My first sight of Barnes Pond was aged about eight, I should think, when I witnessed a magnificent perch, easily the length of my forearm and so furious at the indignity of its capture that it flapped mightily in the hand of the youth who had caught it and succeeded in spiking him deeply enough that blood was drawn.
My friend James and I were terribly impressed and on the way home on the number 9 bus, we resolved to return to exactly the same spot, armed with fishing tackle, the very next day. It would be imperative, we felt, to fish in the same patch of water, because, clearly that was where the perch lived. It was entirely irrelevant to us that that other swims might be equally productive or even that there might be more than one perch. Ironically, as it turned out, there was only one hotspot in Barnes Pond, formed by a sunken raft made from decaying wood, the origins of which we could only guess. And inside that raft, hidden amongst the structure, lay the perch.
Since that time I have fished in some excellent perch waters, including a private syndicate lake in Dorset, where I enjoyed a cracking day with Peter Wheat, one of the true gentlemen of the angle, when I caught two perch over 2lbs, using live baby perch as bait. Just as much fun as the fishing was the infectious laughter that wafted up and down the bank between our swims. I also have access to the tiny River Enbourne, where, legend has it, a single angler caught 12 perch over 3lbs in a single season. And only yesterday, I returned from Scotland where the master cane rod restorer, Tim Watson and I caught dozens of perch so beautiful and in such perfect condition that I’m sure I saw a tear in Watson’s eye.
But the little pool in Barnes is the seat of such formative moments in my life that it still sits proudly at the pinnacle of my all-time favourite perch ponds. We didn’t catch many fish over the years that we cast those large lobworms, with float over-depth on to the sunken raft, and neither did we catch a true leviathan, although to small boys, a one-and-a-half pound perch is a wondrous thing. Actually, come to think of it, a one-and-a-half pound perch is a wondrous thing to a forty-something year old man too, but that’s beside the point.
We were brought up in the heart of London, at least I was. James was luckier, in that his mother had a house in St Margerets, where there were trees that did not have a thick coating of road-grime and within a short bike ride, he could be casting a line for bleak, dace and eels on the River Thames. Then we were despatched off to school in Barnes, where, that sunny Summer weekend, we saw the amazing perch. Coincidentally, my mother moved to Barnes many years later, in a tiny house backing onto the school playing fields and her dachshund would worm itself under the fence to lay juicy anti-schoolboy devices in the tufts of grass formed by the boots of rugby players.
Equally coincidentally, through a mutual acquaintance, I met a girl who’s parents lived within scent of Barnes Pond. To save her blushes, I will refer to her under the pseudonym ‘V’, which will leave none of her friends or relatives in any doubt about her identity, but will protect her from embarrassment in the face of employers, boyfriends, husbands or (I’m guessing here), children. And in any case, we were old enough by then for the romance to have been above board, so why am I still worrying after all these years?
As I was saying, V invited herself fishing one day. James and I had been trying to impress a group of friends outside the Odeon Kensington, hanging around as kids do, with daring tales of angling adventure, but perhaps not surprisingly, none of them had been in the least bit interested. Except, that is, for V.
Now I don’t want to give you the false impression that I was without knowledge of such matters, but it is unquestionable that girls form rather more quickly into adults than boys and without wishing to be coarse, V had formed more fully than most, to such an extent that young boys, not myself you understand, were frequently trapped like rabbits in the headlamps of her splendid bosom. Noticing their attention, V would toss back her long blonde hair and laugh prettily, showing little white teeth.
So it was that at dusk one evening, long after James had left for home, V and I sat waiting for the perch to bite. I had been immensely impressed by the way she had taken to the sport so willingly, to the extent that she had even volunteered to impale a worm on the hook. But, oddly, the fish seemed to realise that foul play was afoot, or maybe they detected an atmospheric change, because they remained stubbornly aloof in their lair in the raft. I was still confident of a take, however, since experience had taught us that perch could suddenly begin to feed as the sun goes down, when V whispered hotly in my ear:
"I’m not wearing a bra."
With that siren’s call of a warm caress, I was led inexorably away from the comforting life of an angling boy onto the jagged rocks of adolescent turmoil. From one day to the next, it seemed, all my priorities, established over years of careful evolution, had been tossed onto the compost heap. All of a sudden, my fledgling fishing career had been ousted by a cuckoo in nylons. Poor James was stunned.
"Shopping? What do you mean you’re going shopping?" He would say, as though my stated intention was to slaughter hamsters with my bare hands. "I cannot believe you are going shopping."
OK, OK, I agree, I was temporarily insane. I knew not what I was doing. In preference to driving on our Honda 4-stroke mopeds down to the Bat and Ball stretch of the Hampshire Avon in search of chub, I would go with V to Oxford Street to…I can hardly bring myself to admit this…to shop for shoes.
My perfectly acceptable anorak, jeans and gym shoes were replaced with a bomber jacket, ‘loons’ (even more embarrassing than bell-bottoms) and platforms. My hair was coiffed into a walnut whip and I doused my body daily in a wide variety of colognes, powders and aerosols, because V said it was sexy. To be fair, a short time later, James also transformed for the worse, slicking down his coarse hair with a product called ‘Pluko’ that resembled axle grease, but tackier and medicinally pungent.
Then one day, V left me for a swarthy, Gucci-shoed fashion store manager in South Molton Street. Apparently, he could dance.
I’d love to be able to say that I took rejection like a man, that I looked in the mirror and with a crescendo of violins, decided to go back to my roots that very second, to do away with the frippery of the London scene, to retrieve my old jeans and gym shoes from the cupboard under the stairs. But of course I didn’t. I cried acid tears until my pillow was wet, made embarrassing bids to win back her affection and had an even worse, ‘new romantic’ hair cut.
It was many years later that I emerged from that tawdry period, older, but not very much wiser, I’m afraid. James had come back from America where he now lives with a lovely wife and two kids. He was staying in London for a while and we took a cab to Barnes for old time’s sake. There was the pond, looking very much the same, with plenty of ducks, swans and geese. There were the big old willows, bowing over the far bank and sure enough the Sun Inn looked the same too.
Hang on a sec’, though. What was that ominous white sign on the grass? ‘Strictly No Fishing’, it said rudely to anyone passing by.
James and I glanced at each other, smiling silently. In the old days, we weren’t allowed to fish there either, but the ‘No Fishing’ signs placed by the local council never lasted more than a few hours, and we were never bothered by anyone official. It was funny though, that the water looked inexplicably less inviting, perhaps because we were all grown up and in the passage of time, our expectations had grown with us.
We drank malty pints of London Pride in The Sun Inn until dusk, then we drank some more. Every so often the number 9 bus chugged past, and we waited for small boys to off load with fishing rods primed, but they didn’t. Just as it was getting dark, we took our one-for-the-road, and walked down to the pond, where nothing stirred at all. I suspect that something unpleasant was visited upon the inhabitants of the pond, although I suppose I’ll never know. I harbour the hope that in the natural course of maintenance, the fish were looked after properly, possibly removed to a better place, out of town.
As we turned to leave in search of a cab, my eye registered a movement in the gloom. Under the willow tree, a few yards back from the water, a couple of youngsters laid end-to-end in a timely reminder that in respect of basic human instincts some things never change.
Walking across the grass, I gave the ‘Strictly No Fishing Sign’ a healthy kick, sending it spinning into the darkness.