The celebrated war correspondent, broadsheet editor, author and countryman talks to Charlotte Mackaness about his enduring love of fieldsports and his hopes for the future of our wonderful way of life
“I burst into tears when heading east on the M4” is not a statement one expects to hear from one of the most celebrated war correspondents this country has produced and, famously, the first man into Port Stanley in June 1982 as Britain seized back control in the battle for the Falklands. Sir Max Hastings, who at 6ft 5in also has serious physical presence, is of course gently teasing.
“Although I’ve had to spend periods of my life in London, I’ve always been happiest in the country, here in West Berkshire. Nowadays I’m reluctant to venture much further than Hungerford,” he smiles. “I’ve been in 11 war zones but that was a long time ago when I was young and stupid. Recently, someone asked me whether I wished I was in Ukraine. Absolutely not. My last war was the Falklands, and since then I’ve not heard a shot fired in anger nor wanted to.”
While Sir Max’s spell as a war reporter may have been wanderlust assuaging, his interest in the world and appetite for work has never diminished. His post-Falklands life has been far from quiet: he’s edited the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard and authored 30 books. “I’m always thinking about the next one. I’d never dared to guess that, after I’d stopped editing, one would have had success with a book. It has been lovely,” he says, with modesty.
We have a duty to be optimistic
Sir Max has sold more than four million books worldwide, won widespread critical acclaim and numerous awards. His most recent work is Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962, which in part explores parallels with the invasion of Ukraine. “Ukraine is one of the worst things that has happened in my lifetime,” he declares. “However, we’ve got to be hopeful. Our parents and grandparents got through two wars and came out the other end. The world is going through a very rough patch but for the sake of the younger generation us oldies have a duty to be optimistic.”
Such a positive outlook extends to the future of the countryside. Sir Max is a former president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England and a passionate fieldsports enthusiast. “I think an awful lot of people thought after World War II the jig was up for traditional life but one’s amazed at the wonderful sport we have and I hope it will be the same for the next generation,” he says.
Sir Max inherited his love for shooting from his father. “I really was inculcated by him. My father was obsessed with shooting. He was bonkers but wonderful. I’ve a great many sporting books, some I inherited from him. I’m riveted by what people got up to 150 years ago. I’ve got one called The Highland Sportsman and Tourist that lists every estate in Scotland in 1887. I love reading who the tenants were, what they were paying and what they were shooting.”
Sir Max Hastings’ love of Scotland
Scotland holds a dear place in Sir Max’s heart. “Some of my happiest days have been there,” he reveals. “I started renting a little moor and a lodge when I was 24 and had no money at all; it nearly bankrupted me. If my children did such a thing I’d get them rushed into counselling, but we had fantastic times.” He’s enjoyed many contented hours fishing the Naver and other northern rivers.
Not unexpectedly, he has strong views on the impact of salmon farming. “I’m appalled that the Scottish government is allowing landowners to clear the deer from areas in the north in the name of conservation yet it fails to enforce the regulations on salmon farms that are being breached every day.” Perhaps more surprising is the revelation that being at the helm of a national newspaper didn’t put paid to Sir Max’s sport. “I’d tell our proprietors that it was part of the job because of the people I met and the things of interest heard. It was a bit of a fib; one simply enjoyed doing it so much,” he admits.
For all the smart invitations that come the way of a fieldsports-loving broadsheet editor, Sir Max’s most memorable days are not what some might consider typical red-letter ones. “I’ve always loved rough shooting most. I absolutely don’t want to shoot big numbers, even more so with the common sense that getting older brings. The biggest threat to shooting comes from very rich people who regard big bags as a way of showing off,” he believes.
The countryside is about the people
“The countryside needs those who do more than come for a day’s killing. For me, part of the whole process of loving the countryside is the people one meets, including all those great institutions that sell kit and clothes,” he says. “Going to Carters Country Wear in Helmsley for my shooting clothes, for example, has always been part of the experience, although I am not sure I can justify adding further to my large collection of plus-four suits.”
While days of stalking, climbing to shoot ptarmigan and hitting stratospherically high birds might be behind him, Sir Max does not mourn what is past. Rather, he relishes the memories and takes enjoyment from the present, which more often than not involves his dogs Ludo the labrador and Scrabble the cocker spaniel. “I get more pleasure from taking my dogs to get a long grouse that I’ve seen fall a quarter of a mile behind the line than from shooting them. These days I pick up as much as I shoot. I would feel naked at any shoot without a dog,” he says. “When I was younger, I had some of the worst-behaved dogs in England but these days I have the luxury of time to practise with them.”
Sir Max started keeping a gamebook at the age of nine. “I get such happiness from the memories,” he says. “My gamebooks help me recall every detail of wonderful days. They are bulging but I expect they are of zero interest to anyone but me.” That seems doubtful, more likely another Sir Max Hastings bestseller to add to the long list.
Click here to read Sir Max Hastings on his favourite piece of field kit.