by Luke Jennings.
Since the publication of my fishing memoir, Blood Knots, I’ve had a number of enquiries about René Berg, the musician and pike angler who died, tragically, in 2003, and with whom I fished in the late 1990s. With the help of his family, I’ve pieced together a few biographical notes about him, and particularly about his love for fishing.
René was born Ian Alistair Bruce in 1956, the oldest child of a GP. He grew up in Wanstead, East London, and at the age of 8 went to King’s College Choir School in Cambridge as a boarder. When he was 13 the family moved to Eastry in Kent, and Ian transfered to day school and took up fishing, about which, says his sister Fiona, he was “completely passionate”. At about the same time he bought his first guitar with Green Shield stamps, and taught himself to play, and the basement of the Eastry house soon became a regular jam session venue.
School was followed by three years at catering college, but music won out. In 1981, after a stint in Amsterdam with Herman Brood’s Wild Romance (initially on guitar, but also on lead vocals after Broods was jailed for dealing LSD), René, as he was by then known, returned to the UK and formed Idle Flowers. The band signed to EMI and in 1984 recorded a single All I Want Is You / Fizz Music at the Abbey Road Studios. They broke up the following year, as did Hanoi Rocks, with whom René had intermittently played and recorded. In 1987, following stints with The Suicide Twins and The Hollywood Killers, René formed West End Central. The band swiftly evolved into The Soho Vultures, who played regular sets at the Marquee Club and Dingwalls. In 1992 René recorded his only solo album The Leather, The Loneliness, and Your Dark Eyes. Also on board were Bernie Torme (guitar), Paul Gray (bass) and Rat Scabies (drums).
In 1994, while fishing at Thamesmead, René caught the largest pike ever recorded in London. He wrote to me about the experience: “My pike was caught on the last day of the season, at 11 am, on a roach deadbait drifted out towards the deeper water. 12 lb line, 20lb trace, barbless hooks, homemade float. She fought long and hard. I had to run 60 yards along the bank to steer her away from a sunken log, and eventually she tailwalked backwards right in front of me – I nearly had a heart attack. She has been estimated at between 42-45 lbs. I wasn’t in a fit state at the time of weighing to realise the scales had bottomed out, and were “wound on” beyond their 40 lb limit”. Writing to his mother about the catch, he said: “The feeling is literally fabulous. The thrill, the excitement, the trembling, shaking explosion of every emotion we pike fishermen are privileged to feel is now with me FOR EVER! I feel that… I have been connected to the very core of the instinct that motivates me”.
René was an accomplished song-writer and singer, but sadly, many of his songs, including the outstanding London Town, remain unreleased. Throughout his career he struggled with the drugs and alcohol which would eventually, along with depression, cause his death, but he loved the itinerant life of a musician, and as Fiona confirms, the girls loved him. His ideal woman, he once told me, had to share his love of pike angling, and bear an uncanny resemblance to Princess Grace of Monaco. When I last saw him, he was still looking.
A fisherman, he wrote, “…sees the world as a boy does. A sense of curiosity and a freedom of spirit inhabit his mind. The serenity of a June dawn, the mist gliding over the mirror-like surface of a lake, the smell of the plants and the cries of the birds – these are missed by grown men, replaced by pressure and worry… Fishing is a state of mind where a man can feel real, uninhibited, peaceful, and content… And when he has to face the competitive drain of the fickle rat-race, he can do so confidently, knowing that his “gentle art”, his refuge of rod and line, is only a thought away”.
René would have loved Caught By The River; the site represents everything he valued and cared about. So it seems the perfect place to post a memorial. Tight lines, old friend. You are not forgotten.