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The Spectator's Notes

Why shooting makes for the best conversation

I've never been saddled with a man who was boring, drunk or rude

Apologies for my absence from this column. My editors kindly let me get on with the final volume of my Thatcher biography. In my one week of actual holiday — in northern England and in Scotland — I had cause to reflect on what makes a good conversation. The problem with so many social conversations (lunch, dinner, parties) is that talk is compulsory. This can be a helpful thing, but it penalises those who are interesting but shy against those who are more assertive than interesting. Conversations among people engaged in an outdoor pursuit are quite different. They can start, stop and resume without any embarrassment, and they rest on the reassuring basis of a common interest. I imagine this must be true of sailing or fishing. It certainly is of hunting with hounds. It also occurs if you are shooting with loaders, as I was. You stand all day together, except when you move between drives. There is no requirement to chat at all, so when talk comes, it is unforced. I can honestly say that in scores of such days, I have never been saddled with a man who was boring, drunk, rude or narrow-minded. Better than that, I have almost always found myself with a loader who has taught me a lot — about the country before us, about what I am doing wrong, sometimes about life in general. Although loaders are often keepers from nearby estates or retired keepers, they often have quite different backgrounds. This year, I had, among others, an ex-electrician from the West Country who moved to the moors because he loves breeding pointers, and a former senior emissions expert at Nissan who is married to a woman priest. Cynics might object that loaders are bound to be nice to the guns, since they are paid to be so, and want tips too. No doubt their role restrains their language a bit, but I have never noticed the faintest sign of the servility which you sometimes meet in conventional service trades. These men live lives in which telling the truth is important and showing off is unwise. To share their talk is a privilege.

I have just remembered one instance of a loader being rude. In Scotland, years ago, I was assigned a man who had previously worked for a notably villainous plutocrat of the region. What was he like, I asked. ‘Well,’ said the loader, ‘I would call him a pig, but that would be an insult to those noble creatures.’


While I was away, I avoided the news, except obituaries. Three people I knew quite well died. The first was Sean O’Callaghan, the repentant IRA terrorist turned informer. He was one of three friends I have visited in prison (the others being Taki and Jonathan Aitken). So great was the risk from the vengeance of the Provos that Sean had an entire block to himself in Maghaberry. He had a diffident demeanour, but great courage. Obviously, this involved straightforward physical bravery, since — though he died of natural causes — the threat of being murdered was never lifted. But his intellectual courage was even more remarkable. He came to understand clearly and coolly why physical-force Republicanism was an atrocity not a crusade. I don’t think he hated his former comrades. It was rather that he saw through their pretensions, so they never forgave him.

We were forewarned of the second death. On 11 August, we received an invitation to ‘An evening with David Tang’ at the Dorchester. ‘As I have been “given” by my politburo of medical experts,’ it read, ‘just a month or two to last, I thought the best way to go would be to give a party where we can see each other at least one more time, rather than at a memorial when I shall be as dead as a dodo.’ But poor David died less than a week before his party. His intended form of farewell was entirely characteristic — being absurd, generous and unreasonably optimistic. He created an amazing, precarious bridge between East and West and persuaded the most extraordinary collection of people to cross it.

The third was Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. I was part of his flock when he was Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, and kept up with him when he became Archbishop of Westminster. He was a good shepherd, who knew his sheep and was known of them. As a shepherd should be, he was physically strong, but gentle. Although he was brought up entirely in England, he had an Irish accent. No one could have been less chippy about the British, however. Indeed, he was too soft on us. He admitted to me that he wanted to take up Gordon Brown’s offer of a peerage. His maiden speech would have begun, ‘As my predecessor, Cardinal Pole, was saying in this House…’ The Vatican, however, has a rule that clergy should not be legislators. Cormac sought an exception: ‘I worked out how best to appeal to them. I thought, “Well, the Vatican is really a medieval court, so I’ll put it in terms they’ll understand.” I said to them, “I believe the Queen would like it.”’ Sadly, the austere position was maintained, and the Cardinal remained unennobled. It was part of his charm to tell such stories against himself.

Another death was that of Sir Edward Du Cann, the former chairman of the 1922 Committee, at the age of 93. Sir Edward’s longevity proved a problem for me when I was preparing my first volume for the publishers. A paragraph about him (incredibly, he came quite close to being chosen over Mrs Thatcher to challenge Ted Heath in 1974) had to have two versions, one if he were still alive, the other if he weren’t. He lived, so my quotation from William Waldegrave said that Heath’s supporters hoped that Du Cann would challenge because they ‘all knew that he had such a dubious financial record as to make him an easy target’. In the ‘dead’ version, Waldegrave said: ‘all knew that he was a crook’. Those who romanticise the probity of politics in the old days would do well to study Sir Edward’s career.

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