Writer and broadcaster

Champagne and Pimms prove a bigger pull than a forgotten river. Published in The Independent.

What makes a good fisherman? Over the years I’ve often asked this question of myself and recent events have made me ponder it further. I don’t mean good as in how many fish you can catch, how far you can cast or if you close gates behind you. I mean good as in proper, keen, dedicated.

Two weeks ago when it was really hot – do you remember? – we went to see some friends who have recently relocated to the countryside. In among their particulars, they have a river and a swimming pool. Now, I’ve never known friends with a pool. The only pool I visit is very nice, yes, but it’s at the gym and it’s all about doing lengths up and down, getting annoyed when anyone else gets into the pool, and then getting out. This one was all pretty, surrounded by flowers and trees and we were lolling around in it, chatting, idly swimming, cooling off and getting out occasionally to have more home-made treats.

The river hadn’t been fished for a long time and it had snuggled down, pulling the nettles on either side of the bank in on itself, like a protective cardigan. My boyfriend, Pete, decided that it was high time the river saw some action so took our friends’ strimmer and for the next five hours proceeded to cut a path to the water’s edge. “Oh, is he still at it?” the others would ask as I floated my little swimmy skirt around me (I was wearing a 1950s swimsuit, it was very fetching). “Isn’t he keen?” they marvelled. “Are you going to go and have a fish?” they asked. “Oh yes,” said I, increasingly self-conscious, “in a minute, it’s too hot to fish now.”

As the day wore on and the sun sloped off to create a lavender sunset I swopped swimsuit for wellies and fishing gear and skipped off to the river. Another friend of ours, Ben, who was also visiting, and Pete were hard at fishing the only two available spots. Truly, I was going to fish, but then our host, Lucy, dropped the most distracting question into the mix “Pimms or champagne?” and I was lost to the rest of the evening. The boys caught some sizeable brownies before dinner and came in very happy.

The next day the sun was up and showing off before all of us. The only decent thing to do was get into the pool. “Are you going to have a fish?” asked the others, also in the pool (that is, aside from Pete who was already fishing). I thought about it. On the one side was a river that had not been fished for a while and was full of delicious fishie hidey holes. On the other was a cool pool and friends I hadn’t seen for ages. “I fish all the time,” I thought, “but I don’t often get to do this.” And with that I gave myself up to another day of chatting and splashing.

This decision still haunts me. Am I any fisherman at all? Several years ago, fishing in Devon on a still water, I decided to stop fishing before I’d reached my fish limit. I’d had a lovely time, but I wanted to go home. “Call yourself a proper fisherman?” spat my companion, in disgust. “You should fish until you reach your limit. You just haven’t got that hunting instinct.” It’s best the speaker remain anonymous or he would be shamed in print, which he does deserve to be for such Neanderthal comments but then, maybe it was his time of the month.

Then there was the time in Scotland, fishing my beloved Carron for two days. On the first day, the fresh air got the better of me and I settled down on the bank, hugging my rod. And slept for four hours, waking thoroughly refreshed. When the ghillie found me he said how nice it was to see someone just enjoying being by the river and not thrashing the living daylights out of it. A couple of months ago, fishing the Itchen with Charles Jardine, he and I spent the best part of an afternoon not fishing, but sitting watching the river and talking about poetry and fatty acids and all sorts of things. “You know you’re a proper fisherman,” mused Charles, “when you’re happy to just sit and watch and don’t feel you have to fish.”

But are you? I can only fish when I want to, for as long as I want to. Sometimes I don’t feel like fishing. Sometimes I just want to sit on the bank and look, or go home, or do something else entirely. But is that a waste of fishing? Does that make me less of a fisherman?