Sunday, 16 October 2016

Messing about in a boat

A week ago last Thursday my brother Don rang to suggest a day's trout fishing up at Hawkridge reservoir in north Somerset. One of a number of waters managed by Wessex Water, Hawkridge is a Particularly beautiful place. Not as big as some, rather long and thin, but large enough to benefit from using a boat to fish from. The water people have half a dozen boats available for hire and so Don and I arrived early both in order to get a boat and secure a decent spot for our activities. The morning was still and misty which gave the numerous valleys,through which I had passed, an almost mystical beauty. 

Having arrived early we were at the front of a small queue of fellow anglers so no problem getting a boat. The boats in question come with a set of oars but, fortunately Don has an electric motor. Apart from the battery being extremely heavy to move around, the motor, when fixed to the boat, does away with a great deal of hard work. We were quickly being propelled to our favoured spot on the water and the sun was now shining. The water surface was as smooth as a mirror and fish could be seen moving around on, and just below, the surface. At that hour, around 0830, the place was alive with birds. Half a dozen Herons were positioned around the banks motionlessly waiting for any passing fish. Ducks … Teal, Mallard, Widgeon, Tufted and a pair of Carolina's were all around the water. The latter, no doubt, escapees from a domestic breeder. There were also Great Crested Grebe and the Little Grebe or Dabchick in small groups. As we motored to our fishing station a flock of, in excess, of a hundred Canada Geese came in to join us. My goodness, are they noisy!

Having arrived at our chosen spot we set about the object of the exercise catching trout. The water is stocked with Rainbow and Brown Trout and contains some very large specimens. There are a number of options available to the angler but Don and I had gone for a full day ticket which, for the price of nineteen pounds gave a bag limit of five fish. All fish caught have to be taken and recorded, returns are not allowed. This, I understand, is to help reduce the likelihood of disease from stressed fish which are frequently caught and put back. 

As the morning progressed the weather changed and a stiffish wind blew up, not only was it stiff but also jolly cold. Coats had to be deployed. Having previously been calm there had been no need to use our anchor but now the boat was drifting and the anchor had to be dropped over the side in order that we remained where we wanted to be. 

By now we had been flogging water for several hours and not a sign of a bite or, for that matter, even a nudge. Flies and lures had been changed and re-changed but nothing seemed to tempt the trout below. Old favourites had not impressed so we resorted to some of the more bizarre creations within our fly boxes. These failed to stimulate also. Now, I have a theory, if all else fails go for black and green. Once again I changed my lure and, this time, on went a black and green hairy thing. A black body with a couple of green stripes, fished two or three feet down, this should do the trick. Well, it didn't, not at least until I had been dragging it up and down for another hour. A meal break had been taken, more to reflect than the desire to eat, and time kept creeping on without fish in the bag. Having eaten and rested we began our efforts with renewed vigour, if not expectation. 

There are times in angling when, just as one begins to think about giving up as a bad job, one is taken completely by surprise. This was such an occasion. All of a sudden my lure was hit like an express train. The fish almost had the rod out of my hand as I was so unprepared and had lapsed into an expectation of a blank day. It turned out to be a very nice two and a half pound Rainbow in quite superb condition. He fought like a Tiger. I got him to the net and safely on board the boat. It was at this point that things started to go seriously wrong. For the benefit of non-fishing readers, I should explain that the sporting angler carries within his bag an object known as a priest. This implement comes in various forms from a truncheon like wooden stick to a metal rod, to a piece of heavy pipe, or in my case, a solid length of stag horn. The idea is the priest is used to hit the fish on the head and kill it quickly and thus avoid a long and gasping death. Having got my trout into the boat, still within my landing net, I got out my priest and gave it a mighty whack. The trouble was that just at the very moment I launched my assault, the fish jumped and I placed the full force of my strike, fairly and squarely upon the large round bone in the inside of my left ankle. The shock wave was immediate and terrible. When I had finished exclaiming how painful it was and how jolly unlucky I was to have hit myself …. (well something like that!), I was half afraid to look at the damage. The pain was raw and extreme and a look revealed a very red globe like area. 

To cut a long story short we fished on for another couple of hours and both ended up with two fish each. It is now eleven days since my injury occurred and my ankle has gone through some interesting changes. Red went to blue and then black which then hinted at green on the edges and finally took on an insipid yellow colour all around the area. I resisted the frequent urgings from 'she who must be obeyed' to go and have it looked at! Worst still to go to A&E and have it X-rayed. Immediately after the event we went to Cornwall for a pre-planned long weekend and the pain came with me. Each night prior to going to bed pain killing gel had to be applied to the lump in order to get to sleep. Happily, all now seems to be getting better and apart from the annoyance of gum boots rubbing the hot spot, recovery seems well underway. So dear friends, if ever you are tempted to use a priest, make absolutely sure your aim is good. Oh, and also, don't expect any sympathy from your companion as on this occasion all my dear brother could do was to burst into fits of laughter and tell me that this was one of the funniest things he had ever seem. 

Friday, 14 October 2016


Imagine that we live in a representative democracy where ordinary people elect wise men (or scoundrels) to figure out what’s best for the country as a whole. Imagine that one of those granted supreme power isn’t smart enough to bring about consensus on a range of issues among his fellow power-wielders and decides instead to let the ordinary people decide. (The normal cut and thrust of intellectual debate among the wise men to settle these things is unavailable as almost all the wise men think the same way with only a small number in the minority.)

The ordinary people, mostly untrained in the philosophies of government and the skills of negotiation and deal-making, cannot be expected to bring about consensus on the range of issues at hand – that’s why the representative democracy was established in the first place – so the entire matter is reduced to a single, simple to understand for seven-year-olds, question with two possible answers.

The elected wise men agree to provide the people with honest, comprehensive, clear, well thought-out, information on the strengths and weaknesses of both the two possible outcomes and then wait patiently while the people consider the various arguments, examine the evidence, hold open debates and make up their minds which way to vote. Once the voting is complete the elected representatives will have their answer and they can continue governing with a fresh mandate. Simple!
(It’s hard to understand why anyone would bother with representative democracy in the first place if the ordinary people can just decide things easily without all that power-broking, deal-making and deliberating that the wise men (or scoundrels) spend their entire careers indulging in but let’s get over it and move on.)

After the vote, which unexpectedly goes the way nobody at all predicted or had prepared for, the government claims a mandate in the form of the trivial answer to the trivial question on the ballot paper but, here’s the rub, what does the answer mean, exactly? That of course is where we started: Imagine that we live in a representative democracy where ordinary people elect wise men to figure out what’s best for the country as a whole.

As a consequence of the original failure to act wisely, some wise men will have to go and practise wisdom outside of politics. The remaining wise men reorganise themselves to have a crack at the original set of problems. Of course now they’re hampered by The Result limiting their ability to act, even though no-one agrees in detail what the vote actually means and even though most of the wise men think it a disastrous course of action. “The people have spoken clearly and The Result is The Result!” proclaims the new chief helpfully clarifying nothing. Worse – those who voted the “wrong” way are told by all and sundry that they must “get over it”. Apparently everyone is now irrevocably committed because of the idiocy of one wise man, now departed, and, instead of fixing the original problems (which haven’t gone away), the remaining wise men spend their time discussing whether implementing The Result should be done “softly” or “hardly”, not an easy task as no such options were offered to the people. In some circles this is referred to as “making stuff up”.
Some of the people say that The Result means one thing but others say it means something else; some of the wise men say that The Result means one thing while others say otherwise. The Result must be respected, manifesto commitments must be kept – well, not ALL the manifesto commitments, just the ones that “must be kept” - although some formerly unalterable policies are now impossible, or at least inconvenient, in the light of The Result and must therefore be abandoned. The debate moves on from merely interpreting The Result to examining the motives of those who voted. This provides much more scope for creativity as no room was provided on the ballot paper for rationale, just a simple yes or no to the motion.
In estimating the people’s motives the wise men gather information from many sources: guesswork, the “free press”, anecdotes, the occasional face to face discussion with individuals and opinion polls, which have proved to be completely reliable over the years. Of course, not everyone’s motive is worthy of respect by the wise men, only approved motives are to be taken into account; motives deemed to be ignorant or unworthy may be freely disregarded.
None of this takes place in a vacuum. The ordinary people get on with their lives as though nothing has changed, some believing that everything has changed, some believing that everything will change, others firm in the their belief that nothing ever will change. Political discussions in the pub are now untenable as everyone has a firm opinion about the technical minutia of subjects they knew nothing about just a few months before. The only thing agreed on by most commentators is that the wise men aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Foreigners are torn between pity for the millions of citizens whose rights are to be revoked and amusement that so many people could have been sold an obvious pup and that the wise men were stupid enough to have done this in the first place.
The wise men assure everyone that the losing side (who must in any event “accept The Result” and “get over it”) will shortly see the error of their ways and come to rejoice in the new arrangements, that foreigners will come cap in hand to learn about how they can bring about similar changes in their own countries, climate change will cease immediately and fairies will soon be discovered, living at the bottom of the garden.
Lewis Carroll couldn’t have made this up!
Brexit? No, I said “Imagine ...”. This is just an idea I’ve had for a novel, what do you think, is it too far-fetched?

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Ted Smith

When I met Ted Smith he was the gamekeeper on a shoot just west of Dorchester. Having been posted to Dorchester prison, and moved to Dorset, I began getting involved in the sort of things which I have followed throughout my life. So it was that having be out with the local hunt, The Blackmoor Vale, I met a chap whose mother, it turned out, worked in the prison administration department. As a result of meeting her son we would often chat about matters of a rural nature and one day, as we approached the winter, she asked me if I was interested in doing a bit of beating. I said I was and shortly afterwards was invited to go and meet the keeper for my vetting. Having been advised the said keeper was a, "crusty old sod" and could be quite rude. Well I turned up at the keepers house and was greeted by Ted. He was a very big man, probably around six feet tall and built like the proverbial brick toilet. To cut a long story short I passed the once over and was invited to join his team of beaters for the forthcoming season. Especially, it appeared as I had a terrier.

Ted was an all-round countryman having worked in hunt service as a terrier man,worked on the farm and, of course, become a gamekeeper. He was a very good keeper, always presenting a good head of pheasants and ensuring they flew high over the guns. The shoot upon which Ted worked was rented from the landowner and run by one Henry Tailor-Newton. ( Name changed as he is probably still around ). It seemed that shooting was by invitation and those that attended were all Henry’s friends. For Henry the winter was spent shooting as the system that he was a part of was built upon invitations, those whom invited friends to shoot would receive invitations in return. Each week throughout the season was, therefore, spent all around the area shooting. Nice work if you can get it. Clearly these people were very well healed as, work as most of us know it, was abandoned for several months whilst they pursued their sport. Ted on the other hand, worked from dawn until dusk for most of the year to ensure his birds provided the highest quality shooting for his employer. He was assisted by his daughter, Jill, who acted as under keeper. Jill had a passion for gun dogs and owned a significant kennel of Black Labradors. On a shoot day she would work three or four of them. During the non- shooting months of the year she was an enthusiastic gun dog trialer, a pursuit at which she did very well.

Teds team of beaters was, as these groups tend to be, diverse. Old, young, friendly, standoffish,townies and both male and female. The standoffish ones were those, whom for the most part, had been coming to beat for years this, it would appear, gave them a privileged position. New members of the group were expected to pay due respect to these dinosaurs and to take their instructions, because of course, they knew how things should be done !!

Many of the beaters brought dogs with them and these were as diverse as the owners themselves. Mostly of a mongrel type  but with the odd gundog breed. For the most part the standard of dog training amongst the beaters was not high. This was very obvious on a shoot day when the keeper could be heard shouting such things as …."Who’s ……ing dog is that ?". "What the bloody hell is that dog doing ?" and "for Christ’s sake keep your bloody dogs on the lead". 

Seldom were any of the dogs, brought along with the beaters, given praise and as a result of this my first few seasons with Ted were a little trying, to say the least. I, at the time, had a Border Terrier and, no doubt, as a result of Ted’s days as a hunt terrier man, he had a very soft spot for terriers. He would often say to me, "Let your little terrier off". Ted, for my terrier was also called Ted, would disappear into the scrub and took great delight in flushing birds all over the place. But, as can be imagined, this did not endear me to the rest of the group. Actually it was even worse when, keeper Ted began telling all and sundry, "that is what I call a dog, not one of these poncey dogs that’s afraid to get stuck into bushes". Although Ted worked a Labrador himself his pride and joy was Sadie his little white terrier. Know by the rest of us as silent and violent, Sadie wandered around and attack any pheasant foolish enough to hang around long enough for her to catch it. She never once yapped, always completing her murders in total silence, hence her nickname. It was quite usual to see Ted, at the end of a drive, with a handful of birds that had been nowhere near the guns! And, of course, "that is what he called a dog." It was the custom for Henry Tailor– Newton to come into the beaters hut at lunchtime to pay us and, apart from handing out the little buff pay packets, he would always take time to thank us for our efforts.Ted would take his lunch with the beaters and Henry would usually have some words of praise for Ted’s efforts, passed on from the guns. Having been told how brilliant, (for example ), the second drive had been and how delighted the guns were with it, Ted would reply in the negative. His usual response would be to tell Henry, "That it would have been if you had bloody well done it the way I wanted to". I don’t know why but Ted couldn’t seem to take praise. Henry would mutter something like, "Yes, well quite Ted", and leave him to get on with it. To his great credit I never once saw him lose his temper with Ted.

Ted, apart from being a good keeper, was also an accomplished gardener. He had a large plot opposite his house where he grew some amazing vegetables. He also kept a large number of chickens. I once took Ted with me to Hatherleigh market in Devon when he wanted to replenish his chicken numbers. It was one of the few days in the year he took off, he thoroughly enjoyed it but, unfortunately, kept telling everyone about it for months to follow. Nothing lasts for ever, and so it was with that shoot. A new farm manager was appointed and he had no interest,or liking for,shooting. There followed a couple of seasons during which the manager made life difficult for the shoot until, finally, Henry decided to give it up. By this time Ted was getting on and he retired. It is a great testimony to him that he was able to buy himself a house with several acres and, when I say buy, I mean he paid for it in cash, no mortgage. There he lived until his death several years later.