Bledgrave Hall & After

An avocet, in flight. Illustration by A.M. Hughes.

by Terry Wieland

Say what you will about the internet—and Lord knows, I’ve said enough, not always in the privacy of my office—it’s a God-send for book lovers, if not for authors.

The latter see their already meagre royalties slashed to nothing because of Amazon’s pricing policies, but the former can type in a few letters and sometimes find a longed-for volume in a dusty bookshop at the far ends of the Earth.

I have been a fan of J.K. Stanford nigh on 40 years, beginning with The Complex Gun, continuing through his masterpiece, The Twelfth & After, and thence through every one of his books I can lay my hands on.  The latest—Bledgrave Hall—came to me courtesy of an Abe Books on-line search that revealed a copy “foxed and shelf-worn, no DJ,” to use the bibliophile’s terms, in a shop in a remote corner of Wales.

Six weeks later, having spent more on shipping than the book cost, it arrived at my door in no worse condition than it had left the Welsh shop, carefully cushioned and wrapped.  This, as any book lover will attest, is no small thing.  Even a book being sold for a few pence deserves respect, and there is no telling how long it had graced the store’s shelf.  It must have felt like selling an old friend.  Or, possibly, finally ridding one’s self of a hungry in-law.

At any rate, I finally got my hands on this, one of Stanford’s more obscure offerings, in which he blends his experience of war (it was first published in 1948, in Blackwood’s Magazine) with his ornithological expertise, his love of wild places, and his eager willingness to have his villains depart in highly unpleasant circumstances.  (Stanford was a firm believer in just desserts.)

For those who are not familiar with Stanford, he was an Englishman, a shooter, serious about shotguns and hunting, but also an ornithologist and sometime army officer who served in both world wars and reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel in Hitler’s War.  He served for some time in Burma, where he shot birds in the marshes and estuaries, menaced by—at times—tigers and similar antisocial fauna.

Ernest Hemingway was a Stanford fan.  When he received his copy of the newly published Guns Wanted in his biblio Care package from Scribner’s in 1949, he pronounced it, in a letter to Arnold Gingrich at Esquire, “marvelous.”

Stanford wrote both fiction and non-fiction.  Most of the latter had to do with ornithology, but he occasionally ventured further afield, and his “Also by” list includes British Friesians: A History of the Breed and Last Chukker, a treatise on polo.