‘Do you shoot much’ asked Edward Walters, manager of the West London Shooting School (1901), the oldest shooting school in the world. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I prefer to see the dogs work.’ This was deliberately pompous: an attempt at humour. And yet I have always disliked the idea of shooting at wildlife with shotguns. Too much technology, too little art. I’ve been on a farmers’ fox shoot and seen the lads banging away at a fox that was running across the guns, and was clearly being peppered, but poor Tod kept on running. Ghastly. The best I could say about blasting away at small living things with a shot pattern 30 inches wide is that it isn’t cricket.
And to be frank, as the former vice chairman of the South West Terrier, Lurcher and Ferret club, and an Essex man, there was an element of chippiness in my antipathy. People who shoot, I thought or imagined, were by and large either members of a social class who prefer to have their sport dished up on a plate, or dilettante sportsmen from the up and coming silly-money set.
Edward Walters and I were standing chatting in the club lounge a few minutes before my one-hour shooting lesson began. On a recommendation, I’d booked my lesson with the school’s senior shooting instructor, Mr Alan Rose, who has been a WLSS instructor for 40 years. He learned to shoot under the famous British shooting man Percy Stanbury, a former WLSS chief instructor and inventor of the influential Stanbury shooting technique.
The Stanbury method for massacring God’s creatures is founded on the shooter’s stance. The body weight should be kept on the front foot, whatever the shot — to the right, left or centre. The chest should always be at an angle of about 45 degrees to the line of fire. There should be a slight forward lean, with the front hip kept well forward and the rear heel slightly raised. The straight front leg acts as a pivot allowing movement of the hips during the swing. Get the style right, argued Percy Stanbury, and accuracy will follow.
Other techniques, such as that championed by small-bore shooting champion Robert ‘Bob’ Churchill, favour a squarer stance, with weight moving on to either foot.
Alan Rose is considered one of the best shooting instructors alive, and wealthy shooters from all over the world fly him in to give them a lesson. As Edward and I chatted, a suntanned Mr Rose emerged from the gun room, seated himself on a low stool beside the door and set about lacing up his boots.
At the same moment, Mr Will Kemble Clarkson from the London gunmaker James Purdey and Sons arrived, unlatched the gun case he was carrying, reverently lifted the lid, took out the three sections of a shotgun, snapped them together, and placed the result in my hands. A Purdey Sporter over and under with 28-inch barrels. Seven and three quarter pounds of elegance in fantastically marbled Turkish walnut, polished gunmetal, and closely engraved rococo scrollwork. The scrollwork took a master engraver a month. A top-class London gun, in short, and probably the most satisfyingly beautiful man-made object that I will ever be given to hold. I was surprised by the gun’s lightness. It wielded easily. At £31,000, the Sporter is James Purdey and Sons’ entry-level shotgun.
Being presented with a work of art like that, my shooting prejudice had been clipped in full flight. If the tools for the job were as beautiful as that, I was beginning to see the attraction. The next moment my prejudice received another hit: Will introduced me to Mr Rose, still on his stool wrestling with his bootlaces.
‘Do you shoot much?’ he asked, looking up at me with disarming frankness. My entire shooting experience is precisely six shots at six clays in Scotland last year, hitting one. ‘A low partridge or pheasant on my left is my Achilles heel, Alan,’ I said. Behind Mr Rose’s cheerful, outdoor countenance lies the seductive combination of maximum good humour allied with the humility of a saint. Alan Rose utterly confounded every one of my prejudicial expectations of what a celebrated shooting pontiff would be like.
‘To be honest I’ve fired a shotgun six times in my life,’ I said. ‘But I used to be quite handy with an airgun when I was a kid.’ I didn’t really think this was a relevant or sensible contribution to our conversation, either. But Mr Rose thought it was. ‘That’s all right,’ he said, with quiet seriousness, unexpectedly allowing the simple airgun its own dignity. Encouraged by that, I boasted, ‘I got so good with it, I used to fire it from the hip.’ Mr Rose was comfortable with this, also. ‘Yes, we can do that,’ he said gently.
‘Have you been anywhere lately, Alan,’ asked Will Kemble Clarkson. Mr Rose said he’d recently returned from a shooting trip to Germany and confessed to shooting a roe deer while there. ‘Whereabouts,’ asked Will, perhaps offering a familiarity with the lesser known regions of that country. ‘In the ’ead,’ said Mr Rose, twinkling at him.
We put on shooting jackets, helped ourselves to ear defenders and strolled towards the butts. Alan Rose showed me how to carry a shotgun broken, and remembered the days when Ealing was still a rural district and he and his pals could walk down the high street with airguns and nobody thought anything of it. ‘You couldn’t do that now,’ he said. He spoke with an Ealing accent, but an Ealing accent from when it was a country place.
We stopped near a wooden hoarding with what looked like a pantomime prop chicken suspended against it. Mr Rose took a brush and briskly whitewashed the surface of the hoarding, then he dropped a cartridge in the top barrel of the Purdey and asked me to fire at the chicken from about 20 yards with both eyes open. ‘From the hip, Alan,’ I suggested. He twinkled his eyes at me as if he wasn’t against the idea one hundred per cent, but we were there to learn gun safety, among other things. Instead of replying, he positioned the gun stock against my shoulder — at a higher place than I would ever have imagined.
As I was about to squeeze the trigger, I turned my head towards his and said, ‘Both eyes open, Mr Rose? Are you sure?’ His expression vividly indicated that he would rarely lie about such a thing.
As you can probably tell, I had a lot to learn.