Ladies and Gentlemen
I am delighted to be here tonight, because I love Surtees. I have been delighted to be a member of the Society almost since it was founded (in this part of the country) over 30 years ago. I congratulate and thank all those involved with its foundation and flourishing over that time, particularly Rob who has given it such excellent leadership in recent years.
When I was first elected to the House of Commons 40 years ago I was an ordinary member of the British Field Sports Society.
A friend of mine fighting a seat in the East Riding which stretched up the Pennines was up in the hills during that election about lunchtime when he saw an isolated pub with the sign outside “A pint, a pie and a friendly word”. He went in and when the surly barman eventually appeared ordered a pie and a pint. Thinking to chat up this constituent he asked about the friendly word. The barman lent over and said “If I were you I wouldn’t eat the pie”.
My constituency, then called South Gloucestershire, contained the northern outskirts of Bristol and went North 20 miles by 18 across. I used to say we have everything: 2 factories with 10,000 people working in them at Filton and Patchway, 2 nuclear power stations and 2 packs of foxhounds. They were the Beaufort and the Berkeley, two of the foremost packs as you know. Before long we moved to live at Berkeley. In Badminton the great 10th Duke had held the title for 50 years and been owner and Master of the Badminton hounds the same length of time and hunted them himself for many years. He had been universally called “Master” since boyhood. He was a splendid man and quite devoted to hunting.
So I immediately joined the group of MPs defending hunting under the great Marcus Kimball MFH MP and it has been a recurring theme of my Parliamentary life ever since. To some in the Commons I was then known as “Master’s member”.
Harold Wilson was back in Downing Street and we knew that the anti hunting lobby could always win a vote against us in the Commons. However the Labour Government had bigger things to do – nationalising industries, raising taxes, trying to control prices without curbing the trade unions and so on. Various anti-hunting Bills were introduced but they all required – and got – very detailed and extended debate. We were able to ensure that there were very few votes – because we inevitably lost them. But none of the Bills got through in those years. We rode them all into the ditch.
The danger of such Private Members Bills succeeding during the Thatcher and Major Governments was much less. But as you know it all got more difficult once ‘Tony Blair gained a big majority, but it still took them seven years. Eventually the Government introduced a bill to permit hunting only under licence, but ‘Tony Banks MP amended it into a full ban and the Commons passed it. We in the House of Lords threw the Bill out, but the Parliament Act ensured its passage. The various efforts to return it to a licensing situation failed.
I should make clear that although the majority of Conservative MPs support hunting there are some who oppose it and the reverse is true on the Labour side. Some Labour MPs, notably Kate Hoey are supporters.
The question now is whether the next House of Commons will have a majority to repeal the Bill. No-one can say. The important thing at the moment is to find out what the various candidates think on the issue and act accordingly.
The problem is that the population is overwhelmingly and increasingly urban. And many, most indeed, have no idea about hunting.
This is where Surtees comes in. He is a bridge between those who hunt and those whose lives are lived in cities. Through him we can understand hunting more clearly and enjoy the chase vicariously. There is no writer I know who gets so well into the spirit of hunting. He clearly loves hunting and it is infectious. It is actually about the only thing he writes positively about. He ridicules the church, the army, the law, the nobility, anyone who is pompous. He makes a cockney grocer a Master of Foxhounds.
We are all here because we love Surtees. Above all I love the characters of which his books are full. Not only the leading figures like John Jorrocks, Soapy Sponge, Facey Romford or Lucy Glitters, but the hundreds of minor characters, often vividly drawn, even when they have no great part to play in the plot but are only passing through.
Their names are so wonderful to start with. Who else could have a character called Pomponius Ego? The young dandy is Mr Waffles. Sir Harry Scattercash is the Master of one of the hunts and his guests at the New Year are Captain Seedeybuck, Orlando Bugles and Captain Cutifat. All the books are littered with such names. Farmers called Lumpleg, Sneakington, Grumbleton – I know him!
Few of the characters are admirable, but they are fun. Tenants cheat their landlords and servants cheat their masters. The aristocrats are snobs, surrounded by toadys who often treat their servants and tenants appallingly. The mothers cheat and boast outrageously in trying to get their daughters married off to rich, preferably titled, men.
Many of the characters are pretending to be better bred or richer than they are. We the readers are usually let into the secrets early and wait to see how they will be caught out. We all know from the start that Facey Romford has no money and that he uses his superior riding skill to make impossible horses look controllable.
Reading Surtees could put you off ever buying a horse. Those selling them are invariably trying to pass them off as better than they are. Surtees “used horse salesmen” are like used car salesmen today.
One who never pretends is Jorrocks himself. He is a cockney and proud of it. But he is not above recommending wonderful new patent drainage tiles which have sugar in them. He deals in sugar and there is a glut so he needs to keep the price up.
He is also free with advice. Here’s Jorrock’s advice on debt to a Duke. “don’t go tick whatever you do. Things cost double when you buy on credit. When I was in the tea trade and your swell ‘house stewards or Powder Monkey Peters used to come asking the price of tea I always used to ask whether they were purchasers or buyers. Purchasers my Lord Dukeship are chalkers up, buyers are money down and discount coves. If they were purchasers I just doubled the price.”
One of my favourite episodes (for obvious reasons no doubt) is when Jorrocks is persuaded to stand for Parliament. Do you remember it in “Hillingdon Hall”? It was written in 1843-44 at the height of the Corn Law controversy. You will remember from your history lessons that the Corn Laws imposed import taxes on French grain so keeping up the prices of corn and therefore increasing the price of bread but protecting British Agriculture. Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister was a Tory. They were for protection, but he came to the conclusion that the Corn Laws should be abolished and the Tory Party split over the question.
In Hillingdon Hall the Duke of Donkeytown owns half the county. When one of the local MPs Mr Guzzlegoose dies and causes a by-election the Duke sees it as an excellent opportunity for his son the useless Marquis of Bray to enter the House of Commons and the Marquis duly launches a brief and vague election address dictated by his father and the family solicitor Mr Smoothington. It says:
“It is, I trust, unnecessary for me to enter into any detailed explanation of the principles by which my public conduct will be governed.”
Their expectation is that no-one will oppose the Marquis and he will be saved having to canvas. “Canvasses are nasty things” says the Duke remembering an encounter in his youth when he went canvassing and a drunken fish-wife hugged and kissed him in public.
However the Anti-Corn Law League (an important pressure group) support another candidate – actually a crook on the make – called Mr Bowker apparently from a smart address near London and his posters are soon everywhere and he is much cheered in the streets for opposing the Corn Laws in order to cut the price of bread. The Duke is scandalised at the impertinence and sends his solicitor to see if a deal can be done.
Mr Smoothington succeeds in buying off Mr Bowker by adding a sentence to the Marquis’ election address saying he will support “the removal of every obstacle to our commercial prosperity” which is code for repealing the Corn Laws, plus a promise by the Duke to support Mr Bowker in a future election, plus £1,000 (a very generous estimate of Mr Bowker’s expenses so far although every elector has been putting his beer on Mr Bowker’s account in all the pubs).
But the League of course immediately trumpet the fact that the Duke and his son support the abolition of the Corn Laws. Shock horror! The news breaks on market day and the farmers are appalled. The price of corn collapses at once. They see themselves all ruined. They work themselves up into a lather in the pub at lunchtime and decide to put up a candidate themselves. The man they choose for the job is John Jorrocks the popular local squire. A delegation of farmers go and see him Mr Heavytail, Mr Goodheart and Mr Wopstraw all lovingly described. When Jorrocks gibes at the cost they reassure him: “We’ll all vote at our own expense”. They want no bribes to save the agricultural protection.
Jorrocks of course is in his element canvassing and making speeches. When the poll is held the result is announced by the High Sheriff:
Mr John Jorrocks 2617
Marquis of Bray 2615. Jorrocks by 2 votes!
A teetotal Quaker complains that he was told Jorrocks was teetotal and therefore supported him, but Jorrocks just says “Sorry you should have had such a bad opinion of me” and the result stands.
Unfortunately Hillingdon Hall was the last book Surtees wrote about Jorrocks so we don’t know how Jorrocks got on in Parliament. What a pity!
There were actual consequences however when the book was published. The great man near Surtees home ground, the real Duke of Northumberland was appalled by the Duke in the book, whose character appeared to have been modelled on himself and struck the Surtees family off his visiting list to Alnwick Castle!
Surtees himself seems to have been a cantankerous chap. Certainly he never minded offending someone or some type of person.
But in the end the most basic reason to love Surtees is his understanding of hunting and the vivid descriptions of the chase.
Jorrocks said hunting is “the image of war without the guilt and five and twenty per cent of the danger”. Surtees’ books are “the image of hunting without the expense and five and twenty per cent of the effort”.
Here’s to Surtees.