Saturday, 12 January 2008

Tam Divvy

I did not realise how much I hated work until retirement gave me the precious gift of idleness. Old age has many disadvantages; though to date I have experienced few of them. Only one sedentary pleasure is diminishing. I can no longer obey the advice of the Book of Common Prayer “to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest”.

If I open a book, it is not long before the eyelids droop and I fall asleep. If I stay awake, I cannot remember what I have read. This is a great sadness. Although totally uneducated, I believe I may have read more books than most people from my background. It is certainly true that I have come to all life’s activities, from love making to gardening, by way of a book.

My unfashionable fondness for fox hunting is a result of reading the little-known comic novels of Surtees, himself a hunting squire and the creator of a Cockney grocer called Mr Jorrocks who is obsessed with the sport. He gave him the utterance on which I based my life’s modus operandi: “Pick me up, tie me to my chair and fill up my glass.”

I took the sport up when I was working on the Daily Mirror, a paper violently opposed to hunting. I did not wear hunting pink, only rat catcher, a black jacket, riding breeches, top boots and a bowler. The season begins with cub hunting; a distasteful activity, no longer practised, which trains the young entry of hounds. Because it must be carried out before the dew lifts, it takes place in the early morning. I worked nights so I changed into my rat catcher in the office lavatory, to the chagrin of the editor. I didn’t have a car so I had to go to the stables on the all-night bus where, in bowler, breeches and top boots, I was the butt of tired humour from other night workers.

Captain Milton, my hunting companion and the manager of the stables, lived off the land. Anyone’s land. He would only eat an egg if it had been poached. He was an enormous snob who at one meet watched the multi-millionaire chairman of Unilever, Lord Leverhulme, tip-tipping by, a tribute to Lobb and Pink, on a thoroughbred that must have cost several thousand. “See Soapy is out,” said Captain Milton dismissively.

He used to take me from the stables to the meet in a horse box and I was so in awe of him that, when the back wheel caught fire as we passed through Altrincham one morning, I didn’t dare tell him until we reached the kennels.
The wife of the Hon. Sec. was even more terrifying. It was claimed that when she returned from one morning’s cubbing, a groom had observed.
“T’owd ‘oss is sweating, Ma’am.”

“So would you be,” she is said to have replied, “if you had been between my legs since six o clock this morning.”

I haven't hunted for half a century and the older I get the less inclined I am to kill anything but...

Most hunts have an inner circle of Toffs; in our pack they formed the Tarporley Hunt Club, to which no one outside their circle was admitted. Only they were invited by the Master to wear pink coats.

The greater part of the Hunt wore rat catcher and was made up of farmers, tradesmen and young girls. It is they who are affected by the recent anti-hunting legislation, not the Toffs.

Tarporley Hunt Club members regularly helicoptered to Ireland, whither their hunters had already been exported the night before to await their arrival. That in itself is cruel because horses cannot vomit and therefore suffer badly in rough weather.

Since helicopters are noisy and would spook the hounds, visiting followers have to land five miles from the meet. So cars were sent from their homes in Cheshire to drive the members from the landing strip to the meet. So they can continue to hunt in the old manner as often as they like.

Little wonder that enthusiasm is not being shown in carrying out the anti- hunting legislation. It is the poorer subscribers who suffer, and the hunt servants - the smiths, the vets and the providers of fodder.

There is a further complication. Hunts collect dead stock. European legislation has made it difficult to dispose of such carcasses. Worse, foxes carry rabies and are increasingly invading urban areas where the pickings are easy. Pet cats and dogs are at risk. A baby has been bitten by one. It is only a question of time before a helpless child is savaged.

Attlee's Government set up an inquiry into fox hunting. It decided that hunting with hounds was the least cruel method of fox disposal. The agony of poisoning was indescribable. The problem with shooting was that you could not be sure of a clean kill. Unlike dogs, a fox's spittle does not have antiseptic qualities. It is unable to cure wounds by licking them and they often become gangrenous.

Hounds are bred to be slower than their quarry; otherwise there would be no chase. It follows that only old and infirm foxes are killed; an accelerated form of natural selection.

Bans on cockfighting, badger and bear baiting were NOT introduced for humane reasons. They were part of legislation passed at a time of industrial unrest to prevent riotous assemblies. Like the present legislation, a political device.


My friend Curly Beard was always ready to help when a hunt servant had a problem. Inevitable the huntsman of the Cheshire should come to him when the Master complained he was not showing enough sport. Hunt Committees are ruthless in getting rid of huntsmen who don’t show sport. The neighbouring Wynnstay Hunt had a huntsman called Wilkin who had been with them for years. One bad season and he was out. And that meant not only out of a job, but out of a house too.

He should have gone to Curly.

“Cat’s piss, that’s the answer,“ he told the Cheshire huntsman.

“And how am I going to collect that?“ the huntsman wanted to know. “I cannot go behind them with a test tube.”

“Leave it to me,” said Curly. “Next meet is at Huxley. Meet me in the Farmer’s Arms at 8 am.”

Now I don’t know - and there was no way Curly would have told me - whether he had a vet straightened or whether he milked the cats himself. All I do know is that when we met in the car park of the Farmer’s Arms he had a cough mixture bottle which was filled with pungent liquid.
He and the huntsman walked over to the first cover and laid a trail from its centre across the fields, on either bank of a stream, and over several walls. Then we went home for breakfast and were back in the Farmer’s Arms by opening time.

The hounds met at 11 am and, watched by a scowling master, were shepherded off by the hunt staff. They were scarcely in the first field before they started to give tongue, Then they were off like lamplighters, leaving the field to catch up as best they might. Only the thrusters were up with hounds.

“That’ll do me,” said Curly. We had a few pints, then went home and were back at opening time that evening when the huntsman joined us.

“Decent day?” asked Curly.

“Decent? Never had a day like it,” said the huntsman. ”We had a four mile point and it took me all I could muster to keep up with the pack.”

“Never fails,” said Curly. “Cat’s piss.”

“Worth a guinea a gallon,” said the huntsman.

“Cost thee more than that,” said Curly. “Not easy stuff to get hold of.”

“I’ll not begrudge you,” the huntsman assured him. “Master were right chuffed. Bugger swore blind he’d seen a fox.”


* * * * * * * * * * *
A reader from the U.S. of A, emails that I was lucky to have such an epic father. That is as maybe but from the Chief Constable’s point of view he was an epic disaster from the day he joined the force.

He was paraded with the other PCs on night duty, and patrol instructions were read out by the desk sergeant. As he finished, the station door opened and a head popped round. It introduced itself as the dentist from Parkside and begged to speak to the constable whose beat took him past the surgery.

It was my father.

“I’m very troubled with rats,” the dentist told him. “On your beat tonight, if you come across a stray cat, can you lift the lid of my coal cellar and drop it through? There’s a bright shilling for you if you do.”

My old man pocketed the coin and rejoined the other policemen. They asked what the civilian wanted and foolishly my father told them. As a result, the entire night shift went on a cat hunt.

The next night they paraded again. Once again the door opened and once again the dentist popped his head round. My old man was startled to see it was covered in sticking plaster. Once again the dentist asked to speak to him.

“When I opened my cellar door this morning I was knocked flat on my back by dozens of cats,“ he told my old man. “I’m scratched and bitten all over my body. But they killed a dozen rats. So here’s another shilling. However, if you find the bugger who put the dog in, I will make it half a crown.”


Answering a demand to “follow that man”, Mr Jack Jones allowed two policemen to climb into the bucket of his articulated shovel and lumbered them, pointing and shouting, after a suspected thief who was making off along the Swansea foreshore.

Hardly had they reached down and lifted the suspect into the bucket than the excavator began to sink into the sand. Five minutes later it vanished from view - and so had the police. The repair bill will be £6,000.