Monday, 12 December 2016

Book Review: Tracking the Major

The blogger known as the Bambi Basher and myself have a sort of yule-ish end-of-year catch-up tradition. Last year we stalked the Highlands. This year our December catch up was to return to its regular venue. Holts host their bi-annual london auctions - it's the nearest thing to an American gun show central london has to offer. You can 'view' by which I mean 'pick up and handle', firearms from £500,000 to £50. Did I mention it’s catered? You can see the appeal. This year BB couldn't make it, and worried that the excess provisions laid on would go to waste I stepped up to the plate[s], loosened my belt a notch or two, and headed for Hammersmith. 

There were some very nice things on offer: at least three Mannlichers, one with the famous rotary magazine, all with the 'double set trigger' mechanism, that can both aid accuracy and render the consumption of roughage unnecessary. For me the star of the show was a rather scruffy and well used Rigby take-down [obvs chambered in .275]. 
Back in the day when a sport could pop down to the Army & Navy department store and equip himself for everything from a weekend in the country to a multi-year expedition to untraveled lands, Army & Navy’s gun department kept a stock of off the shelf Rigbys, this one delivered to the store in 1901.

As you can imagine it’s been about a bit. The stock has some scratches, while in two pieces it's been dropped onto something hard denting one mating plate where the two parts meet, it had been re-barreled in the 90's and had a chamber sleeve added sometime after. One of the more lived-in Rigbys.
Like a wand in your hands, the stock's semi-pistol grip worthy of the name, super petite, and svelte at 7 lbs 2oz. Now 115 years old the bolt's travel has worn as smooth as a smooth thing's smooth bits. Not, perhaps one for a collectors safe, but a real traveling sportsman's rifle that would earn you a hit-tip from any aficionado, and derision from anyone with an ounce of fiscal probity.

The Victorian-Edwardian transition, the second surge of industrial revolution, must have been a great time for the rifleman. When adventurous english gents would embark on expeditions to far flung corners of the world with a realistic expectation of adding to the sum of human knowledge. For the gentleman explorer it was considered, if not an act of devotion, certainly one's patriotic duty to record the whole escapade. As Queen Victoria passed and Prince Edward sat in the big chair. A new age of recording the moment had begun. The birth of more portable photography, cinematography, the telegraph, audio recording for broadcast, and an age of prolific taxidermy. Newsworthy moments were transmitted by Reuters and Pathe back to the public; samples and specimens were preserved and prepared for display in cabinets of curiosities and diorama, in sizes from desktop to needing to build an extension on to your house.

By the 1970s and 80s the baby had been chucked out with the bathwater. Explorers were still just about ok, fur coats and taxidermy were out, and big game hunters, unthinkable! The once heroic figure of the sunburned Englishman in a pith helmet wasn't a passionate naturalist and ethnographer, he'd become a figure of fun to be mocked and derided. The life stories of these intrepid eccentrics were only remembered at places like Bisley, the reading rooms of moth-eaten gentleman's clubs, and the Bambi Basher’s bookshelves.

Taking a break from leaving greasy paw-marks over the merchandise I happened to be at the right end of the room (funnily enough where the free champagne was being served) to hear someone from Holts announce that Andrew Joynes was launching his book 'Tracking the Major - sketches from the Powell-Cotton Museum'. Then he mentioned Quex Park the major's estate. Theres a street not too far from where I grew up called Quex Rd, which is an unusual sounding place name, my ears pricked up.

'... In my attempt to fathom the mind of the Major, I began to think of his archive, with its variety of objects and documents, as a kind of lair to which a rare animal had retreated...
In the room behind the baize door, I had embarked on an exercise in historical fieldcraft. I had begun to track the Major... “
Andrew Joynes

Curiosity peaked I learned Major Percy Powell-Cotton was a massive celebrity of his time. On over 26 expeditions between 1887 and 1939 he hunted, collected, wrote and was an early pioneer of wildlife film making. He brought back over 2400 specimens and a plethora of artefacts. His collection out-grew his house and he built extension upon extension to house enormous diorama of full size taxidermy.
It’s not so much that his life was like something out of a boys own adventure, it’s more like the boys own adventures were based on him. His zeal for adventure was matched by his abilities as a self-publicist, he was news and he knew it. By sending regular(ish) dispatches from his trips he became a fixture of the newsreels and in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. His books best sellers, the public first saw the charismatic mega fauna of Africa in his films shown on the weekly newsreels. 

Such was the scale of his collecting that some of the skins he shipped across the world didn't get incorporated into his museum for more than 30 years. 
The most famous taxidermist of the day, Rowland Ward, wanted to mount Powell-Cotton's elephant, which has the second largest tusks ever recorded, and mount it life-size. This would mean raising the height of the roof at Quex Park. Powell-Cotton felt there had to be an end to the expenditure somewhere and declined. Rowland Ward was adamant, perhaps guessing correctly that the days of the really big elephants were at an end, and made his case that the mount could be life-size if he did the work for free, and Powell-Cotton paid for the raising of the roof. They shook hands and the elephant is still there today.

Andrew Joynes has done a great job of sifting through the major's meticulously notated stories behind many of the exhibits. A favourite anecdote: 

Whilst on honeymoon,  Powell-Cotton was being mauled by a lion he had failed to dispatch with the first shot. His death was postponed when a copy of the satirical magazine Punch resisted the lion's claw. Which gave a few vital seconds for his guides to save him. News of this near-miss reached London before he did, adding to his living legend status. 

The lion in question, as mounted by Rowland Ward & Co.

If that wasn't enough, he added a dash of panache by putting the lion, the safari suit and the copy of Punch on display in his museum. Which the public flocked to see.

It gets better.

A museum in his garden he’d been wise enough to commission, while on his travels, leaving his brother to deal with the builders. 


Andrew Joynes tells loads more great tales in 'Tracking the Major - sketches from the Powell-Cotton Museum’ , it's well worth a read.

I’m hoping to make it over to the museum in the next few weeks
I’ll post a field report obvs. 
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