I went racing at Cheltenham on Friday, on what is called ‘Countryside Day’. My drive across the Cotswolds, often very beautiful at this time of year, was so misty that the autumn colours weren’t showing well at all.
As I passed over the railway at Adlestrop I remembered Edward Thomas’s poem but this was no day for blackbird song.
Apart from one small speculative losing bet I kept my money in my pocket until the last race where I thought that Cue Card had a very good chance but he jumped badly, and unseated early on, so I knew my fate and could head to the car park for an early get away as Grands Crus stormed impressively up the hill to the winning post.
There is a lot of Countryside Alliance activity at Cheltenham on Countryside Day, and it is mildly irritating to someone like me, who is not their greatest supporter. I had a look at the assembled huntsmen and admired the hounds but the public address system seems to assume that everyone at the races to use their wits in the betting ring is fully committed to fox-hunting, and I am not. Although, to be fair, I’ve never lifted a finger to oppose fox hunting either – privately or professionally.
As I made my getaway from the races I was wondering whether, on another day, Cue Card would be a good bet but as I drove up Cleeve Hill a small scene that occurred as I was viewing horses in the Parade Ring kept replaying in my mind.
I was standing next to a rather grim-looking man who was also looking at the circling horses. A wasp flew past us and landed on the bark mulch in a flower bed next to us. I looked at the wasp and, remembering the date, wondered whether that would be my last wasp of the year when the man next to me lashed out with his racecard and smacked the wasp before turning back to carry on looking at the runners for the next race.
I was quite impressed by his aim and his speed, but quite shocked, and a little troubled, at the instinctive nature of his action – see wasp, kill wasp. This insect was not bothering us or anyone else, and would be dead soon in the natural scheme of things. It wasn’t buzzing around his face or near a small child, it was a little behind us and would probably have headed off further if it had been left alone. I was closer to this wasp than the man in question and there were many others nearby, although none was as interested as I in either the wasp or its attacker, and the man had to step across me to get at his intended victim. This man, out to enjoy himself on Countryside Day, saw himself not as an interested and sympathetic observer of nature but rather, put himself in a position of self-appointed executioner. I wanted to ask him why he felt entitled to behave in the way he had.
Would he have talked about ‘vermin’, ‘restoring natural balance’, the need for ‘management of natural populations’ or would he have told me that he just hated wasps, that he just loved killing things or maybe that it was ‘only’ a wasp? Obviously I do not know, but his action seemed terribly callous to me.
This all happened on 11 November and there were poppies proudly worn everywhere. Somewhere, we all have to draw a line on cruelty and death. After all a wasp is ‘only’ a wasp, a blackbird is ‘only’ a blackbird, a fox is ‘only’ a fox, a racehorse is ‘only’ a racehorse, a soldier is ‘only’ a soldier, and a baby is ‘only’ a baby.