A second extract from Love Madness Fishing, the Caught by the River Book of the Month for April. Published by Little Toller / Caught by the River and available in the Caught by the River shop here, priced at £15.00.
Words: Dexter Petley
At nineteen you take the easy road to self-deception, a smooth slipway with no speed limit. Fishing was the only ticket out of Hawkhurst on a Wednesday afternoon. Away from parents still worried sick, the blinds drawn on closed shops, the British Legionnaires with dewdrops taking flowers up to the cemetery. Adolescence had come home to roost with Mac and Don, then abruptly tumbled into a heap of brown Terylene flares with no other reason to get off the bed. The River Rother still flowed through Bodiam, even if ambition did not. The number 84 bus might have changed its number to the 254, but it still ran with open arms in 1975. One afternoon, I took the wicker basket and an ugly blue Olympic roach rod, its handle wrapped in ceiling-tile cork, purchased in Woolworths with my eel money. It was a platform shoe of a rod, thick as a pole-vault, a swing-tip screwed into the top eye like a broken chicken leg, thirteen floppy feet away.
I decided to leger without conviction, too anxious of Mac’s next move to make me get a job in that work-a-day world of his. My spots had cleared up, I was turning into a man, a layabout man treating the house like a hotel. Jobs meant the petrol pumps, the lawn-mower showroom, the wood yard.
It was February, and by sheer fluke I pounded the bread flake on a shoal of hungry, unscrupulous, unemployed chub laying about under the bank downstream. I took fourteen over two pounds, the junior keep net bulging like a Christmas stocking. The biggest chub weighed 2lbs 12ozs. For once I was a specimen hunter celebrating success. For once there was truth and substance behind my angling declarations. Like always, inside the teenage prism, this one achievement was not satisfactory. By implication, it made all fiction dreamed up on the bed attainable. If I could actually catch chub like this, then I could have caught those other dreamed-up fish: the 11lb 4oz carp from Delmonden, the 4lb 1oz tench from All Saints Pond. I filled in the Bodiam Angling Club catch forms and that year took the prize for second biggest specimen chub and second prize for most specimens.
One chub makes a summer for a soul in winter. Other anglers were necessary to share this burgeoning ego. But where were they now? All those boys you used to fish with were also men. Only they were at work, or drinking in the public bar where it might be best you didn’t go. You pull your own short straw. Art is over, the writing has spiralled into self-parody. You’re living in a village with no friends; it’s what happens when you jump the queue. The £9.64 a week benefit goes on twenty King Slims and more bus fares to oblivion. It won’t stretch to a field of operation and you can’t afford a barometer of personality yet.
Ignoring the voice of reason, I posted a letter to the Angling Times. Specimen Hunter wishes to start Specimen Group. The phone rang on the Wednesday night. The caller was suspicious as soon as I opened my mouth. My alter ego had shot out like a trapped moth from a hatbox, leaving gift of the gab to save a bad angler from a bird’s nest. At last I summoned enough sense to listen. My caller was from Hastings, his mate was standing beside him. With remarkable assurance, he outlined both their pedigrees, their proven skills, a bulging repertoire of fish I had never dreamed of, a surfeit of gear I had never heard of. For the moment, they assumed I was on similar rations. I should have hung up or said wrong number, but I hung on, like a dumb roper on an airship, till I was too chicken to jump off without breaking my neck. My caller said there were actually three of them who had already considered starting a specimen group. We might combine. How many did I have? We were picking sides, tossing for captains already. I said three without hesitation, slapping the hibernating social skills like a rescued pit pony. GET UP TRUTH! MOVE! Who was there, even remotely serious about fishing in Hawkhurst? The shoal had moved on. Instead of fishing, they were tinkering with the Anglia all Sunday, taking their birds stock-car racing Saturday afternoons. All I could think of was Roger Daltry’s milkman who fished in a Soviet army greatcoat, and his mate with the nice sister, a silent bloke who fished in a fawn duffle coat. I’d been at school with both of them, but we’d never been friends. We might have said what cheer if we passed on the street, not much else. They went fishing in a car, which to me meant serious venues, real waters where you couldn’t not be specimen hunters, surely. Specimen hunting took place outside the Hawkhurst boundary. There were four-pound bream and tench in the Royal Military Canal, ten-pound pike in the River Beult. It must mean that.
Dexter will be making a rare visit to the UK this summer to be our guest at Port Eliot Festival and Caught by the River Thames (Saturday 6 August). At both of these events Dexter will be talking with his Letters From Arcadia correspondent John Andrews, undoubtedly a gig of the year for long term readers of this site and all lovers of country/nature writing. See John’s review of Love Madness Fishing here.