You can find Bruton Street in London easily enough. I went there one cold December afternoon, when the freezing rain was almost horizontal. Feeling nervous, I was buzzed through security into the store, a compliment in itself. Nobody has ever accused me of looking like a guy who can afford luxury. There were no other customers.
Grace is an abused word. The woman at Holland and Holland was older than I, and had used that time to attain grace that few ever achieve. We both knew from the first that this was a homage of sorts, that I wasn’t going to buy anything, and we were both perfectly happy with the arrangement. In other places I’d have been branded a time waster and given the cold shoulder.
Under the polished English accent was a hint of New Zealand, and it turned out she had originally come from the South Island. We had places in common, and maybe that’s enough when you’re so far from home. We talked happily for a little while of small sleepy rural towns we both knew.
Here was gathered probably the greatest collection of Holland’s work to be found anywhere on earth. Among the rows of incredible shotguns and rifles stood a side by side that caught my eye. A straight grip field gun, the walnut simply glowed. Its grain ran strong and straight through the hand of the stock, then erupted into wild ripples and convolutions on both faces.
The engraving on the sidelock was a brace of pointers, almost photographic in its quality. It was a simon-pure hunting gun, clearly built for a man of exactly my shape and height. For all its simplicity, this single piece stood as the aristocrat among aristocrats.
“Would you like to try it?”
In the course of a life many people will say tempting things to you. Nobody has ever said anything more beguiling to me than those six simple words. I told her quietly that I wouldn’t be buying, could never afford to buy. She just gave me a kind look and smiled.
“Then just appreciate it for what it is.”
No doubt the atmosphere had a lot to do with it, but you can believe the stories. There really is a liveliness to a London best that is apparent from the first moment. This beauty was fast, too fast for me. I’d fail to swing through with something so quick in the hand, so alive in coming to the shoulder. The price tag said that it was worth over two years of the pay I was earning.
Much later I left Holland’s with three gifts. The first was a scarf, all I could afford, for my girlfriend. The second was a breathtaking experience of high art.
The last was a measure of dignity. That a young man of obviously modest means should go there, be treated kindly and leave happy is a rare thing. I’ve never forgotten it.
About Pete Ryan
Pete Ryan is a hunting writer and photographer based on New Zealand’s South Island. His work has appeared in quality hunting books and magazines around the world. His first book ‘Wild South – Hunting and Fly Fishing the Southern Hemisphere’ launched to critical acclaim. Visit his website at faraway.co.