lady painting

 

Nov 2008 Journal

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My shotgun weddings

For a boy from my background - Viennese bourgeoisie, religion equated with superstition, divinity manifest in the arts - I was surprisingly familiar with guns. My father had a small-bore rifle (sans ammunition) with which he allowed me to play, I had a Diana air gun given to me as a bribe to stop biting my nails. My best friend had a rich father (Heller, the bonbon king) with his own hunting estate not far from Vienna. His son, the complete aesthete even at 12, did not have the killer touch, so I was taken as a substitute companion on hunting expeditions, and became addicted to the thrill of stalking deer at dawn or in scary twilight when strange shapes materialised and dissolved among the trees and the crack of a breaking twig would make my heart skip a beat.

The first thing I learned on arrival in England was that what I called hunting was known as shooting - hunting was done to hounds; the hunters dressed in red coats (referred to as pink to confuse foreigners like me). Shooting was mostly done with shotguns, which I had never handled. I didn’t have long to wait. My mother, who started her refugee existence as a charwoman in her cousin’s boarding house, shipped me off to a Quaker family for my first English holiday and my first taste of English country life. My hosts were a special breed of Quakers, full of the goodness of their convictions but devoted to field sports, both hunting and shooting. A day without chasing some animal was a day misspent. I gave hunting a miss. The horses didn’t look as welcoming of Jewish boys as the daughter of the house. I succumbed to the double seduction of her company but also to the solitary pleasure of going out with a gun and a dog, walking up my own small game - rabbits, pheasants, hares - and learning to hit a moving target, so different from the static firing of a rifle at a stag hundreds of meters away.

During the war I learned to handle an assortment of weapons but fired few in anger. In Burma I killed more jungle fowl for the pot than Japanese. After the war, the sporting side of shooting came to the fore once more, but not before a disastrous failure in the hunting field. I had the good fortune to meet a high-born young lady, the Hon. Lavinia S., just when I was at my most eagerly English - demobbed as an officer of field rank, ready to make my splash in society. In the course of some very agreeable mutual exploration, she asked me where I hunted. When I confessed that I could tell the front of a horse from its backside only in good light, she changed gear to neutral and I was out. Soon afterwards I read in the Tatler that she had come to the rescue of a faller in the hunting field who turned out to be the Duke of Norfolk. One thing appeared to have led to another, the other being marriage to the premier duke of the realm. I should have learned to ride. I might have been a duke today, lording it over Claus Moser or peering at a distant Weidenfeld. Or doesn’t it work that way round?

Still, the perfume of romance also lurks in the acrid smell of spent cartridges. My next conquest was a young woman whose father farmed 4,000 acres in Northamptonshire. He was a man of strong principles, one of which was never to take a drink before breakfast. This caused him to rise early, cook his own porridge in a house full of servants, and go back to bed with a good conscience and a bottle of whisky. I never saw him drunk. My friendship with his daughter Fiona grew in London but blossomed at the weekend when I was a regular guest in her parents’ house. This was country life on the grand scale with a lot of nocturnal tip-toeing along unheated corridors and a daytime equally seductive, one’s social life revolving mainly around shooting and fishing. The girlfriend was a much better shot than I, having done it all her life, but she was more tolerant of my shortcomings than the future duchess. There were dinner parties and picnics; the one thing lacking was conversation. I think this made me a welcome diversion - except in the eyes of Fiona’s brother, who saw me as a Continental fortune hunter. When it was my host’s turn to return hospitality received from his neighbour, the Duke of Gloucester (sorry about bringing up another duke), I was not only included in the party but put next to the Duke as an interesting specimen of foreign fauna. We stood in line while the beaters did their thing and the pheasants whirred past in front of us. I tried to engage Gloucester in conversation, but it was hardgoing. When he threw out his upper-class monosyllables and a pheasant approached, he’d briefly look up, bang, down came the bird, and he would continue his sentence without missing a beat. Once, he let a bird pass and shouted ‘Yours!’ I winged it sufficiently to cause a forced landing. ‘Good shot!’, said the Duke without irony, displaying the only manners he had ever acquired.

My romance got derailed when I discovered that I fancied mother more than daughter. Not that mama gave me any encouragement, but she may have felt some slight stirrings too for, in a gesture of abandon, she showed me poems she had written, calling them (perhaps revealingly) her ‘secret vice’. Unfortunately they were the worst kind of Christmas card rhymes and I advised that she continue to cherish them as her guilty secret. Mother was not flattered, girlfriend began to smell a rat, and brother thought it was time the cuckoo was expelled from the nest. The weekends petered out and the Duke of Gloucester never asked me to any of his shoots.
 

 

 

Victor Ross

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