Caught by the Reaper – Roger Barnes

3 September 2014 // Remembrance

L1138691Roger Barnes, Port Eliot 2012. Photo: Neil Thomson

Roger Wyndham Barnes, angler, writer, art school graduate, former schoolteacher, maker and sender of hand drawn homemade cards, bluesman of the Loddon Delta and perhaps most significantly the last surviving working Thames Professional Fisherman has died at the age of 66. John Andrews pays tribute:

I first met Roger in the winter of 2002 by The Thames at Marlow Weir and in the cloying mist of a dank and cold January day we fished for pike in the lock-cut from his Suffolk Punt The Compleat Angler which he kept moored at the hostelry of the same name. I learnt more about The Thames from Roger in that one day than left to my own devices I would have done in a lifetime. It was not that he knew every crease and eddy, the caverns where the roach balled up tightly into winter shoals, the gravel spits where the gudgeon rolled gaily in summer and the hidden places where the giant pike lay up their pulsing jaws like doors ajar to a hell below, for he knew all of these by instinct, it was his general knowledge of the riverbank and all the life that it sustained that stayed in the mind:- his recall of birdsong, his appreciation of the styles of the river front architecture that one could only see fully by being on the water, the myths and legends of the people who had worked the river, the names of those who had been taken downstream to be hanged in London for petty crimes and the location of a bricked up arch that had once led to a tunnel that emerged inside a nearby house to which a former King was smuggled regularly to meet a lover.

In the years that followed my friendship with Roger grew over pints of maggots and pints of ‘ordinary’. We fished together at Marlow, Temple, Sonning and Wargrave, where one benevolent September day we caught over 100 good perch between us, we caught grayling on The Wye, tench and bream at Blenheim Palace and spent some glorious and surreal evenings in the Flower Pot at Aston and in the front room of his Edwardian terraced house in Twyford. Once he hoodwinked me into a long weekend at a holiday camp on the top of Dartmoor. Having realised the error of his ways long before we even reached the gates, Roger hastily arranged instead for us to call in on the late Anne Voss Bark proprietor of the famous angling hotel the Arundell Arms. With his usual courtesy Roger secured us an afternoon on their most sought after beat for free from where I managed to catch my first ever grayling on the fly.

Roger introduced me to Keith Elliott, gave me a fireside audience with the late Clive Gammon, took me fishing with Terry Thomas and drinking with all three. He enrolled me into the merry fellowship of The Gobio Society in whose irregular gudgeon fishing competitions we employed every dirty trick we could manage to beat the other. He inspired and cajoled me to write, generously read the manuscript for my book and supplied me with a touching testimonial for the dust jacket. His bait box was never empty, his heart was always full, and never without a song. A day on the water with Roger was a day like no other. He was akin to an original character who had fallen from the pages of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. I remember a rare blank morning on the river where to bring us a change in fortune Roger took us downstream and anchored up on a large bend in the river. Pointing away from the river Roger directed my gaze up the bank to a small wood about half a mile distant, ‘That copse is said to be the inspiration for ‘The Wind in the Willows’. I call it the magic wood.’ Later that afternoon the boat filled with dace and roach.

In the weeks immediately before Roger died, the writing hut built in 1929 from elm, oak and slate by one of his early heroes the author Henry Williamson was granted listed status by English Heritage and effectively saved for perpetuity. Not long after we first met Roger told me of how as a young man he had tramped from his home in Berkshire to Georgeham in Devon to call in on Williamson. He was received generously and together the young stranger and the old writer had tea and talked for hours. Hearing the news of the hut’s listing two days after Roger’s death reminded me of this story and left me thinking for days about their brief acquaintance. Roger was a man who lived as a disciple, be it of the writers, anglers and musicians who shaped his approach to life, but to those of us he leaves behind he will remain a teacher, a leader rather than a follower, a Father Thames to the many who cast off in his small boat over the gravels at Marlow.

One of the last occasions I saw him was with his beloved partner Dee, walking away up the path from the riverbank at Port Eliot after he had filled my tent with tales of the old Thames Professionals, played impromptu blues harp, emptied several plastic bottles of home brew and charmed everyone in sight. A memorial piece to a friend is always hard if not impossible to write, biased by shared experiences, laced as it is likely to be with anecdotes and asides when perhaps it should really be solemnly rooted in facts, dates and actions, an unadorned outline of someone’s life to which people can tie their own memories. This one is particularly hard. Sometimes such pieces are written and read as if in publishing a tribute a line will be drawn allowing the survivors to get on with their own lives. But in Roger’s case any such piece including this one feels for now at least, deeply inadequate. All of us who fished with him or read with him wish that we could do so again. Just one more time.

Roger Wyndham Barnes (1948-2014)

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