Equine Tourism – Hunting: Feature by Jeremy Irons
Copyright Jeremy Irons 2004. This article first appeared in The Sunday Times, London 14th November 2004.
Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Thespian : Jeremy Irons pleads tolerance towards the ‘other England’ of country pursuits
One of the benefits of this media age, where television and newspaper coverage span the globe, is that we all have access to how the rest of the world lives and behaves. This sometimes leads to an outpouring of generosity as in, for example, the millions raised in charity for the appalling situation in parts of Africa.
It can also create a political zeal to encourage everyone to live as we do, convinced as we are that we have found in democratic capitalism the most desirable way to organise society.
So we watch Republican America try to force-feed democracy to medieval Afghanistan and attempt the same proselytising in Iraq, with the disturbing consequences that we witness every night. The situation in Iraq also highlights how shallow the understanding given to us by the media can be, as well as the trap of believing that everyone is, at base, like us.
On a more parochial level there are constant reminders that the human condition seems to be to dislike and distrust lifestyles different from our own. Whether it be the relatively innocuous celebrity vilification in the press, the defacing of ethnic cemeteries or homophobic murder on our streets.
Otherness — other ways of life, religion or behaviour — is, it seems, to be feared, attacked or even legislated against, as if homogeneity is a way towards a more peaceful society. I believe that a truly civilised society is not one of homogeneity but one of tolerance, respect for and even delight in each other’s difference and chosen ways of life.
England is being more and more urbanised and although we are blessed with one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, it is viewed as often as not from an urban perspective. The countryside has become a place to visit and refresh ourselves after the stress of urban life.
It is our view through the windscreen or railway carriage window as we speed from one conurbation to another. For the more fortunate it is the smells and the silence as we unlock the front door of our second home on a Friday night.
For those who live in and off the countryside, season in and season out, it is not like that. Rather it is a place to which they have been bound, often for generations. Country people survive because of the land; they spend their days working it, harvesting it, nurturing it, preserving it and enjoying it.
In cities we have the luxury of bars, theatres and all-night buses; restaurants, shopping malls, cinemas, museums and easily taken holidays. We are surrounded by opportunities to relax and indulge ourselves. Country dwellers do not always have access to such delights, even if they had a mind to enjoy them. As their environment and way of life are different, so too are their leisure pursuits.
One of their pleasures is walking or riding with hounds. This sport, along with game shooting and fishing, is a great and traditional pastime for many countrymen. Not all, of course, and some refuse to allow hunting, shooting or fishing on their land — although they do not feel the need to force their taste on those around them.
Many of us city dwellers have no experience of country pursuits. We have never known the euphoria of riding across country on a crisp winter’s morning, summoned the bravery to fly pell-mell over hedges and ditches or experienced the extraordinary exhilaration of feeling at one with a horse. To some people, hunting seems merely a ridiculous activity motivated by man’s cruelty.
Many of us who knew little about hunting with hounds have recently been able to educate ourselves by reading the government inquiry, along with newspaper articles written on the subject. We now know that hounds will kill a fox more efficiently (and thus more humanely) than any other method. We now know that those who follow hounds do so not out of bloodlust but out of the desire to test their own or their horse’s mettle and to enjoy the privilege of riding or walking across our beautiful country. This privilege is granted to them by the landowners in return for the culling of a countryside pest.
To many city folk, animals are regarded as pets, to be nurtured domestically or hand-fed in zoos or nature parks. But if we had deer laying waste to our gardens, foxes spreading refuse through our streets and mange through our poodles perhaps our attitude would change. Urban life has had the effect of removing us from the reality of life in the country. For to a countryman, foxes, deer and rabbits, if their population is not kept in check, will devastate the fruit of his hard-earned labours.
The result of our urbanisation is that more and more of our representatives, especially after the huge influx of new Labour politicians, have their roots in the city which explains why the majority in the House of Commons voted to ban the sport. Or does it? Having as it does the evidence contained in this government’s inquiry, with its recommendation that hunting should be licensed rather than banned, why then is the Commons voting for a full-out ban? It seems that the banning of this sport, which is such an important part of so many people’s lives, has become a political sport all of its own.
During the debate before the most recent vote, at which the prime minister chose to absent himself and while thousands demonstrated in Parliament Square, our politicians did not concern themselves with animal welfare, the maintenance of our countryside or rural communities, but rather with revenge for the miners, beating the toffs and defeating the House of Lords.
Using the hunting bill to settle old scores may be acceptable behaviour within the walls of the palace of Westminster, but when viewed from the perspective of a tolerant and law-abiding populace, it is at best undemocratic and at worst despicable. So much so that by putting parliament into disrepute, those innate qualities of tolerance and respect for the rule of law may be tested to the limit.
In a tolerant society, criminalised behaviour should be judged as something that encroaches upon the right of others to live in freedom. I do not believe that hunting with hounds does this.
Fortunately, we still have a second chamber peopled with lawmakers educated with a more informed overview of how to govern our nation. The House of Lords, I believe rightly, rejected this bill by a huge majority.
Even among Labour peers there was a majority of support for compromise.
It is important that when the bill returns to the Commons the prime minister, who I know has the desire to find a compromise, attends the debate with his senior colleagues to encourage the more faint-hearted to stand up for tolerance and the respect for other people’s ways of life.
I do not believe that those of us who voted this government in dreamt that it would countenance such an abuse of democracy. Let us hope that the final outcome of this bill will go towards uniting our nation rather than dividing it still further.
Copyright Jeremy Irons 2004. This article first appeared in The Sunday Times, London 14th November 2004