He looked up at me and cocked his head like a Labrador listening to a duck on the wind. “Well”, he said with a faint smile, “this has certainly never happened before.” I told him I wasn’t wholly surprised that I was the first person to drop out of his Masters degree in Modernism at UCL to head up Shooting Times.
That afternoon I walked out, through the quad, for the last time and on the Monday I started as the seventeenth editor of the world’s oldest shooting title. My first assignment was an important one — Hull Cartridge, which was established in that great northern city in 1947, was having a party to celebrate the launch of some new loads.
We drank, we talked about goose shooting at length, and there was a German with a spectacular moustache who was very keen to give an address, despite speaking almost no English at all. I still don’t know who he was but the day set the tone for what ultimately became a seven-year stint in the editor’s chair. I counted, last week, that my final issue was my 364th.
I listened to those who have written for the title for decades and then after six months, sacked half of them
The magazine was founded in 1884 by a roguish wildfowler called Lew Clement. It’s generally accepted that he only set it up in order to promote his gun dog kennels. Clement sold Clumber spaniels for 10 guineas, cockers for six, and retrievers for 15. The details are hazy but in 1906 Clement was sentenced to three years in prison or some sort of gun dog-
He isn’t the only ST staffer who’s had a run-in with the law. My favourite historical editor came from Sligo and claimed to be a vicar and a dentist, despite there being little proof that he knew anything much about God or teeth. Ultimately, it was discovered that he was writing most of the magazine under various pseudonyms and was paying himself handsomely. The publisher was not impressed.
My run on the magazine has been less dramatic. Admittedly, when I turned up, as one sub-editor pointed out, I had no idea how to edit a magazine at all. But I did the only thing I could do. I listened to those who have written for the title for decades and then after six months, sacked half of them. There’s one old editor in Devon who I culled as a contributor who reckons I’m the worst thing that ever happened to ST. Happily, though, over the past fortnight, I’ve received lots of letters that take a different view.
About two years into the job, I was standing on the Humber Estuary at dawn with a couple of long-time readers. “So being an editor,” one of them asked, just after I’d shot a mallard. “What’s that actually about?”
At the time, I struggled to come up with an answer. I think I brushed it off by saying that really you just decide what goes into the magazine and what doesn’t. I realise now, though, that the point of a good editor is to get the best out of your writers. It sounds simple, but it’s a real skill based on trust and empathy. An editor isn’t a dictator. An editor listens and facilitates.
In my last year at the magazine, I received a letter from a lady whose father had been reading ST since he was a boy. The old man was dying and he looked forward to the magazine arriving each week but it often didn’t turn up.
This, she explained, upset him so much that she thought she might cancel the subscription. I was in Finland hunting when the letter arrived. It was a rainy morning in Helsinki with a few hours before we went to the forest, so I found some paper and wrote to him.
A couple of months later, I received an email from one of the man’s close friends. He’d died not long after I wrote to him and the letter had been read out at his funeral. “I’ve also read ST all my life,” the man said to me in the email, “and I have to say, I think it’s like a big family.” When I received that email I cried.
To put something together that has meant so much to people for almost a century and a half is an extraordinary privilege. Magazines are not just magazines. They’re communities and they provide moments of escape when life is hard.
I remember the editor of a monthly competitor of ST, once saying that he’d had enough of old guys calling him up. “I’m not a social worker”, he said with a shrug. It was clear, at that point, that he was no longer in the right job.
This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
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