Just getting on with it
Many of us who shoot, fish, hunt or stalk like to think of ourselves as hardy, gritty country types who don’t complain much and just get on with it. But, as Marcus Janssen discovered, there are some whose stoicism and determination puts them in a different league.
What’s the point in focussing on the things you can’t do? That’s a defeatist attitude. You’re far better off focussing on the things you can do.” These are the words of Ben Blackford, a one-time gamekeeper who, along with his best friend, was hit by a car seven years ago. His friend died instantly and Ben, although lucky to survive, was left with a list of horrendous injuries, including a spine that was broken in four places. After two weeks in a coma, he had to learn to walk and talk again.
And although Ben is no longer physically able to work full-time (he has an acquired brain injury, chronic fatigue, suffers from anxiety and his spine is permanently damaged), miraculously, that hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his passion for country sports.
“Nothing stops me now,” he continues. “I get out into the countryside with my gun and my labrador as often as I can. The challenges I have faced have only made me more determined to keep living my life and doing the things I love. And besides, there are people out there far worse-off than me, so I’m not going to sit around feeling sorry for myself.”
And he’s not alone. Despite being diagnosed with a rare and severely debilitating condition known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) in 2009, Lucinda Mitchell (33) resolutely refuses to allow it to prevent her from pursuing her one big passion in life – hunting and competing on her gypsy cob, Splash.
“Horses have always been my escape, my refuge,” she says. “I started riding when I was one and I have been around horses ever since. I have worked as a groom and competed and hunted since I was a child, so the thought of having to give that all up was devastating.”
Indeed, for about a year after being diagnosed with CRPS, which causes persistent and excruciating pain and extreme swelling in Lucinda’s right leg, lower back and right arm, she didn’t know if she would ever be able to ride again. “The thought of having that all suddenly taken away from me put me in quite a dark place,” she admits. “But then I met Emma Harford from Talland School of Equitation who taught me to ride sidesaddle. At the time, I really wasn’t sure – I was in such severe pain that I couldn’t imagine that I’d ever be able to ride properly again. But as soon as I got onto the horse that day, I knew it was going to work.”
Lucinda now competes in equitation sidesaddle competitions and even hunts with the Vale of The White Horse on a regular basis. “Hunting sidesaddle is extreme!” she laughs. “The adrenaline is incredible. But my attitude is that, as there is nothing I can do about my condition (there is no known cure), and I’m only going to get one shot at life, I have got to get on with it and live every day to the full.”
This very attitude is shared by a man that many Fieldsports readers will know – Bill Elderkin, a respected figure in the shooting industry who is as renown for his gunsmithing and gunmaking as he is for his warm smile and dry wit. Indeed, anyone who has ever been to the CLA Game Fair will surely know that the warmest greeting on Gunmakers Row was always found on the Elderkin stand. But what you may not know about Bill is that behind the friendly and witty demeanour is a resilience, stoicism and determination that is nothing short of inspirational, although he would almost certainly scoff at such an assertion. But you can make up your own mind.
Within just a few months of the car accident that left him completely paralysed from the mid-chest down, Bill convinced a friend to give him a piggyback into the middle of a snowy Lincolnshire field so that he could shoot pigeons from his new wheelchair. “I couldn’t wait to get back out shooting again,” he says with a smile. “I was allowed out of Stoke Mandeville at the weekends, so I got one of the lads in the workshop to drive me out into the fens. He positioned me in my wheelchair, strapped me in, put a net around me, and I shot the first pigeon that came within range. I was made up because I knew then that I was going to be able to carry on doing the things I love. But when I got back to hospital on the Sunday night and told the doctors what I had been up to, they weren’t particularly pleased.”
That’s the thing with Bill – he somehow manages to find positivity and humour where others might only see doom and gloom. Even when I ask him about the actual accident that left him with a broken spine, he manages to steer the conversation onto lighthearted ground. “Did I tell you that I had two guns in the car?” he says with a wry smile. “One was a cheap Spanish gun and the other was a very special Woodward 20 bore over-under. Of course the Spanish gun didn’t have a scratch on it, but the Woodward’s barrels were bent double! My dad said to me afterwards that if the accident hadn’t left me in a wheelchair, he would have put me in one!”
Although Bill must know that he was dealt a tough blow that day, he certainly doesn’t let on. “Of course, I did have some dark moments early on, wondering if I was going to be able to continue doing the things that I love,” he admits, “but you can’t allow a set-back to get you down. That’s what I would say to someone who ends up in my position – where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
This sentiment and attitude is shared wholeheartedly by Phil Jones, a friend and customer of Bill’s who had two serious motorbike accidents in 1978. The first one resulted in him losing a kidney, and the second left him with a paralysed left arm which he finally had amputated in 1998 because he found it more of a hindrance than a help.
“There is always a way to do the things that you want to do,” he says in typically forthright fashion. “I really don’t want sympathy from anyone because, at the end of the day, I can’t think of anything that I can’t do that I would like to do. Like everyone else, my biggest constraint in life is time – finding the time to do everything that I want to do.”
And it’s no wonder – this is a man who shoots between 35 and 40 driven days per season and spends the summer months fly fishing for trout and salmon, lamping foxes at night, and decoying pigeons (he and a friend used to shoot up to 3,500 pigeons per year, but he has since cut down)! “I believe that if you want something in life, you should go after it with everything that you’ve got – and don’t let setbacks get in the way; there’s no point sitting in the corner feeling sorry for yourself.”
Remarkably, Phil only took up shooting after he lost the use of his arm. “I had to learn how to do a lot of things,” he says candidly, “so I couldn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t learn how to shoot or fly fish.” And learn he most certainly did; he can cast an entire fly line without too much effort, takes a week’s salmon fishing on the Conon each year, and from what I have heard from a few of his fellow Guns, he puts his 28" Beretta EELL 20 bores to impressively good use.
Like Phil, Jamie Chandler is another keen shooting man who, despite having been born with no hands, refuses to allow his disability (a term he hates) to impede him in any way. “Thanks to a pragmatic Dr. Ian Fletcher from Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, and the fact that I had forward-thinking parents, I wasn’t treated any differently to my three brothers and was made to just get on with it,” he explains. “Some people thought that we were feral as kids because we weren’t mollycoddled or protected from the big bad world. But I think my parents were ahead of their time in that they allowed us to discover our own limitations. They did me a massive favour by giving me the belief that I can do and achieve whatever I set my sights on.”
Indeed, Jamie’s father made a point of not curbing his enthusiasm – even when he was egged on by his brothers – and never stopped him from doing the things he wanted to do, including riding motorbikes and climbing trees. And so he certainly didn’t see any reason why Jamie shouldn’t follow in his footsteps and take up game shooting. He did, however, disapprove of over-unders.
“He was very old-school,” laughs Jamie, “so I was made to shoot with an AYA No. 4 side-by-side 12 bore as a child, which really wasn’t an ideal gun for me as it had a straight stock and double triggers, so my arms were always covered in bruises! But the idea of me using an over-under was just not an option!”
And so, it was only two years ago when Jamie’s brothers clubbed together and bought him a Beretta Silver Pigeon for his 40th birthday that he finally made the transition to a single-trigger over-under. “And lo and behold, it transformed my shooting!” he says with a laugh.
Indeed, over the past few years, shooting has become a major part of Jamie’s life, and he feels passionately that, as a sport, it needs to continue to progress and become more accessible and inclusive. “The perception that shooting is all about toffs in tweeds is nonsense, of course. But, unfortunately, that perception is still widely held by the non-shooting public. So we’ve all got a responsibility to do our bit to change people’s views. We need to make it even more accessible and inviting to outsiders and newcomers.”
But equally, Jamie argues that we also need to change perceptions and address prejudices that persist within the shooting community. “For example, my brother and I were recently at a very prestigious shooting school in the southeast of England,” he explains, “and, right in front of me, one of the instructors asked my brother if he would be happy to take responsibility for me. Of course, my brother told him that as a shotgun certificate holder, I am more than capable of looking after myself. But that is the sort of attitude and perception that I find difficult to accept. But it’s not just people with disabilities who are treated differently – I often see women being patronised in the same way.”
And Jamie is not alone. Sid Goodwin (38), a charismatic farmer from Herefordshire, agrees wholeheartedly. “The biggest downside of my disability (Sid is paralysed from the mid-chest down, the result of a serious car accident in 1996 which left him with a broken spine), is not the disability itself but the way that I am treated by other people. For example, when I turn up at a shooting ground I’ve not been to before, people will sometimes assume that I need coaching, simply because I am in a wheelchair!”
As it happens, Sid is an exceptional Shot and has actually been a member of the Welsh Olympic Trap team for the past four years. “Shooting is wonderful, because it is one of the very few sports in which I can compete against able-bodied athletes. At the end of the day, I don’t want to be defined by my disability; I just want to be treated like anyone else. There are two ways that people can look at me – ‘Sid, that bloke in a wheelchair’, or ‘Sid, that bloke who happens to be in a wheelchair’. I see the wheelchair as incidental, and that’s how I’d like others to see it, too.”
That’s the thing that really struck me about each of these remarkable individuals – although none of them want to be noticed or remembered because of their injuries or disabilities, or, indeed, defined by them, their stoicism, sheer grit and the way in which they have overcome the unbelievable challenges they have faced along the way does just that – it makes them stand out from the crowd.
“At the end of the day,” adds Bill Elderkin, “if you really want to do something, you can. Find a way and just get on with it.”