It's taken me years to pluck up the courage for this subject but pluck I must. Toilet matters and fishing: not the easiest of combinations.
It's taken me years to pluck up the courage for this subject but pluck I must. Toilet matters and fishing: not the easiest of combinations. In 1976, when I was 10, I was planting vineyards in north-eastern Italy with my father, uncle and grandfather, who was then 88-years-old and still as fit as a pulce. There we were, three generations of Barbieris uncoiling wire and threading it between stakes that would hold up our young, fragile grape plants. But there was no toilet in sight.
Up on top of the hill was the old farmhouse which we didn't use, but it had an outside toilet in the form of a hole over a well that I thought led to the centre of the earth. I had tried using it once but a cobweb had brushed against my bottom and it had panicked me. So now I used nature's toilet, which was far nicer.
One hot afternoon I decided to go a fare pi pi so I climbed up the hill to get some distance between me and my boys, did my business and then joined the workers once again. After a few minutes my father kindly took me to one side. "When you go to the toilet in the countryside," he said, probably with one hand on my shoulder, "you should avoid the brows of hills, otherwise everyone can see you for kilometres around." As you can imagine, this tactical lesson has stayed with me ever since.
It didn't help with boat-fishing, however. When I was first in a boat, with a male companion, very much in the middle of a large reservoir, I asked what one did if one needed the lavatory. He told me the masculine version (I need not go into it here but it does explain a lot of urban fishing myths). "But I can't do that," I said. "No," he said, showing little interest in returning me to land. So, of course, I played my trump card, and lied. "But I have my period," I said. We took off almost vertically as he kindly returned me to the bank and the relative comforts of the toilet in the lodge. I bought him a chocolate bar for his trouble and he seemed not unhappy with the trade.
Now, some toilets in lodges are fine. But others are so frightening I'd rather, by far, use the bushes. Sometimes, however, in the great outdoors there are no bushes and the risk of exposure is high. It's riskier still if you're fishing a river that snakes through some dreadfully naice English village because then the risk of detection and derision, not to mention prosecution and the wrath of the parish council, are even higher. If you're in a group you have to tell the whole world what you're going0 to do in case one of them takes that moment to follow you into the undergrowth thinking you're going in search of fish. I had one lovely fisherman follow me up half a mile of the Itchen, hot on my tail before I had to tell him to back off and let me pee. It left us both shaken.
Wading is another difficult one because the moment you hit the cold water the bladder shrinks to the size of a robin's egg. Then, when you can stand it no more, you have to wade out again – often disturbing the fish – then divest yourself of chest waders and all the paraphernalia underneath. I have heard some people do terrible things while wading, the details of which I shan't pollute this column with.
The point is I don't really mind at all, over the years I've become quite addicted to toileting in the fresh air while bank fishing. It's still a bore when I'm on a boat, however, because nobody, least of all me, wants to break off from fishing to return to the bank. But, sadly, as yet I've not perfected the art of doing it on a boat with any dignity, nor threatening the vessel with capsize. Any girl who has, do write in with tips. In the meantime, all I can do is lay off the drinks, which is another layer of frustration during the summer. Tant pis.
Before I end, may I just tell you that I've written an essay in the current edition of Countryside Companion ("fine writing on rural matters"). It's all about my experiences writing this column and I'm in among some right posh writers such as Frederick Forsyth and my absolute hero: Neal Ascherson. You can buy it online at www.countrymanmagazine.co.uk/companion.htm (£4.95 plus p&p) and it might make a nice Christmas present for those who like country matters.