The late Simon Clarke, old Etonian, Blues officer and master of foxhounds for more than 30 years, was an unlikely radical. He could have made a success of any career, but chose to dedicate his considerable skills to the management and execution of foxhunting to the highest standards, on both a macro and micro scale.
He was always supportive of the young and ready to impart advice. For three years in Dorset, Simon acted as my kindly “sage on the hill”, offering tea, cake and something stronger on the countless occasions I would make an impromptu call during my first mastership, nearly 20 years ago.
On the eve of last week’s opening meet I carried out my annual ritual, as it was his, and re-read Lord Henry Bentinck’s Goodall’s Practice, in which he describes the famous 19th century Belvoir huntsman’s exemplary technique of handling hounds. My treasured edition bears Simon’s initials on the cover: a present in my first season.
In early 1997, when hunting was facing its biggest parliamentary threat to date with the Foster Bill and Tony Blair’s huge Labour majority in May looking a certainty, hunting needed a “game-changer”. Simon persuaded the British Field Sports Society (BFSS) to produce a Countryside Rally in London, bringing the countryside together.
It soon became clear we were on to something big. Simon, Mary Perry (née Eames) and I were initially squirrelled away in a bunker below BFSS HQ in Kennington in early spring.
Our team slowly grew to six, a dozen, then a network around the country. The BFSS became the Countryside Alliance, and hunting’s profile came of age on 10 July 1997. It was the largest rally London had ever seen and the media coverage was very favourable.
Hunting has long suffered from the image of being run by a fusion of the cast of the Chuckle Brothers meets Brideshead Revisited. Renewed relations between the MFHA and Countryside Alliance working to their own strengths are welcome.
In the late 1990s, serious brains and acumen were needed to save the ship in the face of a storm. John Gardiner, Richard Lissack QC, Roger Scruton and Robin Hanbury-Tenison, among others, provided the heavyweight legal, political and intellectual arguments that propelled campaigns and counter-movements in parliament and the media far beyond above our boxing weight for years.
Behind this remarkable, unexpected resurgence in our fortunes was the considerable stature of Simon Clarke. His ideas, often surprisingly left-field and genial, fed into the spirit of the Countryside Rally, though maybe not so surprisingly since his intimate contact with country folk from Dorset to Scotland meant he did have a profound grasp of the human condition.
After all the rallies and marches not one MP changed their vote, but the media did swing our way and hunting became proud to stand up and be counted.
Here we go again
And now, here we go again; another general election. We will have to take to the streets again and campaign to ensure Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t completely close down country sports, livestock farming and our glorious countryside on his first day. It would be so easy to make life impossible and he has us in his sights.
Rest in peace, Simon; we carry on the fight.
Ref Horse & Hound; 7 November 2019