A few years ago, a distinguished cove in the diplomatic service was made High Commissioner to Australia. To prepare himself for the penal colony, he invited three predecessors to lunch, for advice. The first said that he should make contact with the Billabong institute in Sydney. They were experts on the transportees’ economy. The second advised him to befriend Ned Kelly, editor of the Convict Chronicle, who knew where the political bodies were buried, having often handled the shovel. Then it was Peter Carrington’s turn; Peter had held the post in the mid-1950s. ‘Watch out in late January,’ he warned. ‘When the shooting season ends, all your friends will try to invite themselves to stay.’
Peter is now the senior living former High Commissioner and also the senior living ex-minister. In October 1951, he was shooting at Ditchley, just after the election that brought Churchill back to power. At lunchtime, an aged retainer arrived on an equally aged bicycle. Its wicker basket held a telegram; would Lord Carrington tele-phone 10 Downing Street at his -earliest convenience? Assuming a hoax, his lordship waited until after the last drive. He was put straight through to the renewed PM. ‘Ah, young man; gather you’ve been shooting today?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Like to join my shoot?’
As the annual armistice descends on the countryside at the onset of February, one can find consolation without flying to Australia. Ed Lucas, one of the Odd Bottles, this column’s equivalent of the Pickwick Club, has a custom which both salutes the end of the season and fortifies its participants against the rigours of the fallow months. He commissions a game pie. Although it does not quite contain four and 20 blackbirds, it is a great chieftain of the em-pied race. Its glistening crust entices one to the pleasures within. This year’s version overflowed with partridge, woodcock, mallard, pheasant, pigeon and snipe. A fair few of them had been shot by Charlie, whose exploits have been mentioned here. But he is a modest lad. When anyone praises him, he reminds them that President Kruger killed his first lion when he was 13. Charlie is only 12. Even so. lions would be well advised to keep clear of Somerset.
Apropos blackbirds, we discussed thrush, which none of us had eaten. This was a matter of general regret and delayed new year’s resolutions. Charlie was instructed to keep his eyes open. I once attended a conference at the Sciences Po in Bordeaux, whose director was also president of the local confédération des chasseurs. That could only happen in France. As long as it can happen, France is not finished. He and I discussed shooting, with rifle or musket, and eating the harvest. He was eloquent on the thrush question. A vineyard bird, shot in October, roasted over vine twigs; there was little better. I must come back and try one. I shall. This was an especially amusing exchange, because he had a female English assistant who was a vegetarian. Poor girl: she looked like a starveling wretch — on this occasion, a horrified starveling wretch. Imagine such a conversation in an English university, or an American one. It would be a case of save the thrush: hunters must fall. They do order some things better in France.
With Ed’s pie, we drank a lot of red wine. Though it could have done with more time, a Kanonkop ’09 was impressive. Not everything in South Africa is falling apart. There was direct rivalry between two ’04s, a d’Angludet and a Reserve de Léoville-Barton. Both were excellent: in prime drinking condition, with the Barton in first place, but not by too much. But the gold medal went to the house of Pierre Bourée, often praised here. A ’96 Clos de la Justice had been perfectly kept — as had an ’01 Rieussec. It was the ideal last movement for such a symphony of game and grape.
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