Simon Courtauld

The joys of rod and gun

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Country Fair

Max Hastings

HarperCollins, pp. 276, £

The farmer and writer, A. G. Street, who in the 1950s co- edited with Max Hastings’s father a magazine which gives this book its title, wrote before the war:

When the countryman turns his cows out to grass in the spring, he also gets out his rod and net ready for the fishing. The turning colour of the wheat makes the countryman think of both harvest and duck-shooting. In September he will thatch his ricks and shoot his partridges. He must wait until the leaf is off the tree before he can drive his pheasants. And when winter arrives he ploughs his land, feeds his stock, and goes hunting.

Though Hastings does not quote this passage — he has never claimed to be a farmer, and hunting has supposedly been banned by the New Labour government which he used to support — his evocative collection of essays and reminiscences has the same understanding of the rhythm of the seasons. And it similarly carries the conviction that field sports should need no defending because they are part of the country way of life.

A distinguished military historian and former newspaper editor, Hastings shows his more endearing side when writing about his exploits with rod and gun. He is soppy about labradors, passionate about fishing the Naver and shooting driven grouse, and continually self-deprecating about his expertise in both sports. As a probably more erratic shot than Hastings, I know well the frustration which he engagingly describes of missing birds while your neighbouring guns appear incapable of missing anything, then the joy at killing one especially high pheasant, stone dead with the first barrel, which will live in the memory long after the season is over.

Whether shooting driven game birds or fishing for salmon in Scotland, Iceland and Russia, Hastings does not seem to have as many ‘outside days’ as he wrote about in a book of that title 15 years ago. But he always writes entertainingly — of what he calls his ‘limitations both as guest and marksman’, of a shooting day spent with the beaters, and of the effects of the weather on his sport. There is genuine excitement in reading his account of a large fish played and lost on the Tweed (irritatingly, and ‘correctly’, referred to by Hastings without the definite article), in part because of his own admitted impatience.

After all the days at driven grouse, Hastings comes back to earth in Cornwall to acknowledge that ‘rough shooting is what the best of sport is all about’. It may consist in walking up a hedgerow with dog and gun, or hiding behind a camouflage net in a stubble field to shoot pigeons. On Bodmin Moor he walked all day for a few snipe and woodcock. It is an excitement I am already looking forward to sharing with my son at Christmas when, with two black labradors, we shall walk the marsh, spinneys and fields on his south Cornwall farm, hoping to exceed last year’s single-figure bag of snipe and woodcock. And at dusk we will wait for the duck to come in to the pond he has just dug. It may be the perfect Boxing Day shoot.