While in Texas I met a charming man who has killed 169 elephants.
I know that this total might seem a little on the high side, and it is perhaps not an activity that I would throw myself into with any great enthusiasm. That said, there are aspects to big-game hunting that I quite like: the engraving on the guns, for instance; the film Mogambo; those hats with leopard bands; and that part in one of my favourite films, Powell and Pressburger’s inimitable The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, when the passage of time is marked by the appearance of trophies on a wall. But I am a terrible coward. I find the very idea of going to Africa quite alarming. I do not have the energy to tramp across the Great Plains or wherever it is that one encounters these animals. And I think that on the whole I would find it difficult to deprive such a large mammal of its life.
I am not ruling it out – never say never and all that – but on balance I think it unlikely that Dumbo & Co have too much to worry about from me. If I am seized by an uncontrollable need to take a squint at a pachyderm in its natural habitat, I’ll visit a zoological garden.
Nevertheless, I have to admit to being fascinated by a man who, having made himself a fortune in natural resources, decides to take up big-game hunting and within a decade brings down such a large number of such big animals. Of course, this hunting was all above board, regulated appropriately, with permits paid for and what have you.
Anyway, once I had returned to the Capital of Empire, I took my wife out to dinner and told her about my experiences and, in particular, what a nice chap my elephant man was and how he did not exhibit any of that overpowering and rather off-putting machismo that I feared was part of the whole big-game hunter shtick. The more I find out about shooting and hunting, the more I realise that the people who are most serious about it tend to be the most conservation-minded of them all.
It is an oft-quoted cliché that those who shoot are keenest on preserving the rural integrity of the country, but that does not make it any less true. My favourite line in this vein was uttered by Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe. “Very few people adore animals as much as I do,” said the founder of the Marbella Club, “and very few have shot as many.” Picking up a gun does not necessarily make one any less sensitive to beauty and less capable of emotion, but it does tend to place one rather firmly in the whole circle of life thing.
My wife wasn’t convinced. While she was prepared to accept that my elephant man might be utterly charming, she wasn’t keen on killing elephants and nothing, not even the glamorous and well-dressed woman on a neighbouring table, was going to change her mind. Clearly feeling that our conversation was too interesting not to take part in it, this fellow diner had weighed in, asking me if I had been to Botswana lately. Having given the question due consideration and trying to be polite, I answered that I did not think so. I was about to add that I had been travelling rather a lot and so could not be entirely sure, but that when I had last checked Botswana and Dallas were a fair distance apart.
However, she was already telling me about conservation, poaching, the management of the elephant population and how many elephants her husband had shot (around a dozen, and I think she might have mentioned one or two buffalo). I felt like I was being charged – conversationally at least – by a glamorous but rather irritated lioness. I acted instinctively, and looking around for a handy witticism to throw in her direction the best I could come up with at such short notice was the observation that her husband really ought to get his skates on as, for the moment at least, my Texan friend was way ahead of him.
At which point her husband, a delightful man who had the air of a patrician Stewart Granger, smiled and tried to apologise – which was entirely unnecessary, as I rather enjoyed this added dimension to our conversation, even if it meant me leaning back on two chair legs to better address my new interlocutor. It seemed that our wives had agreed to disagree, but the whole thing passed off pleasantly.
When the time came for me to move onto the terrace for a cigar, I went over and introduced myself and said how much I had enjoyed our chat, whereupon it emerged that he just happened to be Wilbur Smith – the poet of the plains, the Balzac of big-game hunting.
Alas, I had neither my copy of Gold Mine nor Shout at the Devil handy for him to autograph. But as an opening gambit around the campfire next time I am out in the veldt gnawing on a strip of vegetarian biltong swapping manly stories, I think the line “Did I tell you about the time I was having dinner at Mark’s Club when Mrs Wilbur Smith took my wife to task about elephant hunting…” will make a change from the usual Hemingwayesque tales.