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.
"Try 'Your Royal Highness,' " I told him. He drew up a typewriter and tapped a polite note to Anne, inviting her to join the next strike of the Hunt Saboteurs. "I bet she won't even answer," he said, reaching for the telephone, "but the papers will love it."
I had to call him back to the matter at hand. "Well, yes," he said, "I think you might enjoy meeting our South Dorset group. Very primitive huntsmen down there in Dorset. You should have an excellent day's sport."
At this point I realized that the Hunt Saboteurs enjoyed their sorties. In fact, hunt sabotaging seemed to be showing signs of developing into a sport in its own right. It had everything that was needed to make it a valid field sport. Intimate contact with the countryside. The pitting of wits against a crafty quarry well able to defend itself. The wild exhilaration of the chase, with physical danger ever present. At the end of the day, victory or defeat.
McNay talked about it in just this vein. "It's great," he said, "to get out there in the woods at dawn when it's cold and clear." The traffic roared down Greek Street but he was a hundred miles away from it. "It's a thrill when you find a hole that they've stopped up." A lot of hunts employ earth-stoppers who go out the night before the meet, while the foxes are abroad in search of prey, to block their lairs to make sure they have no refuge during the next day's hunting. Instruction No. 1 in "Basic Tactics for the Disruption of Fox Hunts," a sheet of helpful hints that McNay had given me to study, was concerned with just this.
"Yes," said McNay, "you'll enjoy it in Dorset. You might practice a little fast rolling into ditches, and the quicker you learn to scramble over a hedge the better." I looked up to see if he was smiling, but he was not. "I'm staying in the car, remember?" I told him.
The venue did not turn out to be South Dorset after all. A late-night telephone call switched it to Wiltshire. Another, two nights later, to Somerset. Either the Hunt Saboteurs' security was highly professional or they did not trust me. Probably both. Trustingly though, after the last call which announced that we would hit the Mendip Farmers' Hunt in Somerset, I booked into a hotel in Shepton Mallet that was recommended in a good food guide. If I was going to get ridden down next morning, I reasoned, I might as well enjoy my last night.
When the headwaiter came up with an odd look on his face immediately after the smoked eel, I thought he was going to tell me that they had run out of Clos de Vougeot '65. Not at all. "There are some, er, gentlemen outside to see you," he said. Evidently I had slithered in his estimation and soon I could see why. In the foyer stood a small group of youths with shoulder-length hair, frayed denims and necks hung with chains from which dangled mystical symbols. One of them appeared to have been awarded the Iron Cross, which he wore, somewhat inconsistently, on the breast of a jacket announcing him to be a corporal in the U.S. Air Force. Momentarily I felt a sharp pang of sympathy for the Mendip Farmers' Hunt, but my visitors came forward smiling shyly, revealing in their midst a tiny, apple-cheeked girl, not more than 17, and when they spoke in soft West Country burrs I soon realized how mistaken I was. They were wearing uniforms, just like the red-coated huntsmen. The barmaid made the same mistake, though, when I brought them inside. "No scrumpy sold here," she snapped. "It makes you people obstreperous." Scrumpy is a rough, homemade Somerset cider.
I told her to give my friends what they wanted, half-pints of bitter ale. "We always have this problem," Phillip Gray sighed. He turned out to be the leader of the local Hunt Saboteurs group. "You know what the fox hunters call us? Longhaired, layabout students. Well, all right, we've got the hair. But students? We posted notices in every campus around Bath and Bristol but we didn't get a single volunteer. They're more interested in Che Guevara than stopping fox hunting. I'm an engineering apprentice. We all work. Layabouts? Those huntsmen are out three times a week chasing foxes. Who are the layabouts?"
I calmed him with another bitter. "We've got difficulties with this hunt," said Phillip. "We've only hit them once before and we don't know the ground well, so it will hardly be worth going out to unstop earths in the early morning. Tomorrow we're going to have to improvise."
"Pity you couldn't come to see us doing the Beaufort," said another kid. "That's just about the poshest hunt in England, with the Duke of Beaufort up on his big bay horse. Now that's really funny."
"Or an otter hunt," said the girl, Susan. "Like the Courtney Tracy. That's in the summertime, though. We had 60 saboteurs out for the last hunt of the season, and six of us dressed up in hunt uniforms blowing horns, confusing everything. It was absolute comedy. All those awful people in green uniforms with steel-shod poles for prodding the otter. They went home early. They only caught two otter all last season."
"We got them in Lincolnshire as well!"
"We chased them across into Wales."
"All right," said Phillip. "Take it easy. It's a fox hunt tomorrow and that's a lot tougher." He glowered at a full-scale map spread across his knees. "Get word to everyone to meet at Farrington Gurney," he said. "That's a couple of miles from where the hunt is going to meet at Clapton. If we turn up earlier than necessary at Clapton they'll know and they'll try to fix the meet for somewhere else.
"The ones you really have to watch out for are the hunt supporters. Most of them are big, meaty farm workers, the type that can swing a 25-gallon milk churn up onto a truck. The last time we hit the Beaufort one of them said he was going to pick me up and put me in his pocket."
Maybe I could stay with Susan, I thought. They wouldn't hit a girl, would they? I decided I didn't want to hear any more horror stories. Leaving them to their bitter, I went upstairs to study my basic-tactics sheet.
Most of the suggestions were straight-forward. Bogus horn-blowing to distract the hounds. Pretending to be a supporter and giving misleading instructions to the hunt ("He went thataway!"). Spraying strong-smelling but harmless substances from aerosol cans on roads and at field entrances to deaden the hounds' sense of smell. Driving slowly down country lanes with the choke out for the same purpose. Laying a smoke screen between hounds and quarry with a marine distress signal if the gap between them is closing rapidly. Some instructions were mildly naughty—"Call the hounds 'dogs' within earshot of the huntsman. His sensibilities are not designed to take it"—but most of them backed up the Hunt Saboteurs' claim to be nonviolent. Walk away from a potential fight. Cooperate with police ("It's nice to have them around sometimes"). Try to see that the press doesn't stir things up for a story. Don't frighten the horses. None of this would apply to me, of course. I would be inside the car, casting a cool, amused eye on the proceedings.
I woke to rain rattling on the window: a cold, wet, blustery December morning. I eased myself into my saboteurs' survival gear. Inconspicuous sweater and pants, drab green and brown. Soft hat, well pulled down. An old raincoat. If the need arose I reckoned I could pass as an unsuccessful farmer, feudal down to my rubber boots. "God bless your honor!" I rehearsed to the mirror, courteously opening a gate for the Master of Foxhounds.
I was slightly ashamed an hour later as the local saboteurs tumbled out of a Ford camper and a battered Land Rover. More cars brought a London contingent led by lain McNay. We must have been 25 strong. Nobody else looked like a feudal farmer. Some carried highly polished brass hunting horns that they referred to as bugles. Others had aerosol sprays labeled "Anti-Mate" and "No-Fol," compounds intended by the manufacturers to make life difficult for bitches in season but on this day meant to put hounds off the scent. We gathered around the 2½-inch-to-a-mile map that showed every field and cottage. "Reckon they'll go down Folly Hill toward Midsomer Norton," said Phillip. "Buglers ought to get away now." Four specialists who were going to hide in different parts of the woods to try to split the pack with bogus calls were driven away.
Phillip surveyed his remaining force. "Back into the transport," he said.
"Hang on a minute!" shouted Susan. "Miss Smith is on her way!"
Down the road, through the rain, plodded a small square lady with short graying hair. She carried a huge shopping bag from which hung a towel. "Miss Annie Smith," muttered McNay. "She hits every hunt within 50 miles of Bristol. Comes out on the bus. She's a gallant old girl but she's not fast enough to get out of trouble. And she's very good at causing it. We'll have to try to find a car role for her."
"Good morning, m'dears," beamed Miss Smith. Out of her bag she hauled a plastic bottle that held half a gallon of a brown, evil-looking compound. "Saboteurs Special, me loves," she said, shaking it vigorously. "Made it meself!"
"In the car, Annie," said Phillip, "and try to stay in it for a while." I pulled out behind the last car as our caravan moved slowly off.
The meet itself was on a patch of green grass in the middle of Clapton. McNay was right. The men on horse-back looked huge. One of them, possibly the master, doffed his cap to the saboteurs, who were already moving around spraying the roadway and the hedges close to the hounds. "Good morning!" he said. So far all was formal and expected, the early moves of grandmasters in a chess game. "Maybe we should prosecute them under the clean-air act," said a glacial-looking lady rider, wrinkling her nose.
Within minutes the hunt was clattering down the road, as forecast by Phillip, toward Midsomer Norton. A Land Rover full of saboteurs followed close on the horses' heels. I was a little slow in starting up and a small farm truck slipped in front of me. It didn't pick up speed, though. It ground forward at 5 mph and when I saw the driver grinning back at me I realized that this was a hunt supporter, sabotaging the saboteurs. My cover had been penetrated. The tactic was not successful for long, however. Uninvolved motorists, actually going about their business, honked loudly. The hunt supporter had to speed up and soon I was pulling in behind the other saboteur vehicles at a farm gate. Baptism of fire, hey? I left the car without thinking about my security, anxious to tell the others.
They didn't seem overly interested. Paul was sitting on the grass, nursing his left foot. 'Trod on," he said disgustedly. The others were inclined to dismiss the incident as not proven, so far as malice was concerned. Having a horse's rump shoved in your face and your foot stomped on could be accidental. Really feudal hunt supporters, somebody said, had been known to say 'Sorry' to the horse when it happened to them.
We could see the hunt moving slowly down the valley below us, not purposefully, still looking for a scent. Then they disappeared into a small wood. Back in the cars again, we set off to get to the other side of the valley where we reckoned the riders eventually would emerge.
It is very hard to follow the progress of a saboteur strike because the whole thing is a series of small guerrilla actions fought over a big area and I only could catch glimpses as I took on a new role at the request of Phillip, which was keeping Miss Smith out of trouble by driving her around the periphery of the hunt area while she gleefully sprayed the hedges with her brown brew. "That'll stop 'em in their tracks, m'dear," she crowed, although it was hard to see how the hounds working in the fields inside could be affected.
We came on little dark-eyed Susan standing by the abandoned Land Rover (Basic Sabotage Tactic No. 5: "Don't leave cars unattended"). She did not look nearly as demure as she had the previous evening. "The bloody idiots ran out of petrol!" she said. McNay's car came roaring up with a canful.
"Follow me up the hill," McNay shouted, ignoring the outburst. From the hilltop we could look right down into the green basin and there was indeed a sight to be seen—the pack split into three while the "gone aways" and "tally-hos" rang out from three different horns deep in the undergrowth at widely separated points. "Buglers doin' a good job this morning," said Miss Smith approvingly. Red-coated figures in the valley bottom were riding around trying to whip the hounds into a unit again.
By lunchtime we reckoned that we were well ahead on points. There had been no kill, or, as saboteurs prefer to put it, they hadn't caught one yet. It was early to celebrate but I was about to suggest a break when a blond boy, very red in the face, came up the road, being helped by another saboteur.
We got him into the back seat of the car. His hands were bleeding and his breath was coming in gulps. "Big bloke," he heaved, "down the bottom there. Didn't give me the chance. Maniac in a bowler hat on a huge black horse. He was whipping me across the head and I was saying 'Stop. Stop.' But he wouldn't. He was charging me around the field. Kept knocking me down on the barbed wire." He stopped for breath, then remembered the worst thing. "He got my bloody bugle off me!"
They'd had bad luck, his companion said. They'd been bugling in the woods, then decided to change ground. They'd come into a little clearing where a bridge crossed a stream and they'd run straight into the whole hunt. "There were people all around," said the second boy. "They just sat on their horses watching. Their women and all."
"Never caught a fox, though, did they?" said Susan triumphantly. That was the cheering thought that was needed and as we stood there the hunt came back up the road, more slowly than they started out from the meet. "They're giving up!" said McNay. "They're changing ground!"
They rode past us, looking straight ahead. It was too much for Miss Smith. Head and shoulders out of the car window she shouted at a group of women riders, "Ooh, you cruel, wicked, painted hussies!" Someone dragged her back inside fast. Meanwhile I had forgotten my resolution to stay in the car some while back, and I was standing at the side of the road. The hunt had gone by and their supporters were following in cars. Suddenly I realized that the small blue car which was approaching was accelerating fast and swinging right at me. I had a glimpse of a red, angry face at the wheel and then I was safe in the hedge.
"They really get mad, don't they?" someone said mildly. At that point I knew for sure that I wasn't brave enough to make a Hunt Saboteur.