John Bailey: Paying tribute to actor (and fisherman) Geoffrey Palmer

Geoffrey Palmer with his daughter, Harriett, and a fine roach Picture John Bailey

Geoffrey Palmer with his daughter, Harriett, and a fine roach Picture John Bailey - Credit: Archant

Today we remember fallen heroes.

This week we might just be seeing a pause in the advance of Trumpism. It is not my role as an angler to write politically, but there are good precedents. The Compleat Angler was written in the mid-17th century by Izaak Walton in part as a covert text decrying the government of the Puritans and Oliver Cromwell. Walton was a Royalist, but more than that, he wrote of how a good angler should behave in troubled, divisive times.

“The Brotherhood Of The Angle” was not an empty phrase for Walton. He saw the wise, contemplative angler as the bulwark against tyranny, dishonesty and even, eventually, actual violence itself. A Waltonian angler understood the peace and harmony of nature and the joy of easy companionship, both of which are in short supply in times of discord.

Had Izaak known him, he would have sung the praises of Geoffrey Palmer from the roof tops. I’ll have to do the job for him.

Geoffrey Palmer died last week, aged a venerable 93 years of age (Izaak only made it to 90, but of course, that was in an age when pandemics killed getting on for 50pc of the population). Most will know Geoffrey as a character actor of distinction appearing in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Butterflies, As Time Goes By, A Fish Called Wanda, Mrs Brown and even a Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies. He tended to play his roles as a chilled, calm, laconic sort of guy, taking life in his stride and looking for the humour hidden beneath.

In the years I knew him, that is exactly how Geoffrey went fishing. He was the sort of angler who took pleasure in the tiniest of pike, who never once grumbled about a single thing that I can remember and who made every session one of friendship and fun. He was great with kids (of all ages) because he made angling a real adventure, a vivid outdoor event. He had a complete lack of ego. Every success was a team effort. In Geoffrey’s eyes, we were all kings and queens of the river and fishing was the greatest of levellers. I can never remember a single bragging word escape from his mouth, though, of course, he was passionate about angling like few others I have ever met. Salmon might just have been his favourite species and I hear he did well with them on the Oykle even last year. In fact, he once told me that in his old age he only continued with endless advert voice overs to pay for the best beats on the Tweed.

Oh, and by the way, Geoffrey could REALLY fish. I saw him on the famous Junction Pool in Kelso on the Tweed and his casting was silky, sublime, well matched to his watercraft and perfect technique. I saw him lure fish for pike at Kingfisher where he beat me hollow. I saw him catch carp and big roach on a Norfolk lake when all I caught were two-ounce perch. I even took him to the beach at Salthouse once where he thrashed me catching mackerel on the fly. We had one bass that session – Geoffrey’s, of course. In those days you could eat a bass without recrimination and we took it back to the cottage where Geoffrey cooked it with aplomb. And produced just the right bottle of white to finish the evening off to perfection. OTT all this? Not a bit of it. Geoffrey was as good as it gets in every aspect of angling and it is good to remember our heroes, on November 11 of all days!

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So how are you all getting on, and fishing on, in this latest lockdown? I had a bit of luck. I was due to guide a group for grayling down on the hallowed Test (another of Geoffrey’s haunts) on November 3-4, hours before the lockdown on the fifth. It really was as though Boris had looked at my diary for the week. Now it is a slightly different story. You will have read in the EDP how we can fish with members of our own family and with one member from another household. That seems fair to me. How far we can travel is a somewhat grey area. I have no guilt about popping up the road to the Wensum and I guess if we do things in moderation, fishing further afield is within the rules. The Norfolk Fly Fishers as ever does things with sense and sensitivity. Open gates with gloves. Keep your distance from other anglers. Approach with a mask on. Don’t go into club houses or congregate on the bank – huddling together for warmth is right out!

I guess none of this is good news for match anglers but even here I am sure social distancing is quite within the wit of man to devise.

The important thing to remember is that fishing is the most restorative activity mankind has devised and I am surprised and relieved that Boris has recognised that fact. Geoffrey Palmer used to say that it had been angling that had kept him sane, happy and healthy through all those decades of acting stress and chaos, along with ministrations of his beloved wife Sally.

You look at those other two angling “celebs” (how they hate that word) Mortimer and Whitehouse. What did they do when they recovered from serious illness? Why, they went fishing of course. Back in the 1650s when taverns and theatres were closed down and people were told how they could and could not worship, Izaak Walton taught them how to go fishing and find their soul and succour on the riverbank. Things have not changed that much, have they? We can’t do this and we can’t do that but for us lucky anglers we can still go fishing. For Izaak, Geoffrey, Bob and Paul and for me and you, angling is all we need when times get tough.