This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
The crackle of rusted leaves, the white murk of mist and, almost silently, the sudden whoosh of driven partridge above you. Goodness, I love autumnal shoots — especially before winter’s brumous air and cold smudges the best of daylight into a half-hearted, nearly defeated duty.
I think it is Nicholas Soames who is fond of booming “a gentleman doesn’t shoot pheasants before Christmas”, but the premise is not universal. At home it is true we only beat the woods after Christmas, but plenty of pheasants slip out to the game crops to join the partridge beforehand and I don’t feel too uncouth adding them to the bag.
Ever since I was a boy, I have been advised to get as many days of game sport as possible because one never knows when the self-righteous will stop it. Last year we managed only four days at home before Tier 3 of lockdown imprisoned us.
That we were able to shoot at all last season was down to the persuasions of only three cabinet ministers, a worryingly small number for a Tory government. You will be reassured to learn that I am thanking them by having them to shoot at home this season. Separately, of course. It does not do to mix egos, especially when one cannot be sure whether they even like each other.
Today’s golfers wear a disappointing paucity of tweed
Shooting is the best country sport for talk and networking. The day is perforated with breaks for chat and refreshment between drives when you are left alone with your thoughts until, with luck, the adrenaline of flushed birds. Hunting can be hugely exciting, but horses are an organisational palaver and the chase is not conducive to conversation. Fishing is solitary and for those with more patience than me. Some claim it is the ultimate test of wit and intelligence against hidden prey. I think it is largely luck and for men who like talking to themselves.
Golf seems a useful way of getting fresh air, but it does not often allow for killing for your supper and is really for people who don’t have their own land to walk on. Also, today’s golfers wear a disappointing paucity of tweed.
We use our shoot as our main form of corporate entertainment. Well, that is how we justify the expense, but we no more mention business than you would over claret in clubland. That would be vulgar. I have been a guest on many a corporate shoot and, thankfully there has always been a veil drawn over the excuse for the gathering.
My favourite days are those for the family with the ladder of generations and no one counting the bag. Nonetheless I have been lucky enough to shoot with some modern legends. The late David Tang was one, and the most generous, exciting host. The first time I experienced a day with him, not knowing when I arrived the grade or style of what was to come but noting I was the only gun who had arrived by car and not helicopter, I asked him whether my unbroken slab of 250 cartridges would be sufficient for the day. He peered at me with surprised disgust, “I have never been a guest at a shoot before where you have to provide your own cartridges.”
He could be a harsh critic at lunch, working his way around the table as an equal opportunity insulter — “Leavesley, you’re fucking useless. You’re not hitting anything. I’m not inviting you again!” He was, of course, a superb shot himself. We walked across a field towards a duck flight just before he started writing an agony uncle column for the Financial Times, and he asked me to write in and provide the first dozen or so questions.
One of them was “What is the best way to shoot very high pheasants?” He used his whole column to answer — essentially the advice distilled to aim ahead, of course, but on the right edge of the trajectory.
Tip #2: Don’t serve cheap champagne
Clothes are, as ever, an important signifier but only on the periphery of the sport. David would ask that you wear smoking jackets rather than black tie for dinner the night before: “I’m not hosting a bloody gala.” Yet in the field anything goes, so long as it is recognisably country, though David often wore a black Chairman Mao-style thing on his head, just because he could. As the old gamekeeper adage goes, “There is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes.”
Geoffrey Palmer was infamous for inviting himself to shoots, to be able to have as many days as he could manage in a season. His record was 148 days with only two potential shooting opportunities missed. That is an awful lot of money out in keeper’s tips, let alone in the car fuel needed for traversing the country.
Now in his early 80s, he is still active but less intensely so than before and still an impressive shot. A crack at some of his Leicestershire partridge, before a rapid change of clothes and being driven to Manchester for the Treasurer’s dinner at the Tory conference was my introduction to Autumn.
Having inherited a near-bankrupt estate and useful title from his dissolute brother, Geoffrey decided he needed to make some money and did so very successfully with Burberry, mainly selling its iconic raincoats to Germans and Scandinavians. He knew how to spend his success: shooting. “With my first bonus I took August off and spent it all on grouse!”
He taught me two very useful tips: 1. Don’t use paper cartridges — they can stick before ejecting when your guns get too hot; 2. Don’t serve cheap champagne — your guests are not party guests, they are privileged to be there so treat them appropriately.
There is never a scowling face at a shoot
Shooting embodies the generosity of spirit, elan, laughter and appreciation of the countryside that we all love. That our sport involves killing just adds to its romance, because one should accept that death is an ineluctable part of nature. For me, David Tang and Geoffrey Palmer are heroes. They had fun and brought much joy through example and generosity. There is little better one can aspire to in life.
Because one of our national eccentricities is an acute degree of sentimentality towards animals, to an extent baffling to our Irish and French neighbours, it always seems that we shooters are on the edge of being banned or regulated to extinction — even though game birds, reared and shot wild, are the ultimate free range, grazing-fed dish. The illiberal, metropolitan desire to ban blood sports is a shameful intolerance.
Several times a year I wish I lived in a world where football had not been invented, especially when its stridency becomes ubiquitous. More people should notice that it is in fact quite a dull spectator sport with games of no or low scores. Much of the time is spent passing the ball backwards, which I find odd. But I do not want to ban it. I merely choose not to participate.
In contrast, there is never a scowling face at a shoot. Guns, loaders, beaters and pickers-up with their overexcited dogs are all invariably smiling, happy even among strangers with the camaraderie of just being there. Someone once said that shooting is like sex — even if you are useless at it, the mere prospect brings joy in the anticipation.
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