At the Cavalry and Guards Club the Rt Hon David Heathcoat Amory – a lifelong foxhunter from a great hunting family – spoke to the Society’s Annual Dinner.
Here is the speech he gave..
R.S.Surtees – an appreciation on the 150th anniversary of his death
I’m here because, like Jorrocks, I believe that, ‘all time is lost wot is not spent in ‘unting.’
And a society like this, which preserves and promotes the tradition, must be a fine society.
It is an honour to speak at the anniversary dinner of Robert Smith Surtees, a great if unconventional Victorian novelist. His success owes nothing to any gifts of self promotion – he had none. He refused even to write under his own name, and when his publisher did reveal his name, Surtees was so angry that he stopped work on the novel he was serializing. The book in question, Young Tom Hall, is incidentally one of his best despite its abrupt ending.
Surtees was and remains an elusive character, but if he won’t praise himself, I will. Writers should be judged entirely by their works, and, particularly with Surtees, his books are his monument.
Not that they are conventionally well written. They are often unstructured and discursive. The plot is like a fox – you don’t always find one. And if you do, you can frequently lose it again. Indeed sometimes with Surtees you have a blank day.
But the books are triumphantly rescued by the glorious array of eccentrics, rakes, rogues, climbers, spongers, tipsy butlers, crooked horse copers, grasping bankers and batty aristocrats. Have I left any of you out? And that’s just the men.
As for the women, don’t you think that Lucy Glitters has the most alluring name in all literature? She was, as Surtees puts it, ‘tolerably virtuous.’ This fits her to be the heroine of Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour, which is perhaps the book that is the best introduction to Surtees.
She is not only a marvellous horse woman, but she does eventually marry Soapey Sponge. At the end of that great final hunt, he awards her the brush, and then, uncharacteristically, Surtees becomes quite emotional: ‘He gave her such a series of smacking kisses as startled her horse and astonished a poacher who happened to be hid in the adjoining hedge.’ Lucy marries the rogue and in due course produces a little Sponge. She also helps Soapey set up a cigar room and betting shop in St James’ Street, and they apparently live happily ever after.
This is the only bit of sentimentality that I can find in Surtees. Mostly his characters are not very admirable or uplifting, which may explain why his books were not an immediate success. He annoyed some people who hunted, and alarmed others who did not. The Victorians generally wanted their novels to be more idealistic, with some sort of moral scheme. They looked in vain for that in Surtees.
Most of his characters are not very commendable. We have Lord Scamperdale, the 8th Earl, who had noble hounds but was a miser, except were hunting was concerned. He slept in the muniment room of his large house, and owned two books: one for himself and one for his huntsman.
Then there is Sir Harry Scattercash, who had an unsuccessful pack of hounds and was described as, ‘a tall, wan, pale young man, with a strong tendency to delirium tremens.’ His end came when the drink ran out and the bailiffs arrived at Nonsuch House. Sir Harry fled to Boulogne and died shortly afterwards.
Central to everything is John Jorrocks himself, one of literature’s great comic creations. The self made Cockney grocer: uncouth, irrepressible, shrewd, and magnificently insular. He went abroad once, to Paris, but the visit was not a success. He thought the Rue de la Paye meant that some financial contribution was required. Definitely a Eurosceptic.
What lights it all up, and redeems any faults, is Jorrock’s undiluted love of hunting. From the moment he arrives at Handley Cross to take over the hounds, greeted by Captain Doleful MC (half pay), and recruits his immortal huntsman, James Pigg, we know we are on a journey, however meandering, that we want to be on.
Remember Jorrock’s opening speech at the Dragon hotel? ‘Beloved ‘earers’, he begins, and then lays out his views on hunting, and the animals that make it possible: the fox, the hound and the horse. His observations are now found in every anthology of hunting: ‘It ‘arn’t that I loves the fox less, but that I loves the ‘ound more.’ On horses: ‘The ‘oss loves the ‘ound and I loves both.’
Except when they misbehave. In the very next hunt, when he tries to pull Artexerxes up a steep bank, we find Jorrocks expostulating, ‘Come Hup I say, you hugly beast!’ The scene is made all the more vivid by John Leech, the best of the illustrators, who perfectly captures the comedy and satire in these escapades.
What an eye for detail Surtees had! This was much admired by his friend William Thackeray and other writers of the day. His books are a matchless source of knowledge about early Victorian society: the people, the clothes, the houses, the manners and the food. Particularly the food. We’ve had an excellent dinner this evening but it wouldn’t keep Jorrocks going on a hunting day. This is what we read:
‘In the centre stood a magnificent uncut ham, with a great quartern loaf on one side and a huge Bologna sausage on the other. Besides these were nine eggs, two pyramids of muffins, a great deal of toast, a dozen ships biscuits, and half a pork pie; while a dozen kidneys and some mutton chops were spluttering on a spit before the fire.’ This was for Jorrocks and one hunting friend before a day with the Old Surrey.
Surtees wrote when England was still predominantly rural and agricultural. You could go hunting, as Jorrocks did, a few miles from London. Foxhunting could claim to be the national sport: exuberant, unregulated, and dangerous. All the hunts he describes are accompanied by the most crashing falls. It was an age when physical courage was seen as the highest virtue.
But England was in transition. The telegraph and the railways were coming. The industrial revolution was underway, and this meant new money and new people hunting. Surtees knew all this and he didn’t resent it. It’s true that his hero, his model, was the hunting farmer – generous, instinctive and self-sufficient – but he welcomed newcomers, provided their love of hunting was genuine. After all, wasn’t Jorrocks a newcomer?
Surtees reserves his most biting satire for some of the oldest families. Like the old roue Lord Heartycheer: ‘proud as Lucifer, rich as Croesus, keen as mustard… whose original ancestors came over with the Conqueror, though whether the ancestor rowed of steered, or was sea sick and sat still, is unknown.’
And Surtees wasn’t just rude about his fictional characters. He also lampooned his fellow writer, Nimrod. He was the most famous writer on hunting of his day, and Surtees brought him into his novels, unmistakable and thinly veiled, as Pomponious Ego.
How would Surtees fare today, when you not only can’t insult groups of people, you can’t even offend them? Like his contemporary Charles Dickens he didn’t like lawyers, and they both knew what they were talking about as they had worked in law offices. As for MPs, he had the experience of standing for parliament, but wisely withdrew before the votes were counted. He took the view that it was a much greater honour to be an MFH than an MP, and who can say he was wrong?
I suppose this is were I come in. I was an MP for 27 years but never an MFH, although it is in my bones. My father, his three brothers and their father were all MFHs at various times. It is recorded that all five of them rode in the Members Race of the Tiverton point-to-point in 1924. The race was won by my uncle Derry (later Chancellor of the Exchequer); second came a man called Joy, who fell off but remounted: third was Uncle Billy; forth my father; fifth Grandfather; and sixth was Uncle Jack, riding 18 stone, who came in half a mile behind. The rest of the field did not complete the course.
So, I was brought up to hunt, and last did so two years ago in Westmeath, where I saw again the joys of unrestricted hunting. Which brings me to the melancholy subject of the Hunting Act.
The process of government is not very edifying even at the best of times. I was part of it for eight years, including a spell in the Whips’ Office, appropriately enough. You probably think that that TV serial ‘Yes Minister’ is a comedy; in fact it’s a documentary.
Nothing in my time equalled the stupidity of spending 700 hours debating hunting, and deciding eventually that it’s legal to hunt a mouse but not a rat, and a rabbit but not a hare. You can flush a fox to guns with two dogs, but with three it’s a crime. If you use a bird of prey, you can use as many as you like. If you use a terrier to bolt a fox from below ground, its legal if you are protecting game birds but its a crime if you are protecting lambs. It was a bill drawn up by morons, passed by donkeys.
Tony Blair, in his otherwise self serving memoir, does at least admit that the Hunting Act was a big mistake, and he devotes three pages to the idiotic contortions the Labour government went through to ban hunting while continuing to allow it. Of course it was never about the welfare of the fox. They just didn’t like people who hunt. It was the old Puritan argument: it’s not what you do; what we can’t stand is that you enjoy it. And of course if we disapprove of something, it follows that it must be banned.
How can people be so intolerant, and so ignorant of their own country? They should have read Surtees. Even if they had just read about James Pigg in the melon frame, they might at least have seen the joke!
Surtees remains our guide. No one has better captured the elemental thrill of the chase which is in us all; the last vestige of the heroic over the economic. And the beauty of the hunt too: ‘the music of the pack, the melody of the hounds.’
That is why we are here this evening, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of a great sportsman. To that I couple my admiration of the Surtees Society, which does a great service in keeping the books in print, and more than that is the repository of the foxhunting tradition. We must maintain it, foster it, advance it, and not rest until it has been reprieved.