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Country Notes

The red hand gang

Patrick Galbraith says field sports are a boon for male friendship

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Shoulders touching, we sat side-by-side, the retired marine and I, under the russet leaves of a stunted oak. The clock in the churchyard had just chimed five and the last of the light was fading over the River Stour. One flask between us and two enamel cups, we sipped hot cocoa. 

It happens sometimes; you’re waiting so intently for that unmistakable silhouette or the whistling pips of a drake on the wing that a bird comes low across the fields and drops onto the water unseen.

Shooting, in the minds of most, is a pursuit of the red-blooded male

The first I knew of it was when Simon touched my arm and I turned to see that his eyes were fixed on the far margins of the shallow pond where a duck was swimming among the reeds. Like so many creatures, wildfowl seem to sense the hot gaze of a predator on their back and as soon as I’d put my mug down, it was away, towering straight up into the sky then swinging west towards the river. 

My first shot missed cleanly but on my second, I watched the gap between the bead on the end of the gun and the little duck open up before firing. It was just right and the teal was dead in the air, tumbling among the furrows of a freshly ploughed field where the warm lights of a strange house cast their glow.

“Some people round here take the piss,” Simon said, while sending Scout, his young Labrador, for the retrieve. “But I think it’s all right. It was designed by that Grayson Perry. We call it Julie’s house.”

I later learn the architecturally eclectic “House for Essex” (right) is a memorial that was built for Julie Cope by her husband Rob after she was killed in a fatal collision with a takeaway delivery driver. The previous summer she’d been on a dream holiday to India and it was to be her Taj Mahal. Neither Rob nor Julie ever existed but Perry conjured her up as an embodiment of the sweet essence of Essex.

“They don’t much like it in the village,” Simon continued as the dog dropped the bird by his boots, “but the bloke’s obviously having a laugh.” Backs against the bark, we hunkered down again, waiting for another bird. “Have you heard him talk about masculinity?” Simon asked with a whisper, when dusk had faded to dark. “He’s good on that. He did some great stuff on the radio.”

Shooting, in the minds of most, is a pursuit of the red-blooded male. It’s a sad truth that in spite of there being lots of girls who are much better at it than I’ll ever be, there are also droves of men who become nauseous when the idea of ladies tackling partridges is countenanced. 

Equally, all across the country I’ve met men whose dear hearts would break if a little son of theirs turned around one Saturday morning and said, “Pa, I think I’ll stay in and read the Beano.” In the US, the landscape is similar, with hunting being perceived as a rite of passage: “It isn’t till you’ve stuck a pig, son, that you truly become a man.”

That evening, I shot well, and after Scout had retrieved the fifth and final teal, we picked our way back to Simon’s house, two fields over from Julie’s. With cold beers, straight out the bottle, we dissected the flight. It was special — Simon had built the pond a year previously and it was the first time it had been shot over. 

It was also the first time I’d properly met the guy and I liked him. There was a boyish kindness about him and as I drove back to town the following morning, after shooting a mallard at sunrise down on the brackish mud, I wonder whether we’d both made a friend.

The loneliness of the middle-aged male is a much-talked about phenomenon. According to government statistics one in five men admits they don’t actually have any friends. Some claim evasively that life simply gets too busy but I think there’s something else going on. 

Men are terrified of their emotions; the very thought of having any is upsetting

On one level, a certain sort of middle-aged, often middle-class man seems to feel that having friends is emotionally dubious. My girlfriend’s mother often talks of her best friend but I suspect it would go down about as well as the time a pair of my boxer shorts turned up in a pile of his if I asked Constance’s father to tell me about the best friends he has had over the years. Some months ago, Constance said to me she’s sometimes not even sure her dad likes shooting but he seems to go all the time.

Mine is a sport that likes to think of itself as the quintessence of masculinity but for so many, whether they realise it or not, it’s a very British workaround. As Grayson Perry noted when he wrote his 2016 book The Descent of Man, men are terrified of their emotions; the very thought of having any is upsetting. 

It would never do to get together simply to watch the sun go down or to invite a few friends over for a quiet night in with a glass of bubbles before getting up the following morning to go for a picnic in the woods. Guns or fishing rods make it OK though, and anyway we were all only there for the sport.

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