Darjeeling recalls ’one golden day’

For my father Eric Beale who crossed the river to the far shore last year.

Why do we fish? I mean, why do we really fish? It’s such an obvious question, but the answers can be harder to come by. In truth, motivations are as myriad and diverse as the people who fish. And as I talk only for myself with any slender surety, so I must ask your forgiveness for this brief self-indulgence. Yet there is a simple truth we all share in common: the one golden day when as anglers we are born.

Looking back over the fifty years of my angling life I see that my motivations have changed and perhaps in small ways too, my story in the retelling. But if I reach back across those years to my childhood, the images to me burn still bright and true – a kaleidoscope of pictures I can paste back together to paint the memory of a day when this new angler was formed.  

I am standing on the towpath just above the Boat Swim at Cookham. The River Thames slides past, stately and majestic in these her middle reaches. Old man Turk, Keeper of the Queen’s Swans, and to whom we pay our fishing rent, is busying himself about the little rowboats and punts he will hire out to day trippers and tourists this coming weekend. I have a suspicion that Captain Birdseye and he are one and the same.

It’s 1968. This year Martin Luther King is assassinated, The Rolling Stones release ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and the Vietnam War is in full swing. All of which, like this great river, happily roll straight past me. I am four years old (almost) and today I am fodder for a black cloud of midges that swarm in the balmy summer evening. It must have rained earlier – the path is still puddled. My mother and sister sit on the grass on a canvas ground-sheet eating cherries from a brown paper bag, while Dad and I concentrate on the more serious business of fishing. 

It must appear comical to a casual observer, my struggle to balance and stay upright with the long fishing rod my father has trusted to my eager grasp for the first ever time. He takes the rod, and out into the water he swings an orange tipped quill baited with maggot, and hands the rod back. Watch the float he tells me. Watch the float and if it goes under STRIKE! He holds his giant’s hands over mine and deftly flicks the rod upwards in demonstration.

This is my first memory of fishing and my first test of initiation into the mysterious outer circle of a grown-up world. To become like my father I must surely strive to emulate his studious concentration, heron-like and twice as sharp. But to be taking up so much of his attention this must be challenging and important work indeed. Clearly he needs my help, so when the homemade porcupine quill float ceases to float, I am ready. Wrenching the rod skyward as fast as my little frame allows, the quill rockets out of the river followed by a flash of silver up and over my head. A fortunate trajectory lands my little catch with a soft splash in the puddle behind me, and there it swims, my first catch of catches – a Thames bleak. I can remember my own stunned fascination and the laughing of my father, a mix I think of amusement, pride and simple joy. I remember too the gentle way he held my fish and named it and returned it to its element. A new bond had been struck – the strongest of bonds, unbreakable and true, and without need for discussion we have fished off and on together still, these past fifty years.

And so my earliest motivation to fish I think, was to please my father and in copying him take a first step towards becoming a man – not in his estimation but in my own. But another force had been summoned, life-shaping and profound. A veil had been lifted in part, and I had been allowed to peek under its corner. In catching my fish I had also caught a glimpse of that otherworld beyond the silvered surface, and my heart was stolen.

The years, like the river, flow ever on. I don’t remember exactly when our impromptu trips became a weekly ritual, but by the age of eight or nine, from June to March, the river bank had become my Sunday School – an alternative place of enlightenment where loaves were turned into fishes before my very eyes and little miracles of dace, roach and perch could be relied upon with some certainty. For a shy, introvert, daydreaming boy this engagement with a wider world – the real world  was at once nurturing and reassuring. There is no chronology to the memories of these years, but as always the sharpest and most colourful jostle to the fore: a swan sits on my lap to share my sandwiches; the bream on the end of my line is bitten neatly in half by an unseen and monstrous pike; that chub; an endless carousel of jaunty little perch, and of course that most prized and beautiful fish – the Thames roach, taken from the early mist with stick float, hemp and tare.

Somewhere along the line I discovered one or two classmates with similar angling sympathies and a whole new social dimension to fishing opened up. We formed a little gang and bunked off school with rods tied to crossbars, searching for new places to fish. A competitive edge entered proceedings, but so too did laughter, peer group camaraderie and an escape from the grey grind of a secondary modern in Thatcher’s Cold War Britain. Adventures were planned in whispered conversations at the back of class and tackle was coveted from a well thumbed copy of the ABU catalogue, hidden in my desk – a currency to be passed covertly around like some illicit girlie mag. As I gained years and confidence I struck out on my own solo Huckleberry Finn adventures and, with those early Thames days as a touchstone, I discovered the quiet joy of working things out for myself.

Then inevitably, along came girls, higher education and a new preoccupation with self-image. Angling took a back seat for a while. Instinctively it didn’t seem cool, in the Student Union bar, to talk about free-lining bread crust or popping up lob worms. But I did slope out beneath the radar from time to time, Huckleberry Finn once more. There was still no possibility of finding me anywhere other than beside the water on June 16th, a ritual that was to  repay my unwavering observance with an embarrassment of riches in my seventeenth year.

And so there I sat, at my local pool, enjoying the morning and the fact that my fellow students were by now stuck into stuffy old texts on the English Reformation, and before long I was rewarded by a brace of fish that I have not bettered in the thirty odd years since. The float dipped properly under and soon I held an exquisite 2lb 2oz roach that looked in the morning sunlight to be newly minted. Generous compensation for a lack of chub (the fish I had really set my stall out for and which on that morning had proved cleverer than I), and although I already held the morning now perfect and complete, the next cast brought me another roach, 2oz heavier still. The spirit of the pool had at first teased and then smiled upon me  – a blessing for secrets kept.  

You can’t always get what you want.. but if you try sometimes well you just might find.. you get what you need.

I have journeyed along many angling roads since, some less travelled, some more so. These days I’m privileged to have the opportunity to pass on these gifts to my children, and while angling for me was formative in my coming of age, it is the child within that hopes to share the riches.    

And still I’m searching, always searching, hoping to get closer to nature’s wild free spirit – to venture deeper into a fathomless and unknowable mystery. But in truth, everything I really needed to know I had already learned from my father that one golden day on the Thames.

Writing & image Darjeeling, October 2021, Buckinghamshire.