Stephen Bayley: Compliments for angling? Not after my run-ins with rivers

 

Fishing? An excuse to travel to some purpose! To engage in something primal as opposed to the tinselly snares and trashy delusions of urban daily life. And an approach to the countryside, urgently needed in my case, with a meditative aspect.

Like China, Dickens, Wagner and golf, fishing is, for me, terra that is pretty much incognita. But like China, Dickens, Wagner and golf, fishing is adored by many people whose tastes I respect (possibly envy), so I have often felt, as I often do, that I am missing something.

My early experience of fishing was both very limited and extremely negative. An accepted invitation found me north of Inverness standing in a stream being bitten by midges. The shortcomings of this situation were made more acute by the memory that just the day before I had been doing lunch in Frédy Girardet's celebrated restaurant in Crissier, an experience that had confirmed many of my prejudices about the superiority of city life.

Still, invited to an expensive spot on a famous river, I had imagined a magnificent combat of man (me) against beast (salmon). Instead, in an image some will see as a meaningful graphic, I stood with my limp rod in hand, attracting more aphids than fish.

So it was many years until I was tempted again. A friend said he had a day on the River Test and I replied: "No thanks, ask someone who'd enjoy it". He said: "You don't understand, do you?" so I was piqued and joined the party.

It turns out that a day on the Test involved sitting in a hut with garrulous chums, drinking champagne, good Burgundy, eating foie gras and smoking Cuban cigars. The only fish we saw was smoked and came in a foil pack labelled "Harrods".

And then this year I gave my wife fly-casting lessons as a birthday present. Why? One reason is she has a family cottage in Wales and a river runs through it. Another reason is that every day I walk past Farlow's of Pall Mall, the outdoor fantasy specialist, and they advertise such a thing. It seemed a good idea, certain to re-enforce a hard-won reputation for being cheerfully innovative in gift choices.

Once you start on this, there are three phases. 1) The training day at an artificial pond in Syon Park, west London. Not a lot happens, but an agreeable cove tells you stories about manly adventures in Siberia and Iceland while you cast your fly under the final approach of the Heathrow flight path. 2) You get to buy a rod. Surely, the acquisition of kit is central to the whole exercise. Kit is one of the central mysteries and purposes of life. 3) The first fishing trip. So, we must imagine a private stretch of the Rhaeadr chosen for its distance from the Jubilee weekend. The world Blake saw in a grain of sand we would see in a brown trout, while mercenary London partied.

And, practical aesthetes to the last, we would eat the trout with a little tarragon butter and boiled ratte potatoes. So. We tied flies. We cast. We waited. We cast again. The river crashed. We waited. The fish flashed by. The rain fell and the chill intensified. The plans for dinner were modified.

My experience of fishing involves humiliation and frustration. So what does fishing tell you? In my case, that we learn very little from experience. I'll be back.

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