This forms the basis of my monthly 'Mad, Bad, and Dangerous' column in The Field (June issue, just out) which involved me camel racing for the Countryside Alliance. Whilst I had no hesitation in taking part, I think what swung it, was that John Gardiner, head of the political wing, is married to the noted sculptress Olivia Musgrave.
Olivia's father, Sir Richard Musgrave, shared a study at Stowe with my own father, Nigel Knight Bruce, and he always looked kindly upon me. When he was president of the Irish Rugby team, he would always take me out to dinner in Edinburgh when his side were playing at Murrayfield.
But the best of it was, on a day's hunting with the Louth foxhounds in 1991, we picked up our pilot at 'The Musgrave place' (long since sold but still so named, as is the way of so much of Ireland) and ran that fox to ground over fifty minutes of their stiffest country. I suffered blackthorn poisoning and elation.
"Shall we dig the fox?" huntsman Michael McKeever asked of the sixteen of us who had managed the ride (waking at least another fifty in our van). "No," we cried in unison, for to be in at 'The End' was our very Heaven.
Since writing about the camel ride, John Gardiner has been elevated to the House of Lords, a just reward for his diplomacy in handling the most difficult pack known to man, opinionated Masters' of Foxhounds. It is our every expectation that he and Lady Gardiner will be beguiling company in the company of his fellow new-elect, John Prescott.
One Hump or Two Jags?
Like several others, I have sometimes formed the impression that what the Countryside Alliance does best is to organise marrow contests and jam making competitions whilst failing to shore up proper defences for the future of hunting and the countryside. But I now realise that they are also impresarios of camel racing and, at one such recent event, the penny dropped as to why they should be supported to the hilt.
Camel racing, much like coursing, has fallen foul of misjudged interference. It is banned in Arab countries and, whereas once young boys had a perfectly reasonable career as jockeys, much like the lads in Newmarket or Lambourn, they have now been returned home to work in sweat shop factories turning out cheap cashmere jumpers for golfers. The camels are now ridden by robots.
So when the CA asked if I would like to take part in a camel race at their point-to point- at Badbury Rings in Dorset, I jumped at the chance. I had last done it in the Rajasthani desert more than twenty-five years ago.
In preparation, I watched reruns of Lawrence of Arabia and was struck by two things. Firstly, it was as a child the last film I was ever taken to by my father who complained I was forever going to the Gents. Given that the film is four hours long, I thought this a bit unreasonable. The second thing is that it is the same camel braying for artistic effect throughout the film, which can get on one’s nerves.
Hearing about my forthcoming adventure, a friend whose late father had been very high up in the SAS offered me a full Sudanese warrior outfit, complete with fez. “He took it off a man he shot in the Sudan in the early 1950s,” he told me. “No questions asked.”
More amazingly, another friend, who teaches chess at his local school in Ayrshire and is a brilliant genealogist, rang with important news. “I have discovered that TE Lawrence was your seventh cousin,” he told me. (Last year, he told me of another relation who had shacked up with Karl Marx’s daughter, so I take him seriously).
The preliminaries out of the way, I drove to the race meeting, not in a jelaba, but full hunting kit, complete with my grandfather’s red hunting coat and swagger stick which he had taken to Gallipoli. I felt like of Alf Tupper of ‘Tough of the Track’ from the ‘Victor’ comic who always turned up late and won.
When I got to the racecourse, attended by more than 4,000 supporters of the Countryside Alliance, I had an altogether different feeling. It reminded me when I was once flown into a Rolling Stones concert by helicopter with my heart in my mouth and the lead singer of another band’s hand on my knee. (What surprised me about the latter part was he was married to a Hollywood heart throb at the time).
Anyone wanting to get friendly with a groom at a point-to-point should simply go in breeches. I never had more smiles and winks in my life and, in future, will never dress any other way. “Your camel is called Gobi,” the beautiful CA organiser told me in her slow, seductive accent. In fact, as I realised no sooner had I got aboard, and it spat at me, it was called ‘Gobby.”
That more than 2,000 spectators stayed behind after the last race to watch eight masters and huntsmen gallop hairy dromedaries down the final furlong speaks volumes for England. Beforehand we had met for a few stiff whiskies behind a generous car boot and I saw gathered there the future of the younger hunting generation. In that snapshot I saw why the hunting ban must be repealed and the Alliance given every ounce of support.
That did not mean that a little jealousy and ‘sledging’ did not creep into our proceedings. As we loped our camels down to the starting post, we decided that the winner should be “Anyone but Frampton,” a reference to the glamorous Portman joint master and huntsman. “I expect you’ve ridden a lot of camels in your time,” he said to me as we jockeyed for the inside rail.
Once under way, Gobby barely got out of a trot. Half of my grandfather’s swagger stick now lies flayed on an ignominious bit of Dorset turf and there is talk of me being reported to the Jockey Club for excess use of the whip.
As racing goes, it may not have rivalled Smirke’s return from living under a tarpaulin on Brighton beach to capture a fourth Derby winner, but it was a lot of fun. Afterwards I asked several children if they would have liked to have a go. “Yes” they screamed in a voice as one. As I was leaving the jockey’s enclosure to return home, I met a woman who was devastated with disappointment. “I only came,” she told me, “because I thought it was camel racing all day.”
Once, young children would be entered to hunting on donkeys. When the Hunting Bill is finally repealed, I am planning to take Gobby for a day with the Portman which should be one in the eye for the Arabs.