From the Field, March, 2010
It is not every night I stay in a grand hotel bedroom which announces previous occupants have been the Prince of Wales and the last executed murderer Ruth Ellis, though not at the same time. Such was my billet in Newquay for a dinner and talk to the Cornish branch of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust.
I know their first choice of speaker-a rugby player or ‘celebrity’ country person who does not actually take part in the sport they rattle on about-had jacked. But I was not going to let this or the seven courses (this year’s favourite at dinners seems to be inedible guinea fowl) put me off. Trying to get a Cornishman to laugh, however, unless it is about a shipwreck or Emmets having their cottages advertently burned down, requires full oratorical skills. Game conservators, their speciality here is snipe and woodcock in Cornwall, are rather shy souls, like the better sort of beagler.
Unlike hunting anecdotes, those that concern shooting are a bit thinner on the ground. “You must have an interesting game book? ” my host enquired shortly before I rose to speak. He introduced me as a man who hunted and shot from August to February. “Actually, it’s until April,” I began, to howls of jealousy. What I did not say is that then I go down to Southern Spain, sit at the toril gates, and watch in the ring the many times descended offspring of bulls that I once fought.
Then my mind drifted to my game book. I recalled the time, hunting a pack of deer hounds in France, when the roe after a long hunt was shot by some farmers. In the interests of harmony, I went and ate it with them later.
Then there was the man I shot with last year who apologised in advance and told me he was going to have to make one phone call during the day. “Just bought a ski resort in Bulgaria,” he said, which quite put me off.
Or the loader I know who was offered fifty pounds to keep his gun’s cigar alight whilst at a ducal shoot. “For fifty pounds I would have slept with him,” the loader told me. It was time to move on to my own efforts in game conservation. It is true that once shooting on a famous estate on the Welsh Borders where I was a Master of Foxhounds I had shot all day with no bird to my gun. Afterwards, the keeper came up to me to apologise. “No matter, I replied. I know about harmony between our sports. You don’t shoot my foxes and I don’t shoot your pheasants.”
But sometimes excuses are not enough. During my Cornish visit I did no more than tickle a few partridges on what was a pretty big day. There was nothing for it but to haul myself off to a shooting school on Exmoor. “You’ve got to be a bit more poofy with your right leg and just let your ankle hang loose,” said my seasoned instructor, a command at which I needed no second bidding. He was also a bit of a wag and writer. Although over lunch I gave a three hour seminar in writing (and he gave me a signed copy of his ‘memoirs’) I still didn’t get any change from a hundred quid for my lesson.
I am not a ‘Bag Man’ where numbers are everything. Perhaps the most magical day I have had this season involved no gun at all but walking remote moorland with two friends, two pointers, two merlins and my daughter. Whilst I was there on that moor a beautiful girl wearing no shoes came over the heather, followed by a child in a Batman outfit and a wolf on a lead. It was the most surreal sight I have ever seen on a sporting day.
“I have not worn shoes for six years,” she told me. “To wear shoes is to walk blind.” She then looked down at my Hunter wellies. “I’m pretty much a non-shoe man myself,” I offered. “Just borrowed them for the day.” I try and do game conservation on the farm. The five guns who paid for a charity day this year were quite happy to shoot three pheasants. When one of the guns, a serious London lawyer, also shot a pigeon, I could have kissed him. My terrier caught a mouse as various. But my wife gave them such a wonderful lunch I have never had such thank you letters.
And my shooting has improved. In Wales, shooting with my kindly banker host and next to a Padre just back from Helmund, I was, after lunch given pole position and, I do not mind saying, dropped birds on their heads. “We thought you were a foxhunter,” they cried.
The success of the day was twofold: I was shooting with friends and, what I did not let on, had been practising my follow through by watching the lead guitar movements of Keith Richard’s playing ‘Starfucker’ on Utube. As I drove home, I was not sure if I felt like royalty or a murderer. But I felt happy.