Park Life: Helpless as the boy catches the angling bait

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The Independent Culture
AT THE EDGE of a common, 10-minutes' walk from my home, where the grass meets the main road into central London, there is a small pond with a willow tree on an island in the middle. Around this pond, just a few feet away from the constant stream of thundering lorries, buses and cars, a small group of men huddle with fishing rods.

They are not always the same men, but they are always there, day and night, summer and winter, with their dark green tents and boxes of tackle and bait. Occasionally they may catch something which they must, by regulation, put back. As a result the fish here are extremely difficult to catch because they have been through the painful experience so often. The fishermen sometimes talk of a monster pike they are after - "this big", they say, extending both arms out wide. But they must be sending themselves up: a fish that size would have to execute three-point turns to circumnavigate a small pond.

I have never seen anything remotely glamourous or, for that matter, tranquil in this urban angling experience, but to my son Darcy - whose tastes run to flash cars, flash football teams and glitzy pop groups - fishing is the very acme of cool.

His interest started a couple of years ago, at the age of five, when he noticed the fishermen in our local park and struck up conversations with them. At first we would call him back, assuming the fishermen demanded total silence and concentration. But we were wrong; unlike many people involved in esoteric activities, anglers are always keen to attract young recruits.

I also discovered that it is impossible to look frightening to a little boy (or his parents) when you have a fishing rod in your hands and Darcy spent happy half hours in deep conversation with, among others, a group of shaven-headed youths with tattoos and multiple ear-piercings and a great bear of a man with dreadlocks reaching below his waist. They were happy to explain, with inexhaustible patience, to a little boy who could barely understand, the technicalities of their pastime. I gave Darcy a rod for Christmas, and on Boxing Day we duly made for the pond where we tried to copy the other anglers. With predictably hopeless results: disappearing bait, lost hooks, tangled line, and, pretty soon, broken reels. Then, joy of joys, Darcy was taken on an outing by a friend's dad to a fishing lake 20 miles away. "Danny's dad is a real expert," Darcy told me reproachfully several times in the lead-up to the trip.

To my barely suppressed pleasure, this expertise counted for nothing on the day. It was too cold and the fish just were not interested. But here I made another discovery about fishing. It is not actually catching the fish that is so important, it is the business of preparing bait and tackle, and then endlessly adjusting them if nothing bites. Which seems to me to be the equivalent of getting a horse in from the paddock, grooming it, fitting the bridle, bit, and saddle and then taking the whole lot off again without riding the beast.

Nevertheless, Darcy regaled us again and again with tales of breaking the ice at the edge of the lake, of using a catapult to shoot pieces of bait across the lake - "but we nearly hit a van" - and of Danny's dad - who's (groan) "a real expert" - heating soup on a camping gas stove. The boy was clearly on his way to becoming a first-class fishing bore.

Last summer we found ourselves in Norway, where we learned a little more about fishing. Darcy's holiday treat was an evening fishing tip on a boat out in the North Sea. Also on board was a group with state-of-the-art tackle and costumes to match. Never mind, I thought, Darcy will enjoy the whole business even if he catches nothing and these experts show us how it is done. I need not have worried. The flashiest tackle counted for nothing here where a bent safety pin on a length of string would have been sufficient. Within moments, we were reeling in strings of silver mackerel, sometimes two to a hook, and cod and ling and other fish whose names we did not recognise. If fishing was always this easy, I thought, I had been caught, hook, line and sinker.

This summer we are off to Turkey, and the rest of the family is dreaming of hot sun, exotic food and the warm Mediterranean sea. Not Darcy, who is marching round the house chanting "balik tutmak seviyorum", which, he says, is Turkish for "I like fishing". He has invested his life savings in a new rod, and can hardly sleep for thinking about it. Last night, as he lay awake in bed, he told my wife: "Muuuum, when I'm bigger, on my wedding anniversary I'll take my boat out on the sea at sunset and catch a fish for my wife...."

"How romantic of you," she cooed. He backtracked: "No, probably I'll just go fishing with Danny."