FISHING LINES: I must confess, I was the original sinner

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The Independent Online
A FORMER editor of mine, who had better stay nameless, is the Barbara Cartland of columnists. He is probably the most prolific writer in journalism today, churning out thousands of words a week for a myriad of publications, some so obscure that even Have I Got News For You hasn't discovered them.

You would certainly recognise his name, though he also writes under several pseudonyms to widen his output and allow himself to write for rival publications. Some might call him a hack. But his quality is remarkable for one chained to a weekly wordage that most authors don't manage in a month, and his creativity is truly stunning to one who struggles each week (yes, I know it shows) to produce a mere 750 words or so.

A little while ago, I questioned him about this. "How come I agonise over my piddling offering, while you cheerfully bash out 1,000 words, then turn to the next three columns? What am I doing wrong?" The question really meant: "How can I be like you, and get away with writing about the same topic, inserting a well-chosen phrase here and there, then wait for the cheques to roll in, while half-a-dozen publications bel-ieve they are getting a unique service tailored to their title?"

It was a good question. It was, after all, about money, so my friend (let's call him Tony) gave it the consideration it deserved.

"Your trouble," he said, "is that you're making the mistake of believing that people want originality in a columnist. They don't. They want something they are familiar with, something that can agree or disagree with. You're still trying to be a news reporter. Stop searching for the bizarre, the cranks and the fruitcakes. If you want to be a columnist, give readers something they know - even if you're writing about fishing."

Well, he had a point. Until Tony highlighted it, it had never struck me how much I shunned the simple route of Angling Times and Angler's Mail, Catch More Carp and Sea Angler. Not for me those everyday fishing yarns from the daily papers either. Oh no. Give me Chemistry and Industry, Fish Farming International, The Lancet, Girl About Town, The Bookseller, Fortean Times and Antiques Trade Gazette any time.

The more I thought about this, the more I began to see the light. The time had come to shun the childish pleasure I gain from finding something fishy in, say, Pensions World, Paint Polymers Colour Journal or World Chicken Farming. The time had come to go mainstream. Nobody listens to your music if you play only the sounds made by Joe Meek in his early years, Tony pointed out. My column needed to become Britney Spears, not Billie Jo.

What better place to start than with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I thought. Who, after all, knows more about fish and fishing?

"Send me your prime stuff," I said. The press office was very efficient. I have been swamped with their news releases, and I am already in touch with the mood of the nation. Let me show you what I mean, from a release carrying the sexy heading: Non-Sector Catch Limits for November 1999 in the North Sea (Area IV), West of Scotland (Area VI) and Area VII.

I can reveal that in the North Sea and West of Scotland, vessels are being limited to 1.5 tonnes of haddock a month, of which a mere 500kg can be caught in the West of Scotland. But it gets worse. If you're out after turbot, brill, dabs and pollack, you could be limited to as little as 400kg, while if you fancy a bit of hake or sole, you're totally snookered - 50kg and that's your lot, buster. Scarcely enough to fill a decent- sized deep-freeze, is it?

It gets worse. If you're partial to a spot of cod or haddock from Rockall (Area VIb, as I'm sure you know), you're going hungry, because it's closed (though quite how you close the North Sea, I'm not sure). In case you're confused, these arrangements apply only to non-sector vessels (ie, those over 10m vessels not in membership of a producer organisation which has been allocated a sectorial quota of the stock in question. Bad show, eh? (Strong comment, as expected of columnist.)

No wonder Tony has a giant house in central London and an even bigger one in the country. It's a doddle, this columnist lark.

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