Catching nothing

It was on this day in 1953 that Ernest Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Old Man and the Sea. The book is a tale of the dignity of Santiago the fisherman and his quest for a catch after weeks and weeks of having caught nothing. Santiago’s fishing expedition almost costs him his life, but his perseverance and his dignity command the respect of his community.

Fishing in my boyhood was never a matter of drama or a question of dignity, it was generally fruitless hours spent on West Country riverbanks, perhaps it was a sense of feeling ridiculous at catching nothing that brought an end to my fishing for it is close on five decades since I last held a fishing rod in the long distant summer of 1975.

Going fishing was one of the things the restrictive fundamentalist Christian regime of our school allowed, and one Saturday in June of that year three of us passed on the opportunity to go on the schoolbus to the seaside town of Paignton, and instead walked to a river that ran through a nearby Dartmoor valley.

The river was was known for its trout and it was an opportunity to use the fishing rod that had been a present the previous Christmas and which had received little use. There was no requirement to fly fish the river, which was a good thing because none of us had the equipment needed for such sport fishing, nor could we have afforded the price of the sort of permit generally required for trout waters.

The afternoon was unsuccessful, only one fish was landed, and it was foul-hooked by a boy called Kevin. There arose a good-natured disagreement between Kevin and the other boy about the fish having been thrown back into the river. A boisterous exchange ensued in which Kevin received a push in the chest, stumbled backwards and fell over the edge of the bank and into the river. In the wintertime, the depth would have been much greater, but on a warm Saturday in June, it was no more than a couple of feet. Kevin sat on the riverbed calling every curse he knew down upon his assailant, who stood on the bank, speechless with laughter.

The fishing was abandoned as we sought to dry Kevin’s clothes. Each garment was wrung out and hung on the bushes. Kevin sat on the grass in a state of undress, muttering about not going fishing in such company again.

Kevin’s complaints were unnecessary, we did not go fishing again that term; we didn’t ever go fishing again. Back in Somerset for the summer holidays, I cycled down to a local river a couple of times, it seemed dull without the companionship of schoolmates. When the new school year began in September, fishing seemed the activity for younger people.

Sometimes, the thought of hours on a riverbank seems very attractive, dignity perhaps, and not one moment of danger.

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