“It is about how the mid-Victorians improved things in Britain, both materially and intellectually, without too much help from the state. Having launched Right Minds (the Daily Mail’s political website) I now work full-time for the paper writing features and my weekly political column.”
So it’s a juggle to get away during the winter?
“I shoot a lot of Saturdays during the winter and, when people kindly ask me at other times, I always make sure I have a few days leave spare so I can go off to shoot during the week. I shot 18 or so days last season. There was one week in about 2004 when I shot five days one week. I couldn’t do it now because I haven’t got the time and I am just too old and too exhausted to shoot three or four days on the trot. I get great pleasure watching my 17-year-old son shoot.”
Was your father your mentor?
“My father did go rough shooting, although he died when I was 10 and there were no guns after he died as they were sold. I have very bad eyesight and my father, who had been a soldier, said to me, “I won’t take you shooting because you can’t see”, so I didn’t take it up until my late 20s. I thought I’ll have a go and so I learnt, it was that simple. I’ve done enough over 20 years and I love it. I’m past my best now though.”
How’s the diary looking for this season?
“I’m shooting a few days on Lord Rayleigh’s syndicate at Terling, near me in Essex, and I’ve had some invitations. I’ve about a dozen days in the diary so far and I think I may be lucky and get a few more. The highlight of my season last year was one of the days that I took my son out and he hit almost everything he shot at. I was missing quite a lot and he was handling his 20 bore extremely well.”
So, Essex is home?
“Yes, north Essex, so I am used to shooting low-flying partridges. The shoot where I am a member of the syndicate has some very good drives. I’ve been a member for about 15 years and I wouldn’t be if it wasn’t a good shoot.”
An interesting mix of guns?
“It’s a very good shoot and high end, as syndicates go, but I do go around the country and shoot elsewhere and I am not exclusively meeting people who are former Guards officers, let’s put it that way. I have never regarded shooting as a class-based sport and certainly, out in unfashionable Essex where I live, there are a lot of people who would not consider themselves remotely privileged who have guns and go off shooting. I don’t see it is any different to do that than to go to a football match on a Saturday afternoon.”
I can’t visualise you using an over-under, Simon…
“I’ve a matched pair of 12 bores by Graham of Inverness, made in the late 1920s. I’d had a couple of very straightforward boxlocks that I had shot with since my 20s. The man who sold them to me said: “These are the greatest bargain you will ever get in your life,” and they were and they are beautiful guns. They have very short, 26” barrels. I don’t think I hit any fewer birds with them than I would with 30” barrels; they are very light too. If you are going to start using heavily choked over-unders, then you may as well have pump action guns. The bird needs to have a chance. I’ve been on shoots with people who never miss and I think… what is the point? They are usually foreigners, I hasten to add. You do see people who shoot about 40 days a season and they never miss and you think, where is the fun in that, because you know that whenever you put your gun in the air, you’re going to kill something. I say that to console myself that I am not in that league but it is nice that the bird has a sporting chance, otherwise it’s not a sport.”
Aside from Simon Heffer, other Robert Cuthbert interviewees for Shooting Stars include: