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Well, fox hunters are difficult," said Iain McNay of the Hunt Saboteurs Association. "They are often very big men on top of big horses. It's hard to hold a reasonable conversation with them, though I must confess that last Christmas they surprised me. We'd gone out in force, 40 or 50 of us, to hit the West Kent Hunt and we started with a poster demonstration at the meet. Then over came a round of drinks for us, compliments of the hunt. I sniffed mine pretty hard before I drank it.
"That must have been just a Christmas truce, though. Two hours later, with the hounds no more than 20 yards behind the fox, I got between them, trying to lay a smoke screen. The hounds were soon milling around, distracted. They'd lost the fox when I was jumped by two burly huntsmen. They were going to do me over but happily by this time we were in some man's backyard. He came out roaring to get off his land and I was able to slip away. A nasty moment, though."
McNay, a slight, pale accountant in his early 20s, certainly looked no match for a couple of brawny huntsmen. And it was odd, as well, to be talking about foxhounds and the misty, wintry fields of rural England when out of his office window you could look down on London's Soho, a garish complex of porn shops, restaurants and strip clubs. He was also making me nervous.
"There's no problem, is there, if you stay inside your car?" I asked him.
McNay considered this judiciously. "Just don't get trapped, that's all. We had difficulty in Surrey one day this year. A very inexperienced member drove into a small car park. They blocked the exit, then chased him around with a Land Rover and ended up ramming him. Did a lot of damage. But no seasoned saboteur would allow that to happen."
I made a swift note to hire a car instead of using my own for my coming outing with the Hunt Saboteurs Association, a group of 2,000 anti-blood-sports activists that evokes very much the same response from the English foxhunting class as the IRA does in Protestant East Belfast. And in England, right now, fox hunting is a very emotive subject. Everything conspires to make it controversial. Fox hunting is undeniably an upper-class sport. Men in red coats (strictly, "pink") on horseback cannot help looking arrogant even if they are not. It isn't difficult to label the whole activity a grotesque, feudal survival, from the stirrup cup at the meet to the last notes of the kill sounded on a hunting horn in the gathering dusk. Or you can call it one of the last colorful pieces of pageantry left in the English countryside and demand its preservation.
And naturally there's an ecological argument. The sports say that hunting on horseback is the most effective way of keeping foxes down to an acceptable population level and also, paradoxically, that if it weren't for hunting all the foxes would have been shot long ago. Naturally there are plenty of people who deny this.
But these are really surface arguments. What happens in an English fox hunt is that a lot of people on a lot of horses with many dogs chase a small animal for a long time until they kill it, if necessary digging it out of the lair in which it has taken refuge. "Maybe you're sitting idly watching television on a Saturday afternoon," McNay had said to me when I first met him, "and it passes through your mind that there are many people taking part in sport on a Saturday, mostly kicking a soccer ball about or watching others do it. But there's a tiny minority who are getting their kicks, their enjoyment, out of chasing a terrified wild animal through the countryside, sometimes for hours, and at the end they kill it. I can't sit back and let them do it. I have to do something positive. There's a limit to what any one person can do, but suppose I save 10 foxes in a season. For a few hours I've spent my life in a positive way."
This particular day in Soho (ironically, the name of this seedy quarter is said to go back to the Middle Ages when it was green woodland to the west of London and echoed to the huntsman's cry-So-ho! So-ho!) was a busy one for McNay. Every morning paper had carried the story that Princess Anne had spent a day hunting with the Zetland pack in Yorkshire. For half a century, at least, no member of the immediate royal family, sensitive to public opinion, had gone fox hunting. "Perhaps the Queen will be displeased," a palace spokesman was reputed to have said.
McNay, though, had not been entirely displeased. In fact there was an observable glint of battle in his eye. "Would you happen to know how to start off a letter to a princess?" he asked.