Nick Foulkes on the benefits of his new-found love of shooting — not least in his wardrobe
AS A YOUNG man I tried to make myself like the idea of ‘the country’. However, after a decade of country weekends in the sort of houses where plumbing was regarded as a novelty and bedrooms were so cold that one’s breath created not so much a light mist as a dense fog, I came to the conclusion that the country was not really for me. Much as I was struck by the beauty of the paysage anglais, I didn’t believe that I was constitutionally equipped for the rural life. I felt rather better about this heretical decision when I heard that Mark Birley did not much care for the traditional country weekend either, finding all that ‘mucking in’ rather tiring.
I like the clothes, of course, but I like them in a Charlie Beistegui sort of way, a sort of over-accentuated form of fancy dress, and I quite happily wear tweeds in town if I feel like it.
However, one of the lessons I have learned in middle age is never say never, and over the past few years I have reassessed my rural views as I have taken up shooting. Well, ‘taken up’ is a little misleading as it implies some sort of frequency and dedication; what I really mean is that I have been asked shooting and have surprised myself by enjoying it.
I suppose it had to happen eventually — I had been hanging around the West End gunsmiths for years and, addicted as I am to visiting factories where things are still done by hand, I could not believe my luck when I discovered some years ago that Purdey’s factory is virtually on my doorstep and that of Holland and Holland is but a short taxi journey distant.
In many ways a sporting gun is like a fine Swiss watch. Made using skills that would still be recognisable to the craftsman of a century or two ago, it is, if viewed with a dispassionate rationalism, something that really has no logical place in modern life — and yet guns and watches are among the most beautiful man-made objects that blur the line between art and craft, while still remaining capable of functioning long after their original makers and owners have departed this life.
If the factories find themselves near my house, then the showrooms are at the heart of my favourite part of London. Purdey’s showroom in Mark Birley’s Mayfair, at the junction of Mount and South Audley Streets, is a sepulchral shop that still carries with it the whiff of Empire, its Long Room little altered in a century. I often pop into Holland and Holland to catch up with the latest pieces of ‘après-shooting’ apparel that the firm’s irrepressible creative director, Niels van Rooyen, has come up with. And with a location opposite Davidoff, where I frequently stop for a cigar and a coffee with the ever genial Edward Sahakian, I find the Beretta Gallery extremely convenient.
I HAD ALSO put in some time at the Holland and Holland shooting grounds, where I had found some respite from the stresses and concerns of quotidian life. And there it might have stayed, had I not been asked shooting by kind friends a few years ago: they are great company and gracious hosts, and I thought that I could sit out the actual shooting bit. Anyway, one thing led to another and I found myself standing by a charming little brook, on a crisp, bright late autumn day, with a shotgun and a man who was kind enough not only to load it for me but also to suggest where I might like to point it.
Of course it makes a difference if I hit something, but that is not the point. It is the charm of the thing, the tradition, the fact that you are using a piece of machinery that has changed little in a hundred years. And, unlike so many other forms of social activity, there is a gentle pace about shooting that I rather like; I suppose that I am lucky that having come to the sport late and, not being much good at it, I cannot afford to be remotely competitive. Nevertheless, it has given me an interest.
But I suppose that the biggest benefit has been to my wardrobe. It is with slight embarrassment that I admit that long before I lifted a shotgun I was commissioning plus-fours — I seem to remember that I had a plan to buy a Scott Squirrel or Brough Superior and wear them while motorcycling (I was clearly aiming for a TE Lawrence look styled by PG Wodehouse). As it happened I never got the motorcycle, but now that I do a bit of shooting I can order pairs of plus-fours and shooting suits as often as I like — only this morning I was engaged in a pleasurable discussion with Terry Haste about the size of the flaps on my bellows pockets and the depth of pleats in the shooting back on a tweed.
The only thing is I am unlikely to wear any of this clobber while shooting. Instead I limit myself to wearing tweed trousers (vividly checked, of course), some form of leathern outer garment, and pair of stout boots that I got at Tricker’s twenty years ago and have got just the right patina about them. I feel that to wear anything more purposeful and obviously shooting-oriented would be a mistake as it might give the impression that I think I know what I am doing… and that would simply never do.
Nick Foulkes is a Spear’s columnist. He is the author of books on James Bond, cigars, porcelain and the trenchcoat