Caught by the River

Letter From Arcadia

Dexter Petley | 22nd June 2009

Bonjour Bob


good to hear the newly oiled ratchets of arcadia, words flowing like ale down the wye, or the other 22 rivers in a certain volume of water, a bouquet of summer flowers (in the cryptic meaning) of which arcadia/arcadii are proud contributaries. a lot to catch up then; just not a lot caught.

the maypole did bend again, brief with dancing carp, springing out of winter like greyhounds down the track. these were vengeful, hyperactive fishes out on parole after winter behind the isobars. the ones who just slam into your rigs, joyriders doing handbrake turns over your bait in the gravel-bar carpark. all the finesse and carp-foolery we modern fishers adorn our lines with end up looking like your mum’s burnt curlers & costume earings. they won’t fool anyone a second time. the face-coloured gravel pit mirror carp of outer normandie know plastic when they see it. if you fish with three rods in spring, when the carp are rioting, then it’s tear-gas at midnight; knitting with a fish on, pearl one and drop one as it takes you on a crochet course and leaves you in a heap, a sketch by thelwell, three rods down as they take out all the pin-point lake bed survey, spot-baiting on a sixpence and measured casting just for some lower-fourth common to whip you to blazes. fishing three rods is a statistical fallacy. you don’t have three chances; you have one less chance for each rod, as the hooked carp is going to come off by wrapping itself round the other two.

take one night on a gusset moon, penelope pit ridgebacked in midnight wind, fox cubs hopping ditches while mum’s out chicken farming, the middle rod hit the sound barrier with the first carp of the year, an 8lb common which ploughed under the other two lines in the margins. i netted the fish along with the back-lead off the left hand rod. one second i had a routine tangle, the next a nightmare from the twilight zone. the fish, the net and the rod top all shot forward, ripped out of my hands, and disappeared in the darkness. the left hand rod was on their tail and a dive to the bottom corner pushed it round the post. saved the day with an inch of cork handle to spare. a good fish on the one functioning rod, 60 yards off, and i’m on my back and sliding into the water. in the car lights coming off the roundabout i saw a poltergeist’s picnic suspended in the air, hanging off the line the fish was on: rig, leadcore, bomb, other rod-top and the frigging landing net. how, defied understanding. the hooked carp thumped in deep water and all the hangings go back and forth, locking up in a broken tackle mart in the top rod ring. i can’t wind another inch, and the fish stays out, at bay, like a nuclear sub on red alert. it’s one of those milton jones moments, half an hour with the rod under my arm and a pair of scissors, your life flashing downstream before you in the dark. bomb disposal nerves, i’m cutting an inch away at a time, one false cut and the carp and all your mum’s earrings are gone forever. by now the carp had kited round the corner and into the bay behind me. wouldn’t have suprised me if, while i was squinting through my red light emitting diodes, the carp didn’t sneak up and fuck off in my landrover. after a winter of total void, this carp was not going back inside. it wanted probate, and lots of it. i snipped on, and cut, and contrived, till the knot was gone, the line was free, the fight was on, earrings pawned, bare knuckles, just me and the carp out back, between ourselves like, once and for all. the fish had been biding time. once i was free to gain line myself, it took all the line it wanted. went to sudden death, and i played the stubbornest match of my life. 34bs of unundefeated middleweight. call it a draw:


may is etched in arcadia as the month bob stepped off the eurostar in paris for a 29 day tour of dp’s pits and ponds. bob needs no introduction, but he’ll get one. up walthamstow reservoirs in the 1980s they called him catweazle. you might remember catweazle from kids tv in the 70s, the medieval wizard who materialises in the 20th century after falling in a carp pond. apart from an obvious resemblence, there is something anacronistic about bob. he knows his place in time and has stuck to it. even today the rods are contemporary, his knowledge is “stop press”, but he retains that spirit of carp fishing formed in the pivot between the sixties and seventies. he makes an appearence in chris yates’s “casting at the sun” as a fellow pioneer on llandrindod wells. he looks like richard brautigan; long grey hair with tint of nicotine, like frayed rope washed up on the beach, a billy goat’s ruff, that leather jacket from oxfam with the safari belt, double breasted, lapels like elephant ears, the smell of indoors, really indoors. think of that foxed cover of “trout fishing in america.” he could have been the original. these days he’s modernized the look, backwoods-metro, bait company caps and tackle shop fleece. gear on the mountain bike, the world seen through optix, but he’s still a blues man with a lick in his fingers and a song a day, a guitar in the tent, living on fag-ends, methadone and sweet tea.

for the 22 years I’ve known him, bob’s remained one of those constancies in a commodified pastime, an upholder of authentic values in an angling world as fragmented as a shattered window. he fishes with a slow application of wisdom he’s collected like a raft of debris in a backwater, like he’s painting a fence on hot summer afternoon, a slowness which includes organisational difficulties, a certain dithering, a pause for philosophical interlude and a valium overdose. his coherence in the midst of chaos is either exceptional or catastrophic. his gaze is a long one, he fishes like he’s all the time in the world, even if his daily life decisions are as last minute as his angling knowledge. if he really was painting a fence and it pissed down, he’d paint on, but with the expressed pessimism of having it ruined.

bob’s a survivor, a survivor of each decade and their dangers. an addict since he went to india in 1971 in a yellow 2cv to join a rock band called the alley cats who smashed up their guitars and got knifed in bagdad alleyways. when i first met him he was living in a crummy bedsit in stockwell with a cat who never saw daylight and all four walls covered from floor to ceiling with stacks of vinyl, sci-fi paperbacks and every angling magazine there ever was. caught by the river in prototype. he’s still in the hard-to-let belt, carrying the decades from one tower block to another where, if you sit for five minutes on his black leather chairs, scaled with nocturnal hide-fatigue, you go home smelling like an ashtray in a boilie dip. his indoors reminds you of every tackleshop and downtown bus depot in the world. glaucal kitchen, a laboratory of bait flavours and additives, his front room a memory of every fag he’s ever smoked. turned 60 this may, he can still be seen setting off up the northern line escalators with his mate tony, their bivvies and carp rods strapped to the mountain bikes, the urban mule train, destination thames or the lea valley pits, for two week sessions, often biteless in perpetual rain, tins of food buried round the lake to save weight, bait still hanging in air dry bags from the trees. in these drive-by days of fishing, we must remember the ones who literally have to lay the tracks before they get on the train.

so after 14 years thinking about it, bob gets the passport forms. history was against him. on his two previous jaunts in 1995 it rained solid, i blanked, and bob caught one fish, the same 9lb common both times. the idea now was to get him his first 40. everywhere was fishing well till the day he travelled. conditions went haywire. rain, four winds swinging north and east, half-spawned carp going through the motions, a 29 day itinerary more like a bet than sensible angling. a month of micro sessions, 3am suppers, cruel, overladen 7 hour drives, dwindling bait with only lost carp and bream to show for it. then one night in a pea-souper bob hits a single bleep off the island at walker’s pitch. they think it’s all over… 44lbs of jules rimet held aloft in front of a hundred thousand poplar leaves rustling their scarves.

the reserves were playing away that week and came home with the amateur trophy:

as startled as each other, the fish 39.8lbs, me newly hatched from the bivvy, dawn in brittany, breakfast round the eyes.

bob’s gone home now, back behind the bullet proof doors of sw8. the fishing feels half-hearted since he left, and my eyes wander off the water to the woody fringes where summer ceps squat like broody hens:

or to the red splash in the barley:

as your season begins, mine takes a rest. i’ve ten hens to replace after a true fox tunnelled in and took the lot, eggs and all, while me and bob were spodding into the wind two hundred miles away. a garden skeletized by slug-thugs and base-camp to set up under a mountainful of chore; angler’s neglect goes pandemic. if you’ve been up highgate ponds or travelled the cane route to babylon, i hope to hear about it soon.

bob left his swan vestas on the birdtable