Wednesday, 11 May 2011

True Englishmen, Guns and Pride

Shooters, hunters, stalkers and gun users are a rare breed these days it seems. Whilst once they represented all that was “proper” and “British”, now they represent, in public opinion, nutters in flat caps. And green jackets. And occasionally, Wellington boots.

Back in July, in an attempt to meet some real life gun owners, and just maybe quell the stigma, I went on a very short journey to see what these people were really all about, whether the myth was abstract or blatant reality, and it was nothing short of a little scary. This is the story of how an attempt to do a rational article about people who own guns became something different entirely…something harrowing.

On a hot morning when the weather had already reached its peak, sticky and incredibly uncomfortable in a way that would make most people short tempered and crabby. And so it seemed right I was wearing shorts. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a man wearing shorts. Not the subtlest clothing, maybe, but I was hoping that the shabbiness of my appearance would distract whoever I was talking to, giving me the upper hand in any conversation. It was a risky move that has almost never paid off in the past, but I was still confident.

I was very aware that I was entering a shop that carried not just its outward appearances or scariness, but with it a huge world, full of controversy, anger, pride, pain, death and nationality. And I was wearing shorts. Admittedly, I was also wearing a satchel, with pens, paper and other things jingling and rattling inside which made me look like I was at least pretending to be an adult.

The heat inside the shop on Southgate Street in Winchester, was even more muggy than outside, which was if nothing else an incredible feat of engineering, considering I could see that they had air conditioning, and so instead of looking just slightly dishevelled, I looked like I had a horrible fever. If someone new met me, they would probably think I was about to die, or maybe have a dump.

The first noticeable thing about the store, officially called a “Gunmakers” was the incredible amount of green and brown. Everywhere. This was presumably to lull any animals that might wander into the store into a false sense of security, so that they are easier to hunt and kill in the faux woodland. One side of the store was covered in hanging clothes, green and brown jackets mostly, the sort that country folk use to…well, I don’t think anyone really knows. There were also a few shirts that frightened me, just because many of them resembled ones I wear much of the time. The horror.

Where there were not clothes, there were rows and rows of guns, and where there were not guns, there were counters of things to clean guns, things to re-load guns, things to make guns more efficient. The guns were behind glass counters and inside glass cases, much like rings in a jewellers shop, and given the prices, they were just as precious. I was under the impression that guns were cheap, but apparently a standard “J. Woodward & Sons 12 bore sidelock ejector, circa 1911, 29" barrels, fine condition, straight hand stock with double triggers” can cost up to £11,000. I don’t think I’ve even seen that much money in my whole life, and for a frame of reference, here are some other things you can buy for £11,000;

· Boston Whaler 160 Dauntless 2003 (A large boat)

· A 1962 Chevrolet Impala

· A Summer House (Can be used as a Home Office, Log Cabin or a Golf Shop)

But we’re not here to talk about owning a kickass boat, a bitchin’ car or a totally badass summer house/log cabin, we’re here about the gun men, the men without these boats, cars, or houses.

The startling thing was the distinctive lack of animal carcasses. This is to say, there were only two that I could see. Two?! I thought this was a gun shop, not a flower store. What happened to the manly feel that was introduced by the guns, and cemented by the abundance of flat caps? I felt cheated, jilted even, but before I even had time to complain, I was set upon by a man.

He had come as if from nowhere, gliding on a haze of hunting prowess and skill. Perhaps this was a skill he had developed over years of sneaking up on elk and bear in the Alaskan countryside, but whatever the situation, he was as silent as the breeze. He stood beside me and asked without a hint of kindness;

“Can I help you?”

“Yes. Hi.” I replied trying to sound professional, but probably sounding (and looking) like a giant dick. Not like a journalist at all. All the brown satchels in the world couldn’t save me; “I’m a journalist from the University, I’m doing an article on gun ownership, who uses guns, what they’re like, that sort of thing, and I thought this was a good place to start.”

His demeanour instantly changed, he almost seemed excited, “You’ve come to the right place,” he said, proceeding to laugh for a while, and then turning back to me, asking; “do you need any literature?”

“I’m sorry?”

“I have these things here.”

He pointed to a rack of pamphlets that contained information on hunts, gun prices, second hand guns and cartridge prices, which startled me, not because of the pamphlets, but because of the American man with the giant fucking shotgun pointed directly at my face. This, to say the least, was incredibly terrifying. To say the most; holy Jesus shit!

“Don’t worry,” he beamed at me, his lips curdling into a grim smile, “It’s not loaded.”

This was probably the most ironic thing I have ever seen, and I’ve been to a rainy wedding. He was standing about two feet away from me, in front of the counter, behind which stood a man in an apron, presumably another employee. He proceeded to hit the butt of the gun on the counter, dropping it through his fingers until it slammed down, making me jump like a terrified cat, staring into the face of a particularly vicious dog.

“See, there’s a rattling noise when I hit it” He said to the man behind the counter, before picking the gun up and aiming it at imaginary elk in the sky.

The man behind the counter repeated his procedure with the gun precisely, agreeing with him about the rattling, before handing the gun back and turning his sights to me as I awkwardly shuffled through different leaflets.

“So what’s this article about then?” He blasted.

I shuffled on the spot, trying to maintain his eye-line and look at my feet in the same instance. “It’s about the sort of people who use guns, why they do it, and why some people don’t like it and think they should be illegalised, that sort of thing. It’s all up in the air at the moment.”

He paused for a second, squinting his eyes in what I imagined to be contemplative fury. Guns surrounded me. It was not a good place for me to be nervous, or him to be angry.

“If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns,” He replied.

“You stole that from us!” The American said, laughing. “I hope this article will have a positive stance?” he asked me, holding his gun by the trigger, resting it on his hip like some strange khaki-clad cowboy. This was a man wearing a blue pastel shirt and Birkenstocks and still I was sweating in fear. “Well I think it should be neutral. Journalistic integrity and all that, but it’s going to be from my perspective.”

The American laughed, and leant towards me, as though he were about to whisper a terrible secret into my ear, and I tried to resist the urge to look intrigued, and also resist the possibility of crapping myself;

“The French have been neutral for a hundred years, and look at them!”

I laughed nervously, undecided whether he was just having a laugh or committing a bit of causal mid-morning racism. I looked at the pamphlets whilst the man behind the counter tinkered with the gun for about half a minute before handing it back to the American, who proceeded to aim at imaginary elk once more, this time aiming a couple of inches to the right of my head across my shoulder, and pulling the trigger, resulting in a sinister click.

“You fixed it!” he said excitedly.

The man behind the counter leant his shoulder on a ledge, crossing his arms in satisfaction, replying, “That’s why they call me God.”

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