Tied to tradition
Not long ago there was an exchange of views about hats in Trout & Salmon. Which headgear should an angler favour: tweed cap, baseball cap, or something else? Such trivial concerns delight anyone eager to join the journalistic fray and to see his name in print. My earliest recollection of angling is seeing smudgy photographs of men in trilby hats casting flies. Most of them wore ties as well. Ties! How inconvenient and how stifling. Yet the fashion, anachronistically, persists, not in angling but shooting. Why?
“Etiquette,” some will say. It's the accepted code of dress; like hunting pink or green. But etiquette changes. How many letters now carry Esq.? Guests, having thanked their hosts for a wonderful evening (and it's always “wonderful”), sometimes choose nowadays not to send the same gratitude in a letter. This seems commonsense, especially given postal costs, although, if the hosts have another view, it might redound on the guests: they will not be invited again. And I wonder how many dinner jackets are going green in wardrobes, and how many men have forgotten how to assemble a bow tie.
Customs have changed, though not in shooting parties. There's something male and tribal about them. From Neolithic hunting bands, through school gangs, the Bullingdon, Freemasonry and so forth, we love to belong to something exclusive and bound, perhaps, by ritual. It sets us apart, even notionally above; it provides an identity; it is self-affirming. Many view these cliques indulgently, as a harmless pandering to a basic impulse, or as something rather quaint; others think they're pathetic.
I am not familiar with rough shoots, yet they appear to be freer, more natural, less hidebound than the formal kind, and I don't think ties are de rigeur. They also cost less. For cost is significant. Supplying, breeding and nurturing gamebirds is expensive, and so, inevitably, are formal shoots. The ties, shooting jackets, garters, the plus-twos (clothes that count) – all this uniform signifies a group that can afford to pay. It is less a social elite now than a moneyed band. Some of the aristocracy might well be unable to afford to shoot in such company were it not that the land and pheasants are theirs.
But shooting groups have more than special clothes to define them: there are rules. Most are sensible safety precautions; others are more idiosyncratic. Woe betide the Gun who hasn't heeded the shoot captain's briefing. You might be fined for not wearing a tie, for sporting camouflage gear, or bright clothing. At another shoot it could cost you a lot in money, whisky or port if you shoot a white pheasant. Elsewhere, bringing down a wild bird like a woodcock might incur a penalty. The fine will probably go to charity, but it can be a hefty surcharge to an already expensive day out. And how hilarious it is for the other Guns; how shaming for the transgressor – just like a Bateman cartoon.
I questioned the need for ties the other day, when shown some photographs of a shoot. “Respect for the game,” I was told. Nonsense. I know that anglers and hunters respect their quarry. They sometimes go to great lengths to understand and protect the creatures they kill. You might even argue that not killing shows even greater respect. Wearing ties or any other fancy dress is not necessary. Relax, follow the example of the anglers. So, no more ties please, unless, for some strange reason, you are comforted by its restraint.