Rachel Johnson

Come on, girls — have a crack!

For centuries, British wives have endured the hell of watching in the cold while their husbands shoot. The answer, says Rachel Johnson, is to pick up a gun and blast away

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When I was asked recently whether I wanted to go shooting, I felt torn. It’s clearly very fashionable at the moment, as Charles Moore’s story about Cherie Blair and Lord Mandelson at the Rothschilds shows. But shooting is unutterably bloody, if you’re a woman.

It starts with a long drive to a big house, encumbered by a vast array of boots, hats, gloves, jackets and thermal underwear, as well as sparkly evening outfits. You spend the night carousing, and in the morning the men — henceforth to be referred to only as ‘guns’ — wake early and pad about in heavy, Scott-of-the-Antarctic tweeds that smell of gun oil, reeking breeks, and long, gartered woollen socks in amusing colours. A massive cooked breakfast is underway. The guns’ gossipy wives are wearing tight cashmere sweaters and showing off their bottoms in Austrian leather britches, and reading Richard Kay in the Daily Mail.

After brekker, everyone — i.e. guns, women in britches, dogs — totters out via the gun-room and gents’ and forms up in front of a selection of mud-spattered off-roaders that wouldn’t look out of place in Baghdad’s Green Zone. They listen to the head keeper’s announcements about not shooting ground game or each other, and the guns are handed their peg numbers. They all pile into the Land-Rovers and Subarus, etc, to sit packed like sardines with wildly aroused dogs who nuzzle crotches and try to get to second base with everyone on board. You want to faint from the combined odours of old Barbours, coffee breath and dog. You wonder what on earth you are doing there. The chatting, the flirting, the delicious meals, the dressing up, the hours on the M3 already seem like a distant, Vaseline-tinted dream. For it is now that the misery truly begins.

‘Shooting is hellish, I haven’t for years,’ says Emma Soames, echoing David Cameron’s careful line that he hasn’t shot for ages and has no plans to do so again. ‘It’s brain-numbingly cold, ear-splittingly noisy, and bone-crunchingly dull. And worst of all, you can’t even walk, you have to just stand there.’

That’s my objection, too. It’s so boring and cold. After bumping along to the first drive, you have to stand in squelching mud by your gun while he fires at the birds and swears. You are only allowed to open your mouth to say ‘good shot’ when he hits a pheasant, after which it plunges to the ground hard by, twitching in its death throes. Your teeth chatter and you wish that you’d worn the down anorak even though it makes you look like an enormous chalet girl and you remember too late Nancy Mitford’s advice on surviving point-to-points, published in the Lady, which was: ‘Nobody will notice what you are wearing: they will be feeling far too wretched themselves to think of that.’

You long for the quad bike to arrive with elevenses of grouse soup and fruitcake, and possibly a pistol so you can quietly go off into a culvert and shoot yourself. None of the guns would even notice. They’re too grimly focused on the important business of blasting as many birds out of the sky as they can. After a hearty elevenses, it’s back to freezing mud and raining pheasants till lunch, which is always a big beef stew, lots of claret, followed by crumble. Everyone drinks and goes red in the face until the head keeper lurks in the doorway.

And then the movie producer Charles Finch goes and asks me whether I want to learn to shoot. As you can imagine, this was a very big question. I weighed it up. Did I want to learn how to shoot? And the answer was, of course, hell, yes! Why hadn’t this occurred to me before?

Basically, over the past decade or so, not being able to shoot (if you’re a certain sort of rich competitive male, which I’m not) has become as socially disabling as not being able to drive is in LA. Anyone who made any money at all in the last 20 years took up shooting, and the best shooting in the world is in the British Isles. Ergo, my field-sports consultant Willie Stirling confirms, the British shoot was and is the only place in the whole wide world where this sort of chap can enjoy the matchless experience of shooting driven pheasant and grouse, while being able to hobnob with big swinging dicks and captains of industry and Cabinet ministers, if that’s the sort of thing that turns him on (and, as we’ve established, it does; women, not so much). For all these reasons shooting has become less stuffily Edwardian and narrowly aristo. Estates that rented out shooting days had a bonanza. Shooting was Britain’s Klondike economy. Then came the bonfire of the bankers, and Lehman Brothers, and then what? I needed to find out, just in case.

So I said yes, please, and so on the appointed day I was picked up in a Bentley (thanks, Bentley — the letter’s on its way) and conveyed to the 100-acre Holland & Holland shooting ground, with its landscaped grounds, and uniformed staff serving bacon baps and coffee. It became instantly apparent that Willie was right. Shooting has indeed become ‘wildly glamorous’. The place was thick on the ground with models, film-makers, designers, the glossy posse and the titled heads of Europe. It was like Studio 54, only with flat caps and Purdeys.

Soon after arrival, I was introduced to a tall, dark, handsome man who was strapping a shoulder pad on, to protect himself from the recoil of the gun. I made an admiring noise, at which he gallantly reached down and handed me his spare. ‘Are you sure?’ I stammered. ‘It will be even more valuable to me after you’ve worn it,’ he insisted with heavy gallantry. I later found out it was Prince Nikolaos of Greece.

As you might detect from this, it is clear that shooting is no longer the sole preserve of tweedy landowners, aristos and squires. And hasn’t been for years. ‘It went off a bit, after last September,’ said my instructor, Mike Colwell, referring to a quietish period when the guns fell silent after the fall of Lehman Bros. ‘Now it’s coming back.’ The only difference now is that when the ‘high-powered US bank’ (i.e. Goldman Sachs) takes a day, the guns book in under their own names, never the bank’s, and arrive in subfusc fleeces rather than the full fig. ‘They’re doing it again — they just can’t be seen to be doing it again,’ Denny explains.

So you heard it here first. Banks like Goldman Sachs are taking ‘corporate participation days’ again at Holland & Holland, and lots of nice people — not just financiers and politicians in the pursuit of patronage — are spending large amounts of money on pointless pleasure again. If that doesn’t betoken green shoots, Robert Peston, I don’t know what does.

As for the actual sport — piece of cake! Basically, anyone who can see and move their arms and fingers can do it. With steady Mike Colwell at my side, I felt like the shooter in the Day of the Jackal: eagle-eyed, poised, hair-triggerish. The thought even crossed my mind, as I smashed clays, that if my husband is kindly invited to Exmoor and Gloucestershire and Scotland to shoot again, then I could have a crack too.

And this, of course, would solve the problem of female shooting misery at a stroke, those hours of standing motionless in driving rain with nothing to do between meals while the gun blasts away happily. And yet, and yet. Could I really? I enjoy shooting clays. But could I really kill warm feathery things just or pleasure? Yes, happiness is a warm gun but being able to feel your extremities is fun too. I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see.

Rachel Johnson is editor of the Lady.