Fishing Lines: Water torture is an education

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The Independent Online
IN MY schooldays, I discovered an infallible ruse for taking a couple of days off that my parents were unable to detect. But if I had lived on the river Aire in Yorkshire, I think I would rather have faced the terrifying Willie Hampshire and double Latin.

In those teenage years, most of those hours when I should have been studying were spent on the riverbank with a fishing rod. We lived close to the Thames at Maidenhead, and I was so addicted to angling that I was late for my Russian O-level because the fish were feeding well and I hadn't realised how late it was. (No time to change: I had to rush straight to school. Arriving in waders with my tackle was, I am told, an event that is now part of Slough Grammar folklore).

However, my parents had old- fashioned views about education, and felt I would acquire more knowledge by attending school than learning from nature. So it became necessary to develop a strategem if I wanted to fish when my compatriots were in the classroom.

I hit on the answer quite by accident. Thirsty after a long summer day and all my orange pop gone, in desperation I took a long swig of finest Thames water. That night I was violently sick. Sweating, retching and with a high temperature, my mother pointed out that I couldn't possibly go to school.

Thereafter, whenever I wanted a day off, I would take a glug of the river on Sunday just before I packed up fishing. I could be pretty certain that sometime during the night, the familiar queasiness would develop. Doctors were baffled by this mystery disease that produced violent illness with no clear source.

For my part, I could put up with a few hours' discomfort if it meant recuperating on the riverbank - which it always did. And my parents never connected the symptoms with imminent Latin, biology or Russian exams.

Looking back, of course, I was incredibly stupid. It wasn't just the risk of typhoid, but also the rat-borne Weils disease, which is lethal. But when you're 13 and you haven't even started on Chapter 10 of Caesar's Gallic Wars, let alone revised it, Chateau Thames was a quite wonderful secret. However, I wouldn't even consider doing it on the river Aire.

The Leeds Sikh community want to build a special concrete platform, estimated to cost around pounds 12,000, somewhere alongside the river (where there are mainly roach, perch and bream, though some trout and grayling in the upper reaches). The platform will be a launching-

pad for the ashes of ex-Sikhs, because consigning their bodies to flowing water is a fundamental part of the religion.

Some locals, particularly anglers, are less than enthusiastic. One said: 'The last thing you want when you are fishing is people throwing the remains of someone in the river. It makes me feel creepy.'

But Leeds City Council is more understanding. Although a planning application has not been received yet, a spokesman made it clear that because a burial platform was satisfying a need for the Sikh community, it was largely a matter of finding an acceptable site. (One being considered is next to the 10th century Kirkstall Abbey, one of Yorkshire's tourist affractions.) Once the site has been agreed between the Sikhs, the council and residents, an application goes before the recreational services committee - which may be where the fishermen can put in their tuppence worth.

Even back in the 1960s, the Thames was a convenient way to dispose of bodies. We used to fish at Boultern Lock at Maidenhead, but when you only own one hook, getting caught on the bottom is a serious matter. And there was one prolific area that we stopped fishing because of a large snag. It was so heavy that even the strong lines we used in those days were not powerful enough. We were convinced it was a log, though it hadn't been there the year before. Perhaps the winter flood had washed it down, we reasoned.

But the grisly answer was revealed later that summer, when a police diver, searching for something quite different, discovered a decomposing body covered with hooks. At first it was thought he had simply fallen from a boat, but further investigation showed he had been murdered. From that moment, we called the spot Dead Man's Hole. And we never got our hooks back either.

Thinking back, there was a large Sikh community at Slough and the Thames was the only river in the area. I wonder what I was really drinking then.