Here I’ll make a confession, or rather two. The first is that when I look back through my life I can’t honestly say that anything I’ve ever done has given me quite such a kick as fishing. Everything else has been a bit of a flop in comparison, even women. I don’t set up to be one of those men that don’t care about women. I’ve spent plenty of time chasing them, and I would even now if I had the chance. Still, if you gave me the choice of having any woman you care to name, but I mean any woman, or catching a ten-pound carp, the carp would win every time. And the other confession is that after I was sixteen I never fished again.
Why? Because that’s how things happen. Because in this life we lead—I don’t mean human life in general, I mean life in this particular age and this particular country—we don’t do the things we want to do. It isn’t because we’re always working. Even a farm-hand or a Jew tailor isn’t always working. It’s because there’s some devil in us that drives us to and fro on everlasting idiocies. There’s time for everything except the things worth doing. Think of something you really care about. Then add hour to hour and calculate the fraction of your life that you’ve actually spent in doing it. And then calculate the time you’ve spent on things like shaving, riding to and fro on buses, waiting in railway, junctions, swapping dirty stories, and reading the newspapers.
After I was sixteen I didn’t go fishing again. There never seemed to be time. I was at work, I was chasing girls, I was wearing my first button boots and my first high collars (and for the collars of 1909 you needed a neck like a giraffe), I was doing correspondence courses in salesmanship and accountancy and ‘improving my mind’. The great fish were gliding round in the pool behind Binfield House. Nobody knew about them except me. They were stored away in my mind; some day, some bank holiday perhaps, I’d go back and catch them. But I never went back. There was time for everything except that. Curiously enough, the only time between then and now when I did very nearly go fishing was during the war.
It was in the autumn of 1916, just before I was wounded. We’d come out of trenches to a village behind the line, and though it was only September we were covered with mud from head to foot. As usual we didn’t know for certain how long we were going to stay there or where we were going afterwards. Luckily the C.O. was a bit off-colour, a touch of bronchitis or something, and so didn’t bother about driving us through the usual parades, kit-inspections, football matches, and so forth which were supposed to keep up the spirits of the troops when they were out of the line. We spent the first day sprawling about on piles of chaff in the barns where we were billeted and scraping the mud off our putties, and in the evening some of the chaps started queueing up for a couple of wretched worn-out whores who were established in a house at the end of the village. In the morning, although it was against orders to leave the village, I managed to sneak off and wander round the ghastly desolation that had once been fields. It was a damp, wintry kind of morning. All round, of course, were the awful muck and litter of war, the sort of filthy sordid mess that’s actually worse than a battlefield of corpses. Trees with boughs torn off them, old shell-holes that had partly filled up again, tin cans, turds, mud, weeds, clumps of rusty barbed wire with weeds growing through them. You know the feeling you had when you came out of the line. A stiffened feeling in all your joints, and inside you a kind of emptiness, a feeling that you’d never again have any interest in anything. It was partly fear and exhaustion but mainly boredom. At that time no one saw any reason why the war shouldn’t go on for ever. Today or tomorrow or the day after you were going back to the line, and maybe next week a shell would blow you to potted meat, but that wasn’t so bad as the ghastly boredom of the war stretching out for ever.
I was wandering up the side of a hedge when I ran into a chap in our company whose surname I don’t remember but who was nicknamed Nobby. He was a dark, slouching, gypsy-looking chap, a chap who even in uniform always gave the impression that he was carrying a couple of stolen rabbits. By trade he was a coster and he was a real Cockney, but one of those Cockneys that make part of their living by hop-picking, bird-catching, poaching, and fruit-stealing in Kent and Essex. He was a great expert on dogs, ferrets, cage-birds, fighting-cocks, and that kind of thing. As soon as he saw me he beckoned to me with his head. He had a sly, vicious way of talking:
‘’Ere, George!’ (The chaps still called me George—I hadn’t got fat in those days.) ‘George! Ja see that clump of poplars acrost the field?’
‘Well, there’s a pool on t’other side of it, and it’s full of bleeding great fish.’
‘I tell you it’s bleeding full of ’em. Perch, they are. As good fish as ever I got my thumbs on. Com’n see f’yerself, then.’
We trudged over the mud together. Sure enough, Nobby was right. On the other side of the poplars there was a dirty-looking pool with sandy banks. Obviously it had been a quarry and had got filled up with water. And it was swarming with perch. You could see their dark blue stripy backs gliding everywhere just under water, and some of them must have weighed a pound. I suppose in two years of war they hadn’t been disturbed and had had time to multiply. Probably you can’t imagine what the sight of those perch had done to me. It was as though they’d suddenly brought me to life. Of course there was only one thought in both our minds—how to get hold of a rod and line.
‘Christ!’ I said. ‘We’ll have some of those.’
‘You bet we f— well will. C’mon back to the village and let’s get ’old of some tackle.’
‘O.K. You want to watch out, though. If the sergeant gets to know we’ll cop it.’
‘Oh, f— the sergeant. They can ’ang, drore, and quarter me if they want to. I’m going to ’ave some of them bleeding fish.’
You can’t know how wild we were to catch those fish. Or perhaps you can, if you’ve ever been at war. You know the frantic boredom of war and the way you’ll clutch at almost any kind of amusement. I’ve seen two chaps in a dugout fight like devils over half a threepenny magazine. But there was more to it than that. It was the thought of escaping, for perhaps a whole day, right out of the atmosphere of war. To be sitting under the poplar trees, fishing for perch, away from the Company, away from the noise and the stink and the uniforms and the officers and the saluting and the sergeant’s voice! Fishing is the opposite of war. But it wasn’t at all certain that we could bring it off. That was the thought that sent us into a kind of fever. If the sergeant found out he’d stop us as sure as fate, and so would any of the officers, and the worst of all was that there was no knowing how long we were going to stay at the village. We might stay there a week, we might march off in two hours. Meanwhile we’d no fishing tackle of any kind, not even a pin or a bit of string. We had to start from scratch. And the pool was swarming with fish! The first thing was a rod. A willow wand is best, but of course there wasn’t a willow tree anywhere this side of the horizon. Nobby shinned up one of the poplars and cut off a small bough which wasn’t actually good but was better than nothing. He trimmed it down with his jack-knife till it looked something like a fishing-rod, and then we hid it in the weeds near the bank and managed to sneak back into the village without being seen.
The next thing was a needle to make a hook. Nobody had a needle. One chap had some darning needles, but they were too thick and had blunt ends. We daren’t let anyone know what we wanted it for, for fear the sergeant should hear about it. At last we thought of the whores at the end of the village. They were pretty sure to have a needle. When we got there—you had to go round to the back door through a mucky courtyard—the house was shut up and the whores were having a sleep which they’d no doubt earned. We stamped and yelled and banged on the door until after about ten minutes a fat ugly woman in a wrapper came down and screamed at us in French. Nobby shouted at her:
‘Needle! Needle! You got a needle!’
Of course she didn’t know what he was talking about. Then Nobby tried pidgin English, which he expected her as a foreigner to understand:
‘Wantee needle! Sewee clothee! Likee thisee!’
He made gestures which were supposed to represent sewing. The whore misunderstood him and opened the door a bit wider to let us in. Finally we made her understand and got a needle from her. By this time it was dinner time.
After dinner the sergeant came round the barn where we were billeted looking for men for a fatigue. We managed to dodge him just in time by getting under a pile of chaff. When he was gone we got a candle alight, made the needle red-hot, and managed to bend it into a kind of hook. We didn’t have any tools except jack-knives, and we burned our fingers badly. The next thing was a line. Nobody had any string except thick stuff, but at last we came across a fellow who had a reel of sewing thread. He didn’t want to part with it and we had to give him a whole packet of fags for it. The thread was much too thin, but Nobby cut it into three lengths, tied them to a nail in the wall, and carefully plaited them. Meanwhile after searching all over the village I’d managed to find a cork, and I cut it in half and stuck a match through it to make afloat. By this time it was evening and getting on towards dark.
We’d got the essentials now, but we could do with some gut. There didn’t seem much hope of getting any until we thought of the hospital orderly. Surgical gut wasn’t part of his equipment, but it was just possible that he might have some. Sure enough, when we asked him, we found he’d a whole hank of medical gut in his haversack. It had taken his fancy in some hospital or other and he’d pinched it. We swapped another packet of fags for ten lengths of gut. It was rotten brittle stuff, in pieces about six inches long. After dark Nobby soaked them till they were pliable and tied them end to end. So now we’d got everything—hook, rod, line, float, and gut. We could dig up worms anywhere. And the pool was swarming with fish! Huge great stripy perch crying out to be caught! We lay down to kip in such a fever that we didn’t even take our boots off. Tomorrow! If we could just have tomorrow! If the war would forget about us for just a day! We made up our minds that as soon as roll-call was over we’d hook it and stay away all day, even if they gave us Field Punishment No. 1 for it when we came back.
Well, I expect you can guess the rest. At roll-call orders were to pack all kits and be ready to march in twenty minutes. We marched nine miles down the road and then got on to lorries and were off to another part of the line. As for the pool under the poplar trees, I never saw or heard of it again. I expect it got poisoned with mustard gas later on.
Since then I’ve never fished. I never seemed to get the chance. There was the rest of the war, and then like everyone else I was fighting for a job, and then I’d got a job and the job had got me. I was a promising young fellow in an insurance office—one of those keen young businessmen with firm jaws and good prospects that you used to read about in the Clark’s College adverts—and then I was the usual down-trodden five-to-ten-pounds-a-weeker in a semidetached villa in the inner-outer suburbs. Such people don’t go fishing, any more than stockbrokers go out picking primroses. It wouldn’t be suitable. Other recreations are provided for them.
Of course I have my fortnight’s holiday every summer. You know the kind of holiday. Margate, Yarmouth, Eastbourne, Hastings, Bournemouth, Brighton. There’s a slight variation according to whether or not we’re flush that year. With a woman like Hilda along, the chief feature of a holiday is endless mental arithmetic to decide how much the boarding-house keeper is swindling you. That and telling the kids, No, they can’t have a new sandbucket. A few years back we were at Bournemouth. One fine afternoon we loitered down the pier, which must be about half a mile long, and all the way along it chaps were fishing with stumpy sea-rods with little bells on the end and their lines stretching fifty yards out to sea. It’s a dull kind of fishing, and they weren’t catching anything. Still, they were fishing. The kids soon got bored and clamoured to go back to the beach, and Hilda saw a chap sticking a lobworm on his hook and said it made her feel sick, but I kept loitering up and down for a little while longer. And suddenly there was a tremendous ringing from a bell and a chap was winding in his line. Everyone stopped to watch. And sure enough, in it came, the wet line and the lump of lead and on the end a great flat-fish (a flounder, I think) dangling and wriggling. The chap dumped it on to the planks of the pier, and it flapped up and down, all wet and gleaming, with its grey warty back and its white belly and the fresh salty smell of the sea. And something kind of moved inside me.
As we moved off I said casually, just to test Hilda’s reaction:
‘I’ve half a mind to do a bit of fishing myself while we’re here.’
‘What! You go fishing, George? But you don’t even know how, do you?’
‘Oh, I used to be a great fisherman,’ I told her.
She was vaguely against it, as usual, but didn’t have many ideas one way or the other, except that if I went fishing she wasn’t coming with me to watch me put those nasty squashy things on the hook. Then suddenly she got on to the fact that if I was to go fishing the set-out-that I’d need, rod and reel and so forth, would cost round about a quid. The rod alone would cost ten bob. Instantly she flew into a temper. You haven’t seen old Hilda when there’s talk of wasting ten bob. She burst out at me:
‘The idea of wasting all that money on a thing like that! Absurd! And how they dare charge ten shillings for one of those silly little fishing-rods! It’s disgraceful. And fancy you going fishing at your age! A great big grown-up man like you. Don’t be such a baby, George.’
Then the kids got on to it. Lorna sidled up to me and asked in that silly pert way she has, ‘Are you a baby, Daddy?’ and little Billy, who at that time didn’t speak quite plain, announced to the world in general, ‘Farver’s a baby.’ Then suddenly they were both dancing round me, rattling their sandbuckets and chanting:
‘Farver’s a baby! Farver’s a baby!’
Unnatural little bastards!