Well, I see that the Brits are at last about to bite the quirt and outlaw fox hunting. It might seem a trivial preoccupation in these iron days—only in England would the pursuit of the old Vulpes Vulgaris, the common fox, threaten to divide the nation. If Hitler had twigged this soft, foxy underbelly of his enemy, who knows what might have happened? Like many other things in English life, fox hunting has become so much a part of the cultural picture, even among those who wouldn’t know a stirrup from a surcingle, that attacks on it not only bounced off but contributed further to its institutionalisation. Oscar Wilde’s definition of fox hunting as ‘the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable’ was certainly witty but, in a sort of reflex way, it conceded to the importance, the institutional status, of fox hunting. As if it was the kind of essentially British cultism that deserved the best possible satiric bon mot, even from a stroppy Irishman.

But what is not well known, even in Britain, is that the main thrust behind the ban has come not from animal rights people—though, of course, they have been very much to the fore—but from MI5. British security realised some time ago that groups like the Crutchley Hunt Club or the Groigne View Halloo were ideal covers for spies and, more recently, prospective terrorists.

It was happening like this. Men ‘of Middle-Eastern appearance’ would move legitimately to Britain and, donning pink or scarlet jackets, tight white jodhpurs, shiny black knee-high boots, chic riding helmets and blowing a loud, dissonant horn or shouting ‘Tally-ho’ or ‘Yoicks’, would merge seamlessly into the fabric of English society. Years later, established and respected in rural circles, individuals like Sir Mohammed Gormley-Gormley Vere Alahhwi Rasheed would be ready and fully trained ‘sleepers’, as they are known in the trade, capable of being triggered for terrorist activities by a secret code  published as the clue for 14-across in The Times crossword.

This particular example refers to a real event in which the conspiracy was cracked wide open by Scotland Yard’s Chief Superintendent Ali Shoab O’Brien. He noticed that 14-across—‘Ram New Scotland Yard entrance with truckload of explosives on 20 April at 11am’ should have been the clue for 14-down. His complaint to The Times—signed ‘Puzzled of Greys Inn Road’—led to the whole imbroglio being uncovered. That very same Gormley-Gormley Vere Alahhwi Rasheed was stripped of his knighthood and expelled from the Ockendene and Quorn, which, along with the Crutchley Hunt Club and the Groigne View Halloo, was disbanded. The Times crossword man was demoted to ‘A Word-a-Day’ and carefully watched. When, three weeks later, his word for the day was ‘Semtex’, he was sacked. But still watched.

In Australia, of course, fox hunting is neither so popular nor, despite animal rights concerns, so sacrosanct. If you don’t count foxes, rabbits, blackberries, Christmas dinner, the Anglican Church, public schools, anti-republicanism, reverence for the Queen and the conviction that she is ‘radiant’, cultism about the late Princess Diana, and so on, it is fair to say that we are reasonably free of British hangovers. And this freedom, combined with our temperamental differences from our Head of State’s sceptred isle subjects, makes it difficult to imagine an equivalent conflict in this country that would arouse the sort of passions visible on both sides of the fox hunting debate in Britain. Remarkably, Australians did not in general become distressed or riled by the lies and deceptions that, it is now clear, accompanied our entry into the Iraq war, unlike our British and American counterparts, so, given that level of apathy, an upheaval over something as ephemeral as fox hunting seems unlikely.

No doubt the investment of English fox hunting with pomp, ritual, social éclat, and elite trappings—you need a costume, a horse, riding gear, time, land or landed friends—has encouraged hunters to have aristocratic pretensions, which in turn makes them some powerful friends. But all this finery and frippery runs against the Australian preference for what you might call the backyard foundation of sports and pastimes. You can’t have a bit of a fox hunt in the backyard the way you can kick a footy or hit a ball. Try blowing that hunting horn and shouting ‘Goooone to earth’ and ‘Hallooolooolooo’ in your backyard and the bloke next door will turn the hose on you, his wife will call Neighbourhood Watch and every dog within five kilometres will howl and whine well into the night. The Waugh and Chappell brothers famously played backyard cricket, but who among our hunting luminaries rode to hounds across the geraniums, the Grosse Lisse tomatoes and the bit of lawn round the Hills Hoist?

Out in the Australian wilderness and the wide-open spaces, the only equivalent to a fox hunt that I can think of is a kangaroo shoot. But anyone who has gone spotlighting roos in the backblocks knows that this event—a nightmare of swirling dust, blood and entrails, blinding lights, crisscrossing utes and coarse language distilled through stubbies—looks more like something out of Terminator 2 than a folk or cultural event with traditions and rituals.

Meanwhile, various craggy denizens of the House of Lords are squirming and scratching to save the hunt: the unelectable in defence of the unacceptable. 

Brian Matthews is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at  Victoria University.



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