fishing lines; The stale smell of success

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The Independent Online
The day after I became British sea angling champion, a memorable photograph appeared in Southend's evening paper. It was a typical "firing squad" picture, showing winners and worthies strung out, looking embarrassed and holding their hands as if about to face a Stuart Pearce free-kick.

Except for one person. With one arm round the mayor's shoulders and the other on the television he had just won, he seems completely unfazed by the occasion. The only false note is that his eyes are going different ways. And if you look closely, you will see that the mayor is probably keeping him from falling over.

The trouble was that the three-day event, with more than 800 competitors, was sponsored by Double Diamond. Every time you won a prize, you picked up a couple of bottles of spirits and 24 cans of beer. I collected several prizes for each day's fishing, so by the time it came to the overall results, I was more than a little the worse for wear.

It was a result to remember, which is more than can be said for the competition. Over the three days, I caught just 18 fish for a total weight of 6lb 2oz and the largest weighed just 6oz - pretty awful even by Southend Pier standards. But in hot, still conditions, there were just no worthwhile fish around. I used small freshwater hooks and an ultra-light line to tempt a few tiddlers. Although there is nothing unusual about such tactics now, this was pretty revolutionary back then.

Winning a colour television, lots of booze, fishing tackle and other sundries was not the end of the story. On my way out of Southend the following night, I was stopped by the police, whose eyes lit up at the bounty piled in the back of my car. "What's all this, then?" they asked. "I won it in a fishing competition," I replied, in all innocence. "Come on, sunshine, out of the car, and don't get smart with us," they said, closing in. I had to produce the results sheet and some slightly smelly flounders to convince them.

At the time, I was working for a fishing magazine, which should have been delighted by a staff man winning the national championship. However, some very long faces greeted me the next morning and I was hauled off to see the managing editor. There was an odd smell in his office. "Did you leave a fish in my waste paper basket over the weekend, Keith?" he demanded. Then it all became clear. In preparing for the competition, I had carefully cut the skin from two mackerel and sliced it into fine strips to imitate a tiny fish in the water. I had discarded the rest of the fish into a waste bin, which just happened to belong to the boss, in the assumption that the cleaners would clear it all up later that evening.

Needless to say, they didn't. The two skinless bodies festered in the heat all weekend, as flies drifted through the open window and liked what they found. Mackerel lose their freshness faster than any fish, and by Monday morning Fred's office smelt as if a cow had died there after inviting London's fly population to the wake.

The boss thought I had done it deliberately. I got a public warning and looks of hate from everyone all week, as the appalling smell took its time to dissipate. In an attempt at revenge, the magazine used a picture of me holding a coffee mug to illustrate the story, but it did not even make the front page.

My mum was still pleased, but otherwise it was quite an anticlimax, especially when details emerged of the following year's championship. Thanks to a new sponsor, the first prize was two cars. Just my luck.