26 March 2010

outfoxing the act

7.30am I wake up, and my first thought is "Here we fucking go again." Although the official fox-hunting season is already a month old, this is the first day I've had free to get out and help stop the buggers from tallying-ho. It's also set to be my first experience of sabbing under the dictats of Michael Howard's 'Everyone Who Isn't a Tory Must Be a Rave-going Squatting Sabbing Travelling Road-protesting Demonstrating Whining Sponging Dreadlocked Loony-Leftie Single-Pregnant-Mothering Unemployed Drug-Addicted Working-Class-Anarchist Fucking Bastard Criminal' Act - though I've some clues about what to expect.

A few nights before, I'd rung a friend who'd gone to a regional 'hit' (several sab groups converging on one hunt) on the 19th in Essex. He said it was a blood bath. About 200 sabs attended, to be greeted by several battalions of Pinky-and-Perkys - some of whom where observed snorting a powder not unlike sherbet before laying into people with riot batons -smashing heads, cameras, and Christ knows what else. Essex has always been a difficult area (more violence than most), but nothing compared to this.And guess what? Today is going to be a regional hit as well - though this time in Kent.

We'd elected before-hand to sab the Ashford Valley Hunt, who are meeting at Hunton (!) - a one cow village in the rustic, mist-covered nether regions (i.e. at least one mile from a motorway exit) somewhere between Maidstone and Tonbridge. In previous years, regionals had occurred only a few times each season - usually when one or other of the hunts had been coming it with the strong-arm stuff. Safety in numbers, and all that. With the CJA, though, regionals will have to be the norm. Fifteen or twenty sabs at one hunt no longer stand a chance against the police, with their new powers. Greater numbers of us working together stretches police resources to the limit, increasing the likelihood that we can actually achieve something. Okay, it means a lot of hunts will be getting away scott free - but there's bugger all else we can do about it. Anything is better than nothing.

10.45am I arrive, with the rest of the group, at the pre-arranged assembly point- Charing Station. The other sabs are already there, standing around smoking, chatting, drinking coffee. There are about seventy of us in total. Not as many as we'd hoped for, but enough. Whatever, it's bloody good to see them. We feel that wonderful rush of camaraderie that comes with meeting people who share and understand your lifestyle, point of view, culture, philosophy... what you will. Most of them are strangers, but through a common understanding they're automatically friends. There's no feeling quite like it. One person everyone recognises is Big Al - a Maidstone sab, in his '40's, and about 10 feet wide at the shoulders. He looks like the sort of bloke who crushes cars with his bare hands. When he approaches you things go dark. Like the rest of us, Al isn't a violent person - but we feel a whole lot safer with him around.At 11, we load up and pull out onto the A20 in a ramshackle convoy of old vans, cars, a jeep and a converted ambulance. We hope the ambulance doesn't have to get used for it's original purpose.

11.30am We reach the outskirts of Hunton and are stopped by a police roadblock. Expecting to be told to leave the area, we are surprised when they simply take the names and addresses of all the vehicle drivers - routine stuff - and allow us to move on. When we reach the village, we find out why. It's a sight to make your jaw drop to your ankles. Stretching out along the main village road and off into the smudgy distance are the police. Lots of them. Fucking hundreds of them, to be precise. Police in cars and riot vans; police wearing black riot overalls: police in pointed helmets and dayglo jackets; police with dogs; police with police. the whole village is jammed with police, falling over each other, popping up from behind post boxes and tractors, standing around gates and footpaths like sentries outside a barracks -except the rest of the army is standing sentry with them. It's like some Kafkaesque nightmare: Joseph K stepping onto a normal, everyday street and finding crowds of people all dressed the same and all looking directly at him. We reckon there must be about 200 of them, although it's hard to be certain. High above a helicopter is circling. It's about as overkill as you can get - like the Alamo or Rorke's Drift. The thick blue line. Someone says "fuckin' 'ell"; several people say "Shit". There's not much else you can say - except "Christ", maybe... and someone says that too. We wonder what the fuck we're going to do. I go up to one of the officers and tell him how ludicrous this massive police presence is: "You must really hate Michael Howard," I say. "Having to come out here like this, neglecting the work you're paid to do". His answer? "We're not allowed to have opinions, sir." I tell him that next week I'll be robbing a bank in Maidstone, since there won't be any police around to catch me. he doesn't laugh.

12.15pm After managing to get through the traffic snarl-up caused by all the police vehicles, we've spent the last half-hour driving round the lanes trying to spot the hunt. Each group vehicle has headed off in a different direction, and we're keeping in touch with the others by radio and a mobile phone (the latter a new and invaluable addition to our equipment store.) Everywhere we go, the police trail us.While we're searching, we discuss ways in which the Act is likely to be implemented against us. if we're caught on private ground without permission i.e. 95% of the day, usually) we are, of course, open to arrest under clause 63: 'aggravated trespass'. The police can also prevent us from venturing onto public grounds and footpaths, since we are perceived to be doing so with the intention of disrupting a lawful activity. The only place we are allowed to be is on a public highway- from which we can perform all the usual disruption activities; calling hounds off with horn and voice calls, and spraying antimate to dull the scent of any foxes that may have bolted out. Of course, a lot depends on how 'fundamentalist' the police want to be about this - in some areas they're much easier than others. The other way round it is just to stay as far ahead of the police as possible - which is one of the benefits of regional 'hits': while the police are tied up following 6 vehicles, say, the 7th vehicle can try to escape notice, offload the sabs and leave them to leg it over the fields to the hunt. It's risky, but it's worked before. You just have to be prepared for a lot of running - and for the unexpected porker, leaping out from behind a tree to stick the bracelets on.

1.00pm An hour and a half after the start of the hunt, and our group has yet to see so much as a pile of horse droppings. We're all thinking the same: "Have they killed yet? How many?" Plod is still tailing us. Suddenly, the radio crackles into life, and Ashford Ollie tells us his group has spotted the hunt drawing through a wood down behind a farm nearby. Steve (our hardware expert) asks for directions and at that moment his mobile buzzes: it's a Meridian TV reporter wanting to know where we are so he can come down to cover things for the late news. Steve sits there with Ollie speaking in one ear and the media speaking in the other - taking the information and passing it straight on. If he swapped his combat fatigues for pin-stripes, he wouldn't look out of place behind some stadium- sized desk in the City. "I love communications" he says, grinning.We drive to the area indicated by Ollie, then get out and wander up and down the lane, listening. Not a sound, apart from birdsong; that and the murmur of bored policemen discussing the Sheehy Report, the state of the canteen grub, promotion, the new patio set... or whatever else bored policemen discuss. I do something extremely radical and provocative, and step onto a public footpath. A bored policeman winds down his van window, puts his coffee cup on the dashboard, and asks me what I'm doing. "Going to take a piss, " I say. "You can't piss in a public place, sir, " he says. "Oh.. can I walk on it then?" "You can walk on it sir - but you're not allowed to stop for a piss on it." I can't help smiling at his unwitting trivialisation of his own pomposity; he won't allow me to take the piss out of myself, so he takes it out of himself instead. I politely thank him and walk on, thinking "a policeman has just given me permission to walk on a public footpath". Things are looking up. My faith in freedom and democracy is restored. As I walk along, I keep glancing back to see if I'm being followed - but the bored policeman in the van has gone back to his coffee asnd his self-importance, probably wondering if he can arrest me for using a vulgar word in a public place.The path ends about half a mile from the road, on the edge of a copse. I listen for the sound of horns, voices, hounds in cry. Nothing. I look back briefly, then urinate in a bush - all the more satisfyingly for the thought that a policeman has specifically told me not to do it. I hope he's not watching me through binoculars: I could be the first person ever to be arrested for urinating in the middle of public nowhere. (Would the charge be 'breach of the piss'?)

1.45pm We're back at the same spot again, having spent half an hour driving round the immediate area looking for peculiar, inbred people with red coats on horseback. Still nothing... though we've heard over the air waves that the sabs are with the hunt and there haven't been any kills yet: the first good news of the day. The police are on the verge of sleep. It seems that intimidation by sheer numbers is about all they're going to give us today - which is also good news. A couple of us wander back along Piss Path to the copse - and we see the hunt for the first time. They're about a quarter of a mile away to our right, drawing a wood on the side of a small valley. We're in perfect position. I blow the horn a few times, and one or two hounds break away and head over towards us. Classic. If we can just get a few more....But time runs against us. A redcoat notices the strays and gallops over to retrieve them. Following him across the fields come a few cars full of terrier men (the nice guys who dig out and shoot any foxes that go to ground during a hunt - though they're quite partial to sab-beating as well) And following them - on foot- come about a dozen police officers. We know when we're outnumbered, so we leg it back to the van again. we may not have sunk their boat, but we gave it's rudder a bloody good kicking.

2.30pm On the road again. The hunt keeps dodging us, but other sabs are still managing to stay with them - and there still haven't been any kills. The light is already beginning to fade, so we're hoping they might pack up early. Ollie radios us again with the location of the latest sighting - finishing his message with the cryptic postscript "watch out for the massive fascist presence". Taking his tip, we keep our eyes open for a fifty foot high ghost of Adolf Hitler floating above the trees. We pull up at the entrance to the farm that is hosting the meet, and the whole area is cordoned off by the police - as if any of us is daft enough to want to venture in there anyway! We get out of the van and walk along the road a bit, to where a gate leads into an orchard. Beyond the orchard is a small wooded area - and there's the hunt, riding through it, bold as brass! We look round at the police, but they don't seem to be giving a toss...and what if they do? Half a dozen of us climb over a gate and head towards the riders, using horn and voice calls. As we reach the wood, an old chap drives up in a datsun pick-up and tells us to leave. He says he's the land-owner. Standing on the back of the pick-up is a huge Great Dane - so big , in fact, that the pick-up looks like it's undercarriage. Fortunately, though, it's docile - a bit like it's owner - so we carry on walking.The hunt rides out of the wood and gallops off across a sprouting corn field, sending earth clods and greenery flying; we six step cautiously onto the field too - and the landowner shouts after us to get off his crops. One law for one, as they say. We're half way across the field when one of the redcoats - a well known headcase - suddenly turns and gallops at us. We split, and he singles me out because he's seen me using the horn. It's a frightening moment, because I know - screened as he is from the eyes of other observers - that he'll have no compunction about riding me down. I leg it for a fence at the corner of the field and manage to scramble over literally as he is breathing down my neck. He seems to lose interest then, and gallops off after the others - but they've all managed to make it to safety. I decide not to take any chances, and continue on across the fields alone, following the course of a river towards some cottages in the distance. At one point, I see several people approaching me off to my left; at first I think they're sabs and turn towards them. It isn't till they're within three hundred yards or so that I realise they're police. Perhaps they shout something about stopping and giving myself up - but I don't wait to hear. I turn back and keep on till I eventually reach the road again. It's nearly ten to four now, and it's dusk: the hunt will probably be boxing up for home. I sit down by the hedge and wait for the others to drive round and find me.

8.30pm Homeward bound at last. People drinking the last dregs of coffee; nibbling squashed sarnies; smoking well-earned rollies; talking about hot baths and cold lagers; chilling out; dossing off. I'm sitting in the front of the van with John from Margate, who's already well out of it on 9% brew. He says he's had three straight weeks of sabbing - including the Essex hit - and the stress of it all is getting to him; he thinks he'll take next week off. Who can blame him. He opens another can. Teresa, who's driving, entrusts him with the map-reading, and I begin to wonder if we'll ever get home.As a result of our little day of action, two sabs were arrested (not from our group, though that doesn't matter) - one for "aggravated trespass", the other on some bizarre, jumped up assault charge. Apparently he sprayed antimate at the teenage son of the hunt master - like a school boy squirting a water pistol at a teacher. Some assault. it was a complete waste of antimate, if you ask me: no one's going to shag the git anyway.

Despite the plod, and the arrests (I doubt there'll be any charges), it was a pretty successful day in the end; the hunt suffered continual disruption, and there were no kills at all. That's about as successful as you can get, under the circumstances. I wonder just how long we can keep it up, though: things are just so much more difficult now, and they can only get worse. But then, as John and Teresa reassure me, the only way we're going to defeat this thing is to keep piling on the pressure: keep on and on chipping away, getting arrested and clogging up the legal system, tying up police resources that cost a great deal of money, showing that we absolutely refuse to be beaten by this unjust piece of legislation - no matter what they throw at us.That's the only way we'll bring it down.Stay defiant.