The recent years have not been financially kind to David Barr-Smythe. His financial services company in London went spectacularly bust six months after the Lehman Brothers crash. At the age of 55 he is left with a country cottage in Hampshire, which still has a small mortgage, and a pension that barely covers his family’s living costs, let alone the school fees for his two teenage daughters. Huge savings have had to be made and the first casualty is shooting.
David has always loved shooting. He was an enthusiastic member of a City syndicate, and had always taken several days during the season for corporate entertaining. But those glorious days of high pheasants and low partridges have gone, and the invitations to discharge a bag of cartridges at another’s expense have dried up. Nowadays, he is lucky to be swinging his gun on a “walked-up” shoot, a day without beaters, with a solitary chum and a wayward dog. Furthermore, this dearth of action has left him exiled from most conversations in his local wine bar, the Grape Vine.
But last season, while nursing a glass of plonk at the bar, he overheard a local estate gamekeeper complain that there was a real shortage of beaters.
“You’d have thought in these difficult times they’d be queuing up to earn 20 quid for a day in the country,” said the keeper. And David slid up to him and said he would be happy to beat, adding loudly for the benefit of the rest of the room that it was “not for the money but for the fun”. David’s view of beaters had been the same as that of most of his predominantly metropolitan shooting chums – that is, that they were a sullen army of agricultural labourers who would be just as likely steal a pheasant for the pot as put it up to be shot.
And so it is with some trepidation that the former money man has joined the “rag-tag band of yokels” who stand apart from the “gentlemen guns”. The beaters are, as expected, a taciturn group, and David finds that he, like them, is staring silently at the City boys in their bespoke tweeds with their brand-new shotguns. He even recognises a couple of the well-furnished slickers from his days in the City, but they ignore him – and he them.
Soon he and his fellow beaters are taken by clapped-out farm trailer to be positioned on the edge of a wood. When the keeper’s whistle goes, the platoon of men, women and dogs begin to trudge through the trees shouting, hollering, and banging sticks in the hope of frightening the game birds to fly over the guns.
As the day wears on, David begins to realise that not all his fellow beaters are drawn from the agricultural underclass. In fact, beneath her torn wax jacket and woollen beanie he recognises the daughter of a neighbouring broker. And then as the stick-wielding militia nears the guns, the chap to his right, dressed in a camouflage jacket, turns to David and says in a cut-glass accent, “That prat in the stupid yellow socks couldn’t hit a barn door at five yards.”
And so David begins to take a much keener interest in his fellow mercenaries. At lunch, while the corporate guns dine and drink in style in the lodge, and he is sitting in the pouring rain with his homemade cheese-and-pickle sandwich, a colleague with a pedigree black Labrador offers him a pull of sloe gin from a hip flask. “I’ve shot all my life but these days I much prefer to exercise my dog by picking up and beating,” he says. “You get an extra tenner a day if you bring a dog along with you.”
After lunch, with the guns distinctly the worse for drink, the shooting is much more erratic. Lots of easy birds are missed and a number of low shots whistle over the beaters’ heads. At one point, as David emerges from a thicket, he is peppered with a pellet. “I’ve been shot!” he cries out. And that’s when the chap in the yellow shooting socks rushes up to him and says, “Look, here’s 50 quid. Nobody need know about this.”
And as David pockets the money, it dawns on him that nowadays beaters are just as likely as guns to be gentlemen – while both guns and beaters can be, to put it politely, players.