Com­ment

In ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties, hunt­ing, like Christ­mas, is about com­ing to­gether to cel­e­brate our tra­di­tional val­ues, cus­toms and ri­tu­als, as we have done for mil­len­nia, says Bar­ney White-spun­ner

The Field - - Contents -

I HOPE not all the cards you re­ceive this Christ­mas will be those de­press­ingly bland ones of a star or a fes­tive mul­ti­coloured cube or some such neu­tral sym­bol guar­an­teed nei­ther to of­fend nor to please and that wish you ‘Sea­son’s Greet­ings’. I hope you will re­ceive at least some cards with proper Christ­mas scenes – sim­ple cribs and choirs of an­gels, rough shep­herds and splen­did kings, vil­lages in win­ter, dec­o­rated trees, presents, stock­ings and all the other time­less im­ages that we have so long as­so­ci­ated with a day that is as mag­i­cal for chil­dren as it is spe­cial for grownups. And I hope that you will re­ceive at least some cards with hunt­ing scenes.

Not even the most ar­dent hunt sup­porter can ar­gue that hunt­ing is ac­tu­ally part of the Christ­mas story. But Christ­mas is a time when we cel­e­brate our tra­di­tional val­ues and al­low those cus­toms and ri­tu­als that have shaped our fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties for cen­turies to rule our lives for a few days. Hounds meet­ing in the mar­ket square or on the vil­lage green is as much part of the Christ­mas tra­di­tion in the Bri­tish Isles as giv­ing presents, eat­ing turkey or lis­ten­ing to HM The Queen. It’s not nec­es­sar­ily be­cause the hunt of­fers a colour­ful spec­ta­cle or that hunt staff share a liv­ery with Fa­ther Christ­mas; it is rather be­cause Christ­mas in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties is about com­ing to­gether. It’s about an an­cient and val­ued lore – and a lore that runs far deeper than a per­ni­cious law.

You prob­a­bly know Wil­liam But­ler Yeats’ great poem The Lake Isle of In­n­is­free. You may have read it at school or heard it since at a fu­neral or memo­rial ser­vice where it fea­tures reg­u­larly as we try, un­der­stand­ably, to con­nect man back to na­ture. What Yeats de­scribes is man’s yearn­ing to es­cape back to a sim­pler, deeper life, away from the “pave­ments grey”, back to what is in “the deep heart’s core”. The poem is so well known be­cause Yeats ar­tic­u­lates so neatly and ac­cu­rately that de­sire to con­nect with our roots, which we all feel but don’t al­ways un­der­stand.

That is what hunt­ing has long been, and still is, for so many of us. That op­por­tu­nity to ride deep into the Bri­tish and Ir­ish coun­try­side in win­ter, to es­cape from all the plas­tic ten­sions of mod­ern life. It is an op­por­tu­nity to be amongst friends, to en­joy the mu­sic of hounds on an evening scent, the sun set­ting over a dark wood, or the shad­ows length­en­ing against the hedges as we hack home. It is, like Christ­mas, a time when we al­low a deeper lore to guide us.

And that is why hunt­ing, and the rit­ual of the meet, par­tic­u­larly on Box­ing Day when fam­i­lies are gath­ered at home, has been so in­flu­en­tial in ru­ral life. It’s not just that hunt­ing has shaped how our coun­try­side looks, its coverts and hedges, gorse-cov­ered banks, stone walls and lanes. It has en­tered so many other parts of our lives. How many pubs have you been into with hunt­ing prints on the walls? Per­haps not some of those rather drab es­tab­lish­ments, all func­tion­al­ity and formica, but cer­tainly in proper pubs, those with a soul and warmth and a wel­come. Hunt­ing is in the phrases we use ev­ery day. We run with the pack, take things in our stride, hound peo­ple, some­times we go to ground and the ‘whips’ con­trol how mem­bers vote in Par­lia­ment, although I won­der if the more po­lit­i­cally cor­rect of our politi­cians ac­tu­ally re­alise where the term comes from.

Oliver Cromwell tried to en­force a dull, pu­ri­tan regime onto the Bri­tish and Ir­ish peo­ple, and to make Christ­mas just about prayer and self-de­nial. Cromwell quickly dis­cov­ered that there is noth­ing that is more guar­an­teed to en­sure that some­thing thrives in these is­lands than to leg­is­late against it. Hunt­ing thrives be­cause it is a deeper and more im­por­tant part of those peo­ple whose lives it touches. It is in their “deep heart’s core”. There are also rather more of them than hunt­ing’s op­po­nents would care to ad­mit, as you will be able to judge by the crowds who flock to the tra­di­tional Box­ing Day meets.

We do not know how long ago our fore­bears started cel­e­brat­ing the win­ter sol­stice, when they broke the monotony of dull, cold days with a feast. We do know, how­ever, that hunt­ing is as old as mankind it­self, and ‘Christ­mas’ prob­a­bly is as well. So when you are re­lax­ing in front of your fire, pon­der for a mo­ment whether there is not part of you that would rather like to be on In­n­is­free, on Yeats’ is­land, grow­ing beans, har­vest­ing honey, lis­ten­ing to the lake wa­ter lap­ping and en­joy­ing an evening full of lin­net’s wings. Let your eyes pass from those dull cards, those ex­pres­sions of wor­thi­ness that are an in­sult to their postage, and dwell in­stead on those that por­tray the soul of our coun­try­side, those tra­di­tions that run so deep we don’t really know where they started but which, for a few days at least, we can cheer­fully al­low to dic­tate our lives. And some of those cards will surely por­tray a meet of hounds. Bar­ney White-spun­ner’s lat­est book, Par­ti­tion: The Story of In­dian in­de­pen­dence and the cre­ation of Pak­istan in 1947, is now avail­able in pa­per­back.

We do know that hunt­ing is as old as mankind it­self, and ‘Christ­mas’ prob­a­bly is as well

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