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Home » Non-fiction, Travel

TRAVEL – THE RELUCTANT EXPAT: CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEAR IN ENGLAND

Submitted by admin on January 10, 2011 – 8:38 pmNo Comment

Regular NFTU contributor John Syfret continues his diary of life as an expat in Dubai.

1293454203Christmas was predictably cold, at least if you had made your prediction whilst checking the weather forecast a week before the event, as I did, with a panicky fear that my flight would be cancelled. I was lucky – by chance I had booked the only flight from Dubai to Heathrow that was to go-ahead on the 22nd of December, and so I found myself back in England, freezing after months in the desert. In truth the adjustment was not as bad as I had feared, and Christmas was as it should be: too much food, too much wine, too few trains. Ah yes, England was familiar, and comfortable.

Then to my cousins in East Sussex for New Year; and it was my last day back followed by my return to Dubai which offered the greatest and most surreal contrast. There was a thin mist and light cloud on New Year’s morning, with the sun edged through the moisture and silvered the landscape with its brightness. I was standing amid a crowd of about sixty people, all chatting jovially, slightly sleep-deprived and with that curious mixture of alertness and fatigue that is engendered by being up on a cold morning after a night’s celebration. There were also about twenty horses, with a few more on their way, and now just audible as they made their way up the lane, the yaps, barks and growls of a pack of hounds ready for the New Year’s hunt.

I have never watched one before, but this year the hunt local to my cousins was to run across their farmland, and I was curious to see for myself this most English and most controversial of spectacles. As far as I could tell, none of the people assembled outside the village pub (most with drinks in hand to keep out the winter chill and, as in my case, to stave off the inevitable repercussions of our New Year’s celebrations), were hunt protesters, and the crowd seemed almost exclusively local. When the dogs and the rest of the huntsmen arrived the scene was one of impeccable stereotype: Barbours, tweeds, pet Labradors, the huntsmen and women in their pinks and their blue jackets, the horses all finely turned out, champing and snorting, steam breath rising and the unmistakable warm odour of the farmyard.

As the moment to start the hunt approached there was a palpable sense of excitement; finally the great procession of horses and hounds trotted fitfully into the fields to begin the chase, with the rest following on foot. From the top of a small ridge it was possible to see quite clearly the path of the hunt in the land below, covering an area of a square mile or so, crisscrossed with ditches, woods and fences. It struck me, watching small groups of riders go this way and that, the hounds and their master in some other distant corner of the farmland, casting for the scent of the fox, that it was like watching cavalry manouevers in the prelude to a Napoleonic battle, each little section covering some part of the territory, the better to outfox the enemy when he made his move. The spectators moved along the ridge to follow the hounds, were there could be seen frantically pelting through bushes and spinnies, bounding and leaping over any obstacle, for the moment with now fox in sight.

Then, the thrill: at the bottom corner of a large, sloped field, the hunt-master and his hounds had picked up the scent of the fox. The horn brayed, that urgent sound, and the hounds clamoured and barked as it broke cover. We were standing above it on the slope, and it ran towards us, a headlong streak of russet far ahead of the hounds. Below, the riders spurred their horses to gallop, hooves clattering on the thick clay soil, a drumbeat, a warbeat, but the fox was far in front and disappeared into cover somewhere near the village.

Because my flight was leaving later the same day, I had to leave early, and found myself first in the dreary check-in queue at Terminal 3, then cooped in the aeroplane, then, in a daze, blinking in the clear light of a Dubai morning. The fields replaced by desert scrub, the cottages by skyscrapers, and churches by mosques. The tedious hours of the journey had vanished from my perception, and elided the visions of the previous day, so I felt barely any gap in time. When I shut my eyes to the palms and the sand, I kept seeing the fox sprinting across the field, and hearing the baying, the pounding, the martial music of the hunt.

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