When I was thirteen in 1977 and living with my parents and younger sister in Chingford, north east London, a brother in law called Steve with a Triumph Herald and a spare rod introduced me to angling. And for that I forgave him his tendency to grind his teeth whilst driving, blank me throughout the entire journey and smoke Players that filled the car with carcinogens. Passive smoking was my next favourite hobby after fishing.
Being thirteen and without transport, not even a push-bike, I didn`t have a particularly large fishing catchment area. Highams Park Lake was a fifteen minute walk away, the River Lee at Cooks Ferry an hour by bus and feet but that was about it.
Having Steve on side was without doubt a major advantage when it came to discovering far-flung fishing-well far-flung to me anyway. Copped Hall lake in Epping (my first carp, a common, fit and five pounds;) Hollow Pond, Leytonstone (my first specimen tench, a shining olive-green and coincidently, five pounds, a big fish in 1978), and the captivating Norfolk Broads, (my first bag of bream and my first fishing super store, Lathams at Potter Heigham, like a million Christmases rolled into one.) And during a session at Hatfield Lakes in Essex, Steve briefly crawled out of his shell, exposing a dash of true colour. A bullying bailiff, who refused to believe I was under 16 and therefore a junior, demanded we pay the full adult day-ticket rate. This riled Steve considerable. I remember the exchange had the two men referring to each other as “chief” frequently; the word punctuated almost every sentence in guttural explosions of derision.
The tete a tete eventually culminated in the bailiff storming off and threatening us with the police, totally convinced I was at least 25 (I was big for my age, and the beard didn`t help.) Later on that day he almost caved his skull in whilst pulling a hung-up tree over with a tractor. We saw it all and we laughed, leading to a good many more “chiefs” being thrown around like grenades. I think if the bailiff hadn`t been bleeding from a head wound, he soon would have been.
I`m convinced Steve let off a enormous head of suppressed anger and vexation that day. He was actually whistling to himself on the way home and tapping out a jaunty rhythm on the steering wheel, behaviour I`d never witnessed before.
But our piscatorial adventures couldn’t last, under the circumstances. Steve was always fine to me but he was, essentially, a fairly disturbed individual. Despised by my mother and younger sister, barely tolerated by my dad, he was indifferent to his two young boys and his wife, my elder sister, who limped along permanently stressed and barely able to make ends meet due to the inadequate house keeping he afforded her.
The final straw came when it became evident that he spent more money on tackle than he did his family, and thereafter, it just didn`t seem right to accept his fishing invitations, which eventually fizzled out altogether.
A pal called Nigel suggested I join his fishing club, Intrepid Angling Society, to compensate for the recent decline in fishing opportunities, so in the autumn of 1977 I did just that.
Before I knew it I was a fully paid-up junior member of I.A.S and attending my first club meeting. They were held at a factory’s social club off Lea Bridge Road, Leyton in a massive brick building that looked like an asylum, and it appeared to me that one or two of the inmates had infiltrated the ranks of I.A.S.
Around a rectangular table in a tiny room filled to the rafters with eye stinging fag smoke, I was welcomed into the fold by a character who would have made a fine Worzel long before Jon Pertwee.
Albert Challice dripped straw-coloured hair from every visible orifice, his ears especially were a haystack. His invisible lips permanently sucked on a No6, and his copious beard and tache were the colour of a public bar`s ceiling. He wore what could only be described as Jethro Tull`s cast-offs, (not the father of modern farming, but Ian Anderson, the front man of said band): a tight fitting tweed waistcoat; a rather flouncy but extremely grubby white shirt, and worn to a shine brown Corduroy strides. And whenever he moved, it sounded like a bead curtain in a boutique. Bangles and necklaces of wooden beads, glass beads and various exotic totems adorned his wrists and neck. This was the only outfit I ever saw him wearing. Even when he was fishing his clothes were the same, all but for the inclusion of a decrepit waxed jacket if it was cold or raining. He looked ancient to me, at least eighty, so you can imagine my surprise when I was introduced to his dad, Pop Challice, a man who looked so old he could have drowned worms with Izaak Walton.
It wasn’t long before my very first outing with I.A.S dawned, although in truth dawn would have been preferable, because the agreed pick-up time was 2.30am. It was to prove an unforgettable experience.
The night before, my mum hadn`t allowed me to store maggots in a bait box in the fridge to keep them cool and inactive, so I had stupidly left them in my creel in the front passage along with my rods and nets. When I dragged myself out of bed, bleary-eyed and groggy, I discovered hundreds of sweating maggots doggedly scaling walls and traversing skirting boards. They had escaped from an unsecured bait box. Green bottle flies were happily emerging from the house`s numerous nooks and crannies for weeks afterwards, alighting on us, our furniture, our breakfasts, lunches, dinners: it drove my family barmy.
That was just the start. Due to the maggot exodus I nearly missed the club`s behemoth of a coach and had to run in the dead of night, sweating and clattering with prodding, jutting fishing tackle: I just made it. It shuddered to a squealing stop in a monstrous belch of nauseating fumes that, along with my recent exertion, had me gagging. I was deftly parted from my fishing gear and hauled aboard like a shipwrecked sailor. Suddenly, I had entered another world and was assailed by a fug of tobacco smoke and a maelstrom of undulating voices, like an expectant football crowd. A middle-aged man with mutton chops that bordered on the lycanthropic was sat near the front sucking on a Meerschaum pipe. This was George Fitzpatrick, the Feeder Man, because that was the only method he ever used, a maggot feeder the size of a jam jar. Generally, the float boys would out fish him, but occasionally the vast quantities of maggots he had liberally fed to the river would attract attention. I remember witnessing a George caught net of Thames chub the likes of which I’d never seen before or since. I can’t remember the weight or number of fish but it needed two men to haul the net from the river. When it broke the surface, the water exploded into a seething, foaming mass of silvery flanks.
My pal Nigel waved at me to join him and the blue swirling haze parted briefly as I made my way towards his trademark tartan cap.
‘That was close, you nearly missed us. I told `em to hold on a bit for you. Bleedin` long way to walk, Purley.’
For that was our destination, the middle reaches of the River Thames at Purley in Berkshire.
Somewhere near Chiswick the beast of a coach required sustenance, and I was mighty relieved to get out and purify my lungs as well as stretch the legs at an all night petrol station. As me and Nigel stalked the confectionary section, I witnessed a display of practiced pre-CCT thievery that fascinated and appalled me simultaneously.
While keeping their eyes on the ageing pencil-browed blond on the desk, two brothers, Alan and Keith systematically fleeced the shop, artfully concealing cans of oil, spark plugs, crisps, sweets and thrash mags within the gamekeepers pockets of their fading Barbours; I looked on in disbelief.
‘Don’t stare you prat, you`ll draw attention,’ whispered Nigel. ‘Just stuff that Mars in your coat and move towards the door.’
Back on the coach, Alan and Keith jovially distributed the spoils of their labours and somehow I ended up with a copy of Hustler in my lap.
‘Feast your eyes on that’ smirked Keith, a bit of a step up from your usual Kays catalogue underwear section ain`t it?’
It certainly was. The dusky brunette on the front cover was enough for me. But it was nothing compared to the jungle of eye popping gynaecological gymnastics on the inside. The models sported hair everywhere: great tussocks of it. It was after all the Seventies, when a Brazilian was merely a citizen of a South American country. I was disgusted. But given the hair-trigger nature of an adolescent’s loins, I shot my bolt straight into my new khaki fishing trousers.
The river at Purley was beautiful, utterly beguiling. My perception of the Thames up to that point had been of a colossally wide, tea coloured urban watercourse flanked by world famous landmarks. But the Thames I fished that day was draped in a veil of eddying autumnal mist, soon to be replaced by flakes of gold leaf sunlight as the day warmed. It spoke a lilting, liquid language I would come to know well and to this day whenever I have the good fortune to fish it I’m reminded of that first encounter.
My swim was next to a gnarled willow amongst a drift of nodding Bulrush. It took me a while to set up my fishing tackle as I was so enthralled by the teeming life around me.
As it turned out I caught very little. Only three tiny perch, striped like a sergeant, graced my keep net. It would take many years to acquire the watercraft and piscatorial know how to do this river justice. But as I watched a pulsing, electric blue damselfly balance artfully on my rod tip, catching fish was merely the icing on the cake.
It`s May 1978 and my very first Intrepid Angling Society’s Annual Dinner and Dance. I looked hip and swish in my Travolteresque white shirt, cream jacket and black strides, although future examinations of the photos my mum took would prove otherwise.
By some fluke I`d managed to secure a prize: The Junior Roach Shield for Best Specimen Roach. On a bitterly cold day in January, when every inch of me was an icicle, I caught a roach of 1lb 12oz that shone like an ingot of freshly minted silver with eyes and fins a deep blood red. It was the best fish I`d ever seen and it was mine, and to this day still remains my personal best.