January 24th, 2003
There have been many great fishermen throughout history, but it would be hard to imagine Nero as a man who enjoyed chucking a line at the mullet at the bottom of his garden. Fiddling while Rome burns is one thing; fishing is quite another, and despite the bounties that must have been on offer in his day we have no record of him trying to lure them as the city turned to ashes around him. The Tiber is in much worse shape these days, but Neroís legend lives on. Iíve been doing an excellent impression of him myself recently, one way or another; with a book to write and another in development, I should be spending my days hunched over the keyboard, fingers flailing madly. Instead, I find myself gazing out of the window at another river that has seen better days; a river that transports me inevitably to my youth as the deadlines, and the cheques that happily follow them, disappear in a kind of wistful haze.
Somebody in only slightly better physical shape than me could comfortably throw a stone into the tidal Thames from my doorstep. I still live less than 200 yards from the spot where I caught my first roach and dace and eels when I was eight or nine years old; not much more than 100 yards from the place under Barnes Bridge where I caught the fish that was very nearly my first brown trout, beaten into second place by a tiny, jewel-like fish from a Sussex stream just days earlier. I went to school a mile or so downstream from here, right on the banks of the river besides Hammersmith Bridge, where I spent my summer days sculling and occasionally dangling a line from the boat ramp, winter days staggering along the muddy towpath in the pursuit of some sort of fitness for the rugby field. I even swam across it in an act of adolescent bravado, something I would not willingly do now. Like rivers in so many other peopleís lives, the Thames flows through my past into the present, affording me a constant reminder of days when life was a lot simpler than it is now.
Inevitably, I left the banks of the Thames almost as soon as I was able to find the train fare to somewhere more interesting. But I was eventually drawn back to it, as inevitably as a salmon is drawn back to the redds where it was spawned. The salmon are having a hard time readjusting to it in these post-industrial days, but I am still as comfortable on its shingly shores as anywhere else in the world. Itís cleaner now than it was when I first got my feet wet in it, and flyfishing opportunities have, if anything, improved; I make periodic trips to the end of the high street, armed with a four-weight and a box of tiny dry flies, in pursuit of the vast shoals of dace that live there, terrorised only by the occasional trout. But it is nobodyís idea of a great river for flyfishers, and so my attention is by necessity dragged elsewhere, in an act of clear betrayal. As I gaze out of the window this morning, my thoughts turn away from the great, grey, wintry river to the devilish attractions of clearer, faster ones elsewhere.
Itís been a hard couple of months for this sort of thing. Both of my regular trout fishing companions are currently stalking the banks of New Zealandís mighty rivers, reporting back regularly with tales of trout most of us would have trouble even really imagining. Another regular sea-fishing friend has just bought a mill on the upper Avon, complete with 1500 yards of grayling and trout fishing. Whatever the Thamesí merits, itís having a hard time competing with its† diabolically compelling cousins. Itís just sitting there sluggishly like a jealous husband, glancing at me suspiciously, waiting for me to disappear again in search of fresher delights elsewhere; to embrace the giant browns of the Oreti, perhaps, or the quicksilver grayling of the Test.
Iím not going anywhere for a while, of course. I might make it to Hampshire for a day trip, but by the time the book is finished and the money earned to fund another trip to the ends of the earth, the fishing will be over for another year. Oddly, though, I have still somehow convinced myself that I am going. I spent the early hours of this morning tying a few flies that I know will catch me a fat Antipodean trout, visualising their first meandering passage over the head of (or in my case, more likely a yard either side of) a hungry rainbow or a curious brownie. Iíve sorted my flyboxes out Ė more than once, in fact, as a blessed relief from the trials of the keyboard. Iíve even packed a bag with the essential tools for an overseas fishing trip, in a sort of desperate attempt to convince myself that actually, I might just bugger off anyway. All signs of a man with a serious problem.
Iíve written before about the need for us to give ourselves, and the fish, some time off from all of this. Never have my words seemed so inappropriate. Of course I donít want to take time off from fishing. Okay, I may not lust after the Thames in the same way that I used to. But I just have to think about the Eglinton and I am a drooling maniac at any time of the year, most of all when it is high summer there and the cicadas are falling into it like conkers into a village pond. At times like these, I fervently wish that there was some kind of official support group for flyfishers in the grip of their terrible withdrawal. Maybe Iíll start one; I canít believe that I am the only man in London struggling with his addiction, desperately trying to drive the thoughts of those rivers from their minds as they struggle with insignificant trifles like mortgages and children and food. Rome may be burning, but we want to fiddle nonetheless; indeed, we insist on it.
I feel oddly better for having written all this down. Like most kinds of confession, it is inevitably a self-indulgent one. But that, is one of the things that fishing is about Ė an officially sanctioned way of pleasuring ourselves, away from the prying eyes of the rest of the world. He may not have been a fisherman, but I bet Nero would have approved anyway.
With apologies to Stephen Brough, the worldís most patient publisher.