Bugger...I've let that cat out of the hst haven't I?)
Anyway, any UK/US agents or publishers reading this who may be interested in looking at George's work (there is a very strong US connection throughout the book) please let me know via this web thread an I'll do what I can to put you in touch with George's wife Jean.

Thanks again for maintaining such a good blog - indispensable. Bill Sinclair

Andrea Garrett said...

Dear All: The poster who said "the small bit you missed out of the fox being ripped to pieces by a pack of dogs" is responding naturally to an unpleasant image. The reality is that hunting with dogs is 1. natural-that is after all how the fox himself hunts and 2. really less cruel than being shot and possibly wounded, dying a slow lingering death. The good part about hunting with hounds is that the hunted animal is either completely uninjured or killed-there is no inbetween.
The blogger who was offended because the hunt could cross land they could not-well hunts have permission. They do not (in general)cross land they haven't already received the ok from landowners to be on. I'm sorry someone had a dead deer thrown on their doorstep-that's awful and uncalled for. Violence and rudeness do not help debate of any kind. I've never heard of a hunt which didn't make reparation for any damages-that's how they're asked back. If your friend George's book is published it sounds wonderful and I hope I get to read it. He is really much more indictive of hunters in my opinion than the rude sort. Regards, Andrea Garrett

Stefan said...

Good Job! :)

Anonymous said...

All the drivel about hunting appears to come from ill-informed lefties who frankly should refrain from comment until they've learned to compose an intelligible sentence. Foxes weren't generally 'torn to pieces', the first dog would usually kill the prey with one bite (given that hounds are considerably larger than a fox)
Bottom line is that the Bill was a typically fascist bit of unnecessary legislation from a government devoid of morals or integrity. Incidentally, when are the lefties going to exercise their scruples on the matter of our involvement in the illegal invasion of Iraq? So much for principle....bunch of a-holes.

Anonymous said...

Love this book. "What is a race horse if not an animated wish".