Low life

The travesties competing in the Terrier category at Crufts

16 March 2019

9:00 AM

16 March 2019

9:00 AM

Does the BBC suppose that it will convert the public to a belief in equality if it does not, in its heart, believe in it itself? Unlike the genial guidance of wartime propaganda, this current stuff feels like snobbish contempt. Of course no one forces me to watch state television, and apart from snooker, darts, football or horse racing, I don’t. But the other day, I took a tray into the room where my mother sits slumped at an angle and the telly was on, and it was showing the terrier judging at Crufts. Crufts! Terriers! Wondering how this culturally questionable event has escaped the gimlet-eyed ideologues’ red pencil, I settled down in a comfortable chair to watch.

When I was a committee member of the south-west terrier, lurcher and ferret club, I occasionally stewarded the terrier show ring at our summer shows: perhaps half a dozen battered terriers in each class, all probably related; half a dozen weather-beaten owners, all probably related. Orange baler twine was much in evidence: marking the extent of the ring, holding up trousers, or standing in for a lead. On the walk up and down under the judge’s eye to determine the terrier’s ‘action’, it was not uncommon to see both man and dog limping badly. The terriers answered to the name of ‘Badger’ or ‘Satan’ or ‘Nelson’ and such like. But the judge, usually a terrierman of a neighbouring hunt, was always most respectful and meticulous, spanning the animal’s chest with his hands, for example, to see how small a hole the dog could go down, which is most important. When it came to the business end of the dog — the teeth— he was a private dentist in a tweed cap.

In contrast, the Crufts judge’s inspection was laughably cursory: a quick fondle and at most the apprehensive baring of a canine tooth on one side but never the other. Here was the Sealyham terrier standing obediently for the judge. He cautiously lifted a curtain of braids and ringlets to see if there was in fact a dog of some sort under there, gave the whole a pat, and that was it.

But it was still wonderful to see a Sealyham terrier, which, as we all know, was the creation, reportedly from scratch, in Pembrokeshire, in the 1850s, of John Tucker Edwards, a sporting squire of the Sealyham estate. His chosen ingredients were the local black-and-tan, unfussily bred working terrier; the Glen of Imaal terrier; the now extinct Cheshire terrier; and a shorter-legged version of the white-bodied fox terrier. Aficionados say that he added a bit of Corgi, others claim a dash of bullock.

Tucker bred for type and gameness rather than bouffant hairstyle. Approaching a litter of whelps with a gun, he shot there and then any who showed the slightest fear or apprehension of him. The spared pups were then tested for courage by being shoved in a cage with a wild polecat. One pup who failed this test, but was spared because of the kindhearted entreaties of a watching farmer, went on to become the most famous badger-hunting terrier in Pembrokeshire, which is saying something. The first Sealyham terriers, of course, looked nothing like this absurdly coiffed baby elephant asking for yet another chocolate treat. The early Sealyhams were half his size and weight and ‘weasel-bodied’. Commentating from ringside, former Blue Peter presenter Peter Purves unfortunately recounted none of these insights into the peculiar origin of the famous old breed, commenting instead on what a happy chap he seemed and how good Sealyhams are reputed to be with small children.

Next in the judging line was a surprisingly unaltered Manchester terrier, which looks like a skinny miniature doberman in colour and outline but is nothing of the sort. A Manchester terrier is a streamlined, urbanised edition of the Old English black-and-tan terrier crossed with a pit bull terrier. It was designed by working-class men to course rabbits and kill rats in front of paying spectators. I have a reproduction early 19th-century poster advertising the rat-killing prowess of a Manchester terrier called Tiny (pedigree by Old Dick out of Old Nell) weighing 5½lb. His last notable victory, it says, was against Mr Batty’s 8lb bitch ‘Fun’, when between them they nailed 100 rats in 34 minutes.

I don’t remember Peter Purves mentioning any of this either, in spite of the breed’s impeccable working-class credentials, or the breathtakingly acrobatic feats of agility required for this useful hereditary occupation. Or how horribly cruel are our occult modern methods of extermination by comparison.

I stayed on, in spite of my shame, to see which of the travesties shown here would be chosen as the ‘winner’.

The judge nodded at the Scottish terrier, seemingly on the strength of no more than a generous whim, and the poor blind creature sprang forward with a sort of robotic gaiety.

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