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Swellboy on… fox-hunting and bear-baiting

There are worse ills in the world than pest control in fancy dress

Swellboy on… fox-hunting and bear-baiting

September 15 2011
Nick Foulkes

I am not really sure where I stand on fox-hunting, but I suppose that as long as I am standing and that I don’t have get on the back of a horse to do any myself then there are worse ills in the world than undertaking a bit of pest control in fancy dress. After all, it has been part of the warp and weft of life in Britain for a while, videlicet the whole artistic genre – more of an industry, really – of fox-hunting prints. And then of course there is its place in literature; certainly Trollope seemed to think that no novel was complete without a description of the hunting field, and I can think of few other types of sporting literature that I would care to read. I never read the football comics that seemed to be such a feature of some children’s lives – am I right in recalling Roy of the Rovers? – but I am a huge fan of Surtees and his immortal creation, Mr Sponge, a character who, oxymoronic as it may sound, elevates philistinism to an art form.

Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour is a masterpiece, following its eponym on his picaresque rounds, and I particularly cherish his stay at Jawleyford Court, with the insufferably pretentious Mr Jawleyford. On being shown the picture gallery, the thought running through Sponge’s mind is not the art, but how he could best convert the space into a shooting gallery. When torrential rain prevents Sponge from pursuing one or other of his favourite bloodsports, Jawleyford asks if his guest can amuse himself and is told that he has a book to read.

“Ah, I suppose – the New Monthly perhaps?” observed Mr Jawleyford.

“No,” replied Sponge.

“Dizzy’s life of Bentinck then, I daresay,” suggested Jawleyford; adding, “I’m reading it myself.”

“No, nor that either,” replied Sponge, with a knowing look; “a much more useful work, I assure you” added he, pulling the little purple-backed volume out of his pocket, and reading the gilt letters on the back; “Mogg’s Ten Thousand Cab Fares, price one shilling!”

“Indeed,” exclaimed Mr Jawleyford, “well, I should never have guessed that.”

“I daresay not,” replied Sponge, “I daresay not; it’s a book I never travel without. It’s invaluable in town, and you may study it to great advantage in the country. With Mogg in my hand, I can almost fancy myself in both places at once.”

Oddly enough, this exchange reminds me of the armchair imaginative tourism of Des Esseintes, the protagonist of A rebours – the symbolist Huysmans and the sporting Surtees obviously shared a belief in the power of the imagination when stimulated by a travel timetable.

At one time I was such a fan of Surtees that I went to the lengths of securing a Mogg for myself, although I did not go as far as taking up hunting. Dizzy’s life of Bentinck must be the dullest book this most intriguing of Victorian prime ministers ever wrote, but at least Sponge could console himself that Bentinck was a hunting man who conformed perfectly to the stereotype of the pre-Reform MP: refusing governmental appointments so that he could concentrate on his racing and hunting, he would turn up late at night in the House of Commons, having taken the train out of London, had a day in the field and then returned, said Disraeli, “clad in a white greatcoat which softened, but did not conceal, the scarlet hunting coat”. Sadly most of the rest of the book is taken up with Bentinck’s campaign against the repeal of the Corn Laws.

Indeed it was the mixture of hunting and politics, and in particular the actions of a group of Conservative women MPs against a repeal of hunting ban, that I have to thank for reminding me of the inimitable Sponge. While it is unlikely to destroy the Tory Party in the way that the repeal of the Corn Laws did, it has thrown up some pretty emotive soundbites, Caroline Dinenage saying that, “I don’t hold with the idea that just because it’s traditional we have to continue to do it. If that was the case, we’d still have bear-baiting and be sending small children up chimneys.”

To my shame I was not aware of a sporting dimension to sending small children up chimneys, although for all I know it is one of those obscure Olympic disciplines and perhaps the 2012 chimneydrome has already been built under budget and ahead of schedule and that at this very minute our team of sooty stunted urchins is practising with the hope of carrying off Olympic gold.

Bear-baiting is of course something that I am aware of and in reopening the bear-baiting debate Ms Dinenage should be aware that she has taken the lid off a Pandora’s box of ursine abuse. For instance, are we to see a return to the use of bear’s grease as an unguent for men’s hairdressing? It seemed that the youth of Victorian Britain were as keen on their “product” as young people today, and at least one hairdresser – Gillingwater on Bishopsgate – used to keep bears in his basement and in order to entice customers over the threshold he would place a notice in the window announcing the arrival of a new batch of grease with the words, “Another young bear slaughtered today.”

Ugh! It is hard to tell whether, for the bear, dying at the hand of a hairdresser was preferable to the indignity of the pig-faced lady, a feature of many 19th-century fairs. This particularly grotesque “attraction” was not a woman at all, but a bear that had been shaved, put in a dress and strapped to a chair.

Just why did we have it in for the bears?

Happily I very much doubt that any fashionable London hairdresser would be allowed to get away with that today; besides, there simply isn’t the room: my hairdresser Brent is actually based in a basement, and I think he values his customers too highly to have them enact that most famous of Shakespearian stage directions, “Exit pursued by a bear.”

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