The hatred of strangers

Options magazine, April 1 1994

It didn’t take long for Jeremy Whaley to realise something was wrong. It was four in the morning, he was alone in his cottage near Petworth in the shadows of the West Sussex Downs, his dogs were asleep and all was quiet. First the phone rang, and then stopped. He was used to that happening and he might simply have turned over and gone back to sleep if his senses had not been sharpened by his years of bitter experience. There was something moving outside.

He slipped out of bed, crossed to the bathroom at the front of the house, peeped cautiously through the curtains and there, down below, on the other side of the garden wall, he saw a scene which confirmed all his fears. The road was full of flashing blue lights – police and firemen all over the place. There was no doubt about it: his persecutors were back.

The next hour was a muddle: a policeman shouting up to him to stay away from the windows, telling him they had tried to telephone him to warn him; someone had called the local TV station to say there was a bomb at his home, and they’d found something, a biscuit tin with a label on it saying “Bang, bang you’re dead”. Whaley went and made himself a cup of tea. He was scared but he was almost used to it by now.

For five years, it had been like this. Soon after he had become huntsman and joint master of the Chiddingfold, Leconfield and Cowdray Hunt, the saboteurs had singled him out and started to pursue him with every trick at their command. Their campaign had terrified his children, destroyed his marriage, and driven him several times to think of suicide, but now he was almost resigned to it. He sat down in his study and tried to distract himself with some paperwork, when a noise like hell breaking open crashed through the house. The police had blown up the biscuit tin. It was full of wires and plasticine, no explosive at all. Whaley went back to bed.

There is nothing new about hatred, but there is something peculiarly modern about the hatred of strangers. Maybe it is simply because of the media – that everyone knows too much about everyone else and so they can develop the most powerful feelings about people they have never met. Maybe it flows from the whole mass of technology : the anonymous phone call, the poisonous message in the postman’s hand, the letter bomb, the whole array of long-distance torment which allows strangers to abuse each other without ever coming face to face. Whatever the cause, the results are clear.

When Tim Yeo is forced to resign from the Government for betraying the family values he claimed to hold so dear, his wife, Diane, receives a volley of abuse through her letter box from total strangers. When Lillian Lee tells police that her stepson has murdered an Asian taxi driver by dumping him in the London docks, she receives so many anonymous death threats that she takes a near-fatal overdose of insulin. When George Heron is acquitted of child-murder in Sunderland, he is driven from his home by the hatred of hundreds of people across the country who have never digested a minute of the trial which set him free.

Millions of Moslems want to kill an English novelist they have never set eyes on. Asians in Tower Hamlets, Catholics in Belfast, Moslems in Serbia are victims of fire bombers and hidden snipers, whose faces they never see. Maybe it is simply that we are all too cramped together, like rats in a nest, chewing and snapping at each other until our communities become bubbling cauldrons of spite and resentment, boiling over at the first sign of a suitable victim.

Jeremy Whaley knows what it feels like to be on the receiving end. “I know that at any time of day or night, there is a chance that I will either be seriously injured or killed. There is always going to be that chance. Well, I have two choices. Either I give in and chuck up my life. Or I accept it as a fact and try and go about my business as usual, and just hope it won’t happen right now.”

When the hunt saboteurs first arrived in his life in 1989, he was not particularly worried. They turned up at meets in small groups, usually no more than ten at a time, blowing hunting horns to distract the hounds and spraying them with citronella to confuse the scent. Whaley didn’t welcome them, but he understood exactly how they felt.

As a child, he had been disgusted by hunting and he had even written up a special project at school, filling several pages of his yellow exercise book with his outrage at the cruelty of it all, but as a young man he had started riding and seen no sign of cruelty and then slowly become fascinated by the subtle mysteries of hounds and the invisible bond between them and their huntsman. And it was this that now singled him out for the attentions of the hunt saboteurs.

“I really care about my hounds and when I see them being sprayed, I know it’s hurting them. It gets in their eyes and noses and I’ve had half a dozen hounds which have died of pleurisy, which was almost certainly the result of their lungs being damaged by these sprays. So I would get down off my horse and take the sprays off the saboteurs, which, of course, gave them the opportunity to kick and punch at me. They would grab my hat and whip and throw them away or wrestle me down to the ground. And I couldn’t fight back. That’s what they want. They want to be able to portray hunting people as violent.”

Whaley’s interventions soon made him the prime target for the protesters. When he went hunting, he was pursued by taunts and jeers. When he went home, he had phone calls by day and night, sometimes silent, sometimes threatening. Sometimes, it was his wife, Nicky, who took the calls. “Don’t bother to cook him supper,” she was told one day when he was out hunting. “He’s a dead man.” Simply leaving the house became a frightening ordeal.

Outwardly, Whaley shrugged it all off, stuck his chin in the air and carried on hunting. Inwardly, his life was slowly succumbing to the corrosive effects of it all – nights of lost sleep, days of distraction, irritation and anxiety. After three long years of steady abuse, Nicky began to find it hard to bear. Whenever the phone rang, there was no knowing whether it was friend or foe. She could no longer go out hunting with her husband. Finally, she had had enough.

“She left me. We had been married for 20 years. Without a shadow of a doubt, it was all the trouble which was caused by the hunt saboteurs that led to the breakdown of my marriage. It made me a very difficult person to live with. The stress caused by the constant harassment makes you very irritable. Her life became unpleasant. She couldn’t go out. She couldn’t enjoy her riding. So she left. It was devastating.”

Within days, the hunt saboteurs had heard the news. “Suddenly, instead of there being ten of them at a meet, there were forty or sixty of them and they started shouting ‘Where’s Nicky, Jeremy?’ They pursued me all around the hunting field all day long, chanting this and shouting things, trying to imply that she’d run off with another man. From then on, it was like it at every single meet.”

And there was no hiding place from the taunts at home. The saboteurs started coming to his cottage, jeering about his wife. One morning he woke up to find they had chalked their message on the kennel walls. “Where’s Nicky?” and “I shagged your wife, Jeremy.” There were more phone calls, some of them threatening to kill him, others about Nicky.

“I had no way of avoiding the pressure. Every day from then on, I knew that when I went out, I was going to get this sort of thing. In other circumstances, I might have been able to go away but I had to stay, to carry on running the hunt. There was nobody else to do it. My two children had stayed with me, both in their teens, and it’s a funny thing but, although you are desperately down, you are trying to put on a brave face so that the children don’t get upset, so while it’s actually happening, you can shut it out. But when you’re alone and it’s all quiet, it’s pretty hard not to feel it.

“I think they wanted me to have a nervous breakdown so that I wouldn’t be able to hunt. And there were several times when I felt literally suicidal. But I knew that that was what they wanted. And there was no way I was going to give in to this sort of terrorism – and that’s what it is , terrorism. That gave me the strength of purpose to go on. The best way to spite them was to refuse to break, no matter how much worse it got.”

And it did get worse. A month after the collapse of his marriage, Whaley turned up for a meet near Midhurst and was riding through a gauntlet of jeers and sexual taunts when one of the saboteurs grabbed his left leg and pulled him to the ground, leaving him stunned and bruised. The police arrested the saboteur. A few months later, two other saboteurs jumped him and pulled him to the ground and were also arrested.

Whaley barely had time to deal with this new and more violent twist, when the saboteurs developed a new tactic. “I started receiving all kinds of goods and services that I had never ordered: CDs, a sewing machine, clothes, China, some pornographic magazines. I found it extraordinary what these companies would deliver through the post just because somebody filled in a coupon in the newspaper. I just printed out a standard letter, explaining that this was the work of hunt saboteurs and asking them to collect their goods. Half of them never bothered: I’ve still got a cupboard full of this stuff.

“It really had a negligible effect on me. It just cost me a stamp, which was what it had cost them to arrange it. But they carried on. They tried to organise a funeral for me, ordered me a coffin. They sent out somebody to replace my windscreen three times and a drain clearer on something like five occasions. I felt sorry for the people they called out because they were losing time and money by being sent out on these hoax calls.”

The saboteurs advertised his Range Rover for sale at such a ludicrously cheap price that Whaley was besieged with phone calls from excited buyers. Then they came round one night and trashed the car – ripped off its vinyl roof and covered it in slogans. A little later they tried something different, sending him a mysterious jiffy bag with a stenciled address. Fearing that it might be a letter bomb, Whaley deposited it in his yard and called the police, who opened it to discover a consignment of dog muck. “They missed their target completely. It was the poor police who had to deal with it.”

From time to time, the saboteurs would visit his home. Once, when he was out hunting, a group of them strolled into his garden and knocked on the door of his home. Inside, his teenage daughter recognised one of the men who had been arrested for assaulting her father at a meet. She called the police. They said they would come but failed to turn up and she was reduced to hiding in the house until the saboteurs gave up and went away. They were soon back and, this time, with terrible results.

The first Whaley knew of this visit was when he noticed that the gate from his garden to the road was swinging open. He went across to close it and found there was dog muck smeared all over the handle. He shrugged and was about to get a bucket of water when he realised that his three pet dogs were missing. They had been in the garden. They had obviously got out on to the road. Whaley went out to call for them. Two of them were running loose on the verge but the third, his six-year-old labrador Winston, was lying dead in the road where he had been hit by the passing traffic.

“They must be so sick – anyone whose mind is so bitter and so constantly thinking about someone like me and ways of trying to upset me or destroy me. They must be seriously ill. I can’t help but be frightened by them. I may hear a noise outside or see a battered Land Rover go by the house and then turn round and I’m thinking ‘Right, this is it, they’re going to get in and beat me up’ and then the Land Rover turns out to be people who’ve lost their way or something. And I carry on.”

The real threat, as his moments of depression betray, is not to his physical health, but to his mental well-being – the swelling panic, the simple but overwhelming sensation of being hated. Whaley admits that there have been times when he has worried that everyone might turn against him – particularly when the saboteurs distributed posters with his name and address and his photograph, saying he was wanted for the murder and torture of animals.

But – if only for the sake of his peace of mind – he has assured himself that nobody really hates him, not even the saboteurs. “It’s the hunt which they really hate, not me, but it’s tactically better for them to personalise it. If you can single out one individual and say ‘That man is a bastard’, you’re much more likely to get people to join in the attack. I think that’s really why they pick on me.”

And Whaley is not alone. Look at the feeding frenzy in Fleet Street when they find themselves a powerless victim – the actress ruined in the courts or the celebrity caught with his lover. It’s a lust for someone else’s suffering. Remember the faces on the crowd outside the Jamie Bulger trial, full of self-righteous contempt, itching for a lynching, utterly oblivious to their own hyopcrisy. It’s the social philosophy of the boot boy. The more you look, the more you see that there is no hatred lost between us.

At root, it’s not the media and it’s not the remote-control technology that is to blame, because it runs deeper than that. This is a collective squeal of rage by masses of people who have no power to control their lives, no means to enforce their will, no answer to the bureaucrat or the police man or the politician who cuts across their lives, it is the angry child furiously pummelling the bedroom door because it has nothing to fight with but hatred.

Jeremy Whaley has started to fight back. The saboteurs who were arrested for assaulting him were convicted and fined, and he has begun a civil action against them to prevent them from harassing him. He has an answer machine to cut out the threatening calls. He checks his post. He looks under his car. He knows that is not enough. “You can’t check every corner – you’d end up in a mental hospital. I just have to live with it.”

UPDATE: 25 years later, enabled by the Internet but for the same underlying reasons, the hatred of strangers had become epidemic.