“….and I dreamt I lived a thousand days, and each in Downton”
Damsels to the left of me, damsels to the right of me. At my feet, a steaming river, crazed by the shadows of ancient willow trees, dark fragments in the roiling waters, creaking past on dipped-branch oars. And I had that feeling again… childhood whispered in my ear. Fish lapped and rapped and rods stood sentinel to Burley-Bob and I - ten years old and still fishing. Only, I was 50 and Bob was asleep. Still, close enough.
The Avon, at Downton in Wiltshire, where the houses peer owlishly about, like elderly ladies at an Edwardian tea-party, has let fall her skirts and meanders to and fro as she smells the sea but can’t for her life remember which way to go. On her way, the waters argue and divide to give islands and streams, feeders, water-meadows and cuttings rich in chub, barbel and dace fry. These same fry shoal in the streambed margins with the occasional silver flash betraying the larger fish lurking beneath. Ignore them; the trees hold our true quarry.
My mentor, Bob, carries a rod like a stick with which to thrash the water should its denizens not leap to his command. He scares me. He scares everyone, but he has a surprisingly gentle guile and patient intelligence. Bob’s talent is for winkling fishing facts out of boring tomes and dusty old men; he lends me these books and I carry them triumphantly home, sit by the fire, stick my tongue out the corner of my mouth and try very hard to read and digest them; but the titles (“Catch Really Big Pike”) sap my will. I flick through the black and white photos, or the earnest diagrams of rolling gripe-tackle and my enthusiasm fails, then I start staring about the room at the unfinished décor and, before I know it, the book is on the floor and we have a new length of hardwood picture rail.
Before our fishing trips, Bob wakes me with a grin like a keyboard. His early morning shake is the grip of a man in a fever, who will take your shoulder fishing whether you follow it or not. Bob used to get up before the small birds, he used to fish with the worms they had failed get, he used to bang on my windows and rev his engine but with increasing age and weight he is less prone to these fits of enthusiasm and can be persuaded to wait as late as seven a.m. Today we left like heroes, smelling of coffee and bacon, at eight.
And now, from my sinking chair the damsels are bruised beauties with fur coats of fine droplets and the sun has not reached our hidden lair. Bob and I have fought and marked our territory – much earlier he’d said to me: “I’ve been baiting up these swims for 2 weeks now, so you sit here and I’ll sit there”. Unruffled, confident, at ease, I look at his swim and then mine and open my mouth to protest: “Bob, I’ve easily got the best swim here”. He nods. Git.
So, close to the waters edge and curtained by rushes, I sit, concealed behind water hyacinth and Cow Parsley and stare at a small window of washed gravel so inviting I want to jump in and eat it. The swim has been pre-baited with hemp so with a bait-dropper full of maggots I ledger. White and pink volunteers fall over ground-bait, the rod upright to give lie to the currents eddies. Occasionally the tackle slumps drunkenly forward and I half sit up, but it is only my plasticine weight bumping and rolling about the on the gravel dining table. So, refusing to give countenance to such playful nods, I wrap a loop of line about one finger and enjoy the heavy heat that now burns off the river haze, lights the trees and is creeping towards me, frying the damsels to fluttering ash and leaving dawn to its fate. As my hat begins to crackle the memories stumble out, elbowing each other in an effort to be first. My fingers twitch but the line stays slack. I think my mouth may be open.
Seven, eight years ago? I thought it was another “First Day O.T.S.” but Bob says that I am mistaken and it was July. He is a clod and has no time for romancing the facts. I am sure it was the 16th and that’s how a memory should be; rosy and inaccurate in all but the most important details. The important detail in this story is the number of fish. All the fish. The tons of fish. The cornucopia of fish.
We had arrived bankside on the Stour near Ringwood at some ridiculous hour and lay four shoulders worth of tackle and provisions on the thistles a nd cowpats that covered an otherwise featureless field. Creeping up to the riverbank like guilty swans, a magnificent sight met our eyes; a pool, shallowing out to a broad gravel bed. Perfection made wet.
Even so, we had been deceived too often, so we tackled up with Avon stick-floats as indifferently as thrown rod bags and spilt shot would allow. I settled carefully into the worst pitch on the entire river and, before Bob had time to finish his critique of my indifferent shotting, I lobbed a worm at the tail of a riffle; it took off like a firework. Netted, the size 16 hook was attached to a two-pound chub. This fluke was followed by a couple more pounders and then, after a change of tactics and a spun plug was given two or three lengths of the pool, a beautiful, 7 pound, hard-fighting river pike was fumbled out for a kiss and a hug. What a day!
Relaxing, smug in the reeds and rummaging in Bob’s tackle bag for a sandwich, I critically observed its maker wading diffidently into a deep, streamer-weed shaded swim just above the pool. It did not look hopeful. It looked….boring. Standing thigh-deep, Bob’s waders cowered up his legs and his bait apron trailed in the water. Oblivious and grinning, he trotted a grain of sweetcorn along the strongest crease of the current, using an ancient but meticulously maintained centre-pin, to a transparent junction where rising current met deep water, and then he held back; fluttering up the bait just where my own swim commenced its skipping roil. Bob fished confidently with his usual relaxed technique – fag on, silly hat – and each flick of his rod tip plopped the Avon back into the main body of the crease. But while I watched and ate, my feelings of contentment vanished. I caught glimpses of gold and olive in the weedy nothing, and Bob proved what a sham I was, a Soft Southern amateur, a ten-penny novelty in Selfridges. My ears vibrated irritatingly with bass chuckles and the Stour fed Bob an improbably large number of quite enormous chub (up to 6 1/2 lbs).
The Zen-like Yorkie had struck fish, and I was about suffer his unbearable even-handedness. Bob would now insist I fish this swim because “he’d caught lots anyway – no, go on, I can fish all day”, he would praise my efforts and my successes; he would even help me bait up and cast. No, it wasn’t that I was bitter or even jealous. It was as if I had saved for a second hand sports car and on its first outing, as I ran a hand over its shiny paint and cocked an ear to the roar of the engine - Bob had shown up, in an Aston Martin DB9 which he had won in a raffle, and offered me a drive: “no, no, go on, I can drive all day”. I was out-classed.
How does he do this? How!? His eyes twinkle and he says nothing, which is even more infuriating, and when he does open his mouth it is only to ask if the pate sandwiches have all been eaten. And yet that is what makes me love fishing, love fishing with Bob and eat all the pate sandwiches. In the face of outright genius you have to cheat, and cheat heavily.
But why was I chafing at the bonds of fate? Surely this was not the first time that I have suffered from feelings of ‘angler’s inadequacy’? For example, for some years both of us belonged to the Portsmouth and District Angling Society. We prowled the banks of their many rivers and ponds with light tackle and heavy nets and there I was taught my craft by a man steeped in the lore of the Trent, honed by matches and driven by the need for beauty in an industrial world. Yet even as I learned to stand on my own two feet, I found they were made of clay. I shut Bob’s first fly-rod in the tailgate of my car – he was unperturbed; I snapped the top off my best ledgering rod worming for brown trout in the pools of the Itchen – he fixed it; and when ever I was down, or doubted my efforts, I would be rewarded (a divination of failure) by Bob catching something enormous and giving me a shout, a wave and the thumbs up. Just to really irritate me.
So, as with a script you cannot change, I sigh, I carry on and enjoy my own threads of ability; I wonder at the beauties and complexity of nature and, now and then, I enjoy catching nothing at all and marvel at Bob and his fraternity of fish. They deserve each other in the nicest way.
Yet here I was again, still learning; a terrible pull on the line wrapped around my sweating fingers startled me from this reverie, back to the heat soaked Avon and told me what I already secretly knew…the rod had fallen in. and Bob, Bob was shouting, and waving.