As I predicted, my new interest/pastime/hobby of shooting has not quite delivered the diversion from the cares of supporting a middle-class way of life. For a start there is the slight problem that I had a spot of bother getting hold of a shotgun licence – it appears that the Metropolitan Police did not think that I was entirely to be trusted with a firearm, no matter how beautifully engraved it might be.
I tried to point out as politely as I could that I believed it was entirely feasible for me to walk into certain London pubs (although perhaps not gastropubs) and along with my slimline bitter lemon and packet of crisps order a machine pistol and a matched pair of Stinger missiles, but then I would look frightfully out of place turning up at a shoot armed with a Glock and some anti-aircraft ordnance.
Still, it is not so much of a blow as you might think, as, even if I did have a gun, I would have great trouble knocking anything down with it. When out shooting clay targets, the only time I can be sure of a hit is when the clay is stationary on the ground. So even if someone were kind enough to ask me to shoot game and lend me a gun, I would look as though I was working for the RSPB.
So instead I have been contenting myself with assembling an unrivalled wardrobe of shooting clothes that, in all likelihood, I will never wear; and with finding out about the practitioners of the sport during the 19th century. I have become gripped by the two polar figures of Victorian and Edwardian shooting: Lord Walsingham and the Marquess of Ripon, the Frazier and Ali of the Victorian sporting nobility.
The Second Marquess of Ripon was a complete monomaniac. Instead of Christmas cards, he would send lists of the game he had killed that year. In a life entirely dedicated to shooting, he would eventually kill a total of 556,813 head of game. He was once surprised before dawn in the library of a country house where he was a guest, practising swift changes of gun with his loader – a similar scene appears in the 1985 film The Shooting Party. But practice makes perfect and he shot so rapidly and so accurately that he once had seven birds dead in the air, which even using three guns is an achievement.
The only man who could come close was the intellectual mutton-chop-whiskered Lord Walsingham – a multi-faceted man equally at home in literary and scientific circles who, in breaks between shooting, would caper about with his butterfly net hoping to capture rare specimens. He shot his way through the family fortune into penury, selling almost everything his family owned in 1912 including the site on which the Ritz was built. As an interesting footnote he brought down the hummingbirds now in the Natural History Museum in London, using shot that had been ground to a fine dust so that it would not damage the feathers. He was an eccentric par excellence – apparently he would disappear into the Cambridgeshire fens at night looking for moths dressed in a moleskin coat, snakeskin waistcoat and a hat made out of a hedgehog, an intriguing wardrobe choice that opens up new and surprising sartorial vistas.