John Bailey: Whatever happened to the heroes?

The iconic Wensum has always been a big roach river

The iconic Wensum has always been a big roach river - Credit: John Bailey

If I’m not actually fishing or driving, then I just have to be reading.

It’s a compulsion I’ve endured since the age of five and I’ll have to live with it. I don’t just read about fishing either, though in my head I’ll always try to make connections. For example, I’ve just finished a book on the foreign policy of appeasement in the later 1930s and throughout I couldn’t forget Chamberlain was an avid angler. Salmon of course, as you’d expect from a Tory prime minister, and whilst I’m not calling him a hero exactly, I would associate him with words like 'honesty', 'integrity', 'self sacrifice' and 'duty'. Whatever happened to concepts like those in Number 10?

I’ve also been engaged in a new biography of the legendary slayer of man-eating tigers and leopards in mid-20th century India, Jim Corbett. If you haven’t read, or even heard of Corbett, buy a copy of his Man Eaters Of Kumaon and prepare to be amazed, and terrified.

This is a story of a man brave beyond comprehension and tough beyond compare. I made the mistake of reading Corbett in 1989 during my first trip to India whilst camping in the very area of the lower Himalayas that he describes. I did not sleep for a month. Every snapping twig made my heart beat with terror. Also, when not risking his life to save beleaguered villagers, Corbett was an angler, something of an expert on the fabulous Indian mahseer of the Ganges region that I was out there to catch. Or try to to catch. Those mahseer I did hook that year made mincemeat of me. I couldn’t tame even the fish that Corbett made short work of, so God only knows what I would have made of a man-eating tiger.

But there’s another point of interest to the Corbett story, I think. Corbett learned jungle lore from the moment he could walk the Indian forests. He used to say he did not learn jungle craft as much as absorb it and that is exactly the same with angling. In my book, you can come to angling later in life, pick it up and become proficient, but you will never have that instinctive understanding that comes from a life of the riverbank. That sixth sense, that innate affinity with the fish and their home, can only come from a knowledge that is probably self taught and certainly begins in infancy.

I’ve been immersed in Morality, by the international religious leader and Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sachs. Sachs, who died relatively recently, was a hero of the mind, a man brave enough to argue that there is no liberty without morality, no freedom without responsibility. I’m indebted to him for making me reassess the concept of regret, a notion I had airily dismissed - until now. I had always looked at regret one dimensionally, in terms of life achievements rather than more deeply into the history of my actual actions.

As an example, Sachs forced me to re-examine the Barningham Lake perch affair of 1987/8. That season I had been catching bags of great perch from the lake, but when asked by good friend Bernie Neave about them, I lied and said I’d caught them elsewhere. Bernie has longed since passed away, but that memory has always lurked on the edges of my conscience and it has taken a man like Sachs to make me confront it, to make me realise in the future I must do better in every way.

The Angling Times piece mentioned

The Angling Times piece mentioned - Credit: John Bailey

Most Read

It will come as a relief to know that I have also been reading the Angling Times, which has just published a feature asking, What Future For Iconic Wensum? As you’d expect from an old curmudgeon like me, I am quoted in the piece and disagree largely with all the supposed and self-styled fishery experts, notably those who are employed by the Environment Agency. However, the Times also talked to Tim Ellis, chair of the Wensum Anglers Conservation Association. Now, I haven’t always agreed with Tim - and he certainly hasn’t always agreed with me -  but I will happily acknowledge that Tim is a hero, a model of hard work and self sacrifice, a man who has never sought publicity or acclaim, just the betterment of the river he loves. The news along sections of the Wensum is that it is now producing more and better roach than it has done since I was in short trousers and much of that is down to Tim and his low-profile colleagues.

The Wensum and mill pool bream have always been synonymous

The Wensum and mill pool bream have always been synonymous - Credit: John Bailey

That’s sort of brought me back to my title, to men and women who work for the good of others, without reward or recognition, but who are heroic in their ambitions for a better world. How we need more heroes like these in our angling and our public life both.