I woke early yesterday; bright July sun struck my eyes and urged me to get out of bed. Without thought I showered and dressed myself. Today was going to be a good day, so I even had a shave. Well, when the weather is paying you compliments it's only fair to respond in kind and a shave seemed strangely appropriate. Bending over to open the second drawer, I took out a pair of grey footbags. They used to be socks, but after 30 boil washes they'd started to look like woolly ASDA carrier bags. I pulled on each sock and completed the simple formalities of dressing myself.
A quick brew to finish the revival then I lugged all my tackle into the car, settled behind the driving seat and I'm off.
Just as a quick diversion, can anyone tell me why my carryall has become the heaviest, most cumbersome and disobedient piece of luggage I take fishing ? I didn't always have a carryall, maggots, casters, butties and flask all went into the seat box and a bunjee rope held the nets to the box. I'm starting to think that the carryall is the finest piece of angling marketing ever. Forget carbon and fixed spool reels, the carryall is the greatest boost the angling trade has ever seen. You see, with all that space you feel obliged to use it, otherwise there's no point having one. If you don't use the space, it's not a carryall, it's a carrysomeofit. So mine now contains a collapsible groundbait bowl (something I never used to have), two or three bags of various continental groundbaits (again, it used to be a polybag with some brown crumb in it), about half a dozen square bait tubs (I bought them because the round tubs wasted too much space in my carryall), at least a gallon of pole elastic lubricant, aluminium bait table (yep, carryalls are so big you now have to put a table in there to fill up the space!), mud feet and finally a 4-legged pole roller. What once took 15 seconds to load onto my back now takes an hour and a half and the services of 4 Gurkhas, 2 sherpas and male African elephant. If I didn't have a carryall, I wouldn't need all these bits and pieces to fill it up. When you buy a carryall you are contracting yourself to buy loads of things to fill it. The tackle trade must love carryalls. There has to be a bronze statue of the inventor somewhere, bent double over his carryall, the first signs of a slipped disc present in his grimacing face.
Anyway, my ponderings over, I pulled into the gravel car park at Border Fisheries. I parked up and was immediately asked to move my car into a field. For a fleeting moment I thought "Why? There's loads of space here", "So the kids don't have to go too far" came the unprompted explanation from Terry.
Last year I described the fishery itself in some detail. The manicured lawn down to the water, the pretty cabin serving snacks and day tickets, the sensible rules and the human owner. This is in welcome contrast to the cratered moonscape, battered caravan and Hitler-is-my-role-model which serves only to discourage anglers from many commercial fisheries. I was glad to see that not much had changed, except for the better. The trees were now slightly taller and more laden with leaves. Just enough so that you could hear the light breeze playing. I thought I recognised the opening bars of "Welcome to the house of fun". The reeds at the waters edge had now covered most of the framed banking, adding to the natural impression of the venue. Even Mick, the owner, had had a shave. I feel like a child again, sitting, observing. -----------------------------------------------
Colonel Moseley was rallying the troops from the shade of a large tree just outside the temporary NAAFI. Late July sun etched itself into his short cropped hair and beads of sweat were visible on his top lip. He had surrounded himself with plans, orders and armaments so that this exercise would be decisive and successful. No accoutrement had been left unchecked, no detail unrefined. His support team of masters-at-arms, sergeants, lieutenants and squaddies beavered around him. This was teamwork, ten thousand ants observed from a distance to see how it should be done. The Colonel was personally preparing every soldiers combat gear, a team of experienced officers made the initial preparations which he then checked and double checked, adjusting balance, range and firepower with an expertise that only years of field craft bring. The Colonel knew that the better the preparation, the better the execution and he had the commitment, will and support to settle for nothing less than perfection.
I met up with Sergeant Deckett. A man of some standing (some sitting and a bit of lying down as well, but mainly standing). Sergeant Deckett was charged with battledress distribution and tactical positioning of vehicles. To the untrained eye he was handing out blue baseball caps and sorting out the parking, but the significance wouldn't be lost as the hours unfolded.
I left the Sergeant for a while to survey the camp. A large green tent opened at both ends to allow the breeze to cool those who worked inside. It framed the ageing tree under which the Colonel did his Colonelling. The inside was shaded and exhibited a testament to the Colonel's previous successes. Just looking at those pictures and words gave everyone confidence that today was to be a good day. No battles would be lost today.
Preparations made, tactics and strategy agreed, the Colonel allowed himself to relax enough to contemplate and reflect. He had done his duty, he could now allow his marshals to run the show, secure in the knowledge that he had their trust, and they his.
Our troops arrived over the next hour and a half. An enthusiastic battalion of young men and women numbering forty. Some had been here before, twelve months previously, many had not. All had been fighting their own private battles without pause for the entire time before and since and doubtless will continue to do so. Some arrived by car others by minibus. It then became obvious why parking was so important.
Do you ever think where you park your car ? Turn up, pull into the car park close to the next vehicle - you can get more cars in there that way can't you. Maybe, but you are making it difficult, if not impossible, for a disabled angler. A small point I know and only obvious to those on the receiving end, yet it had been considered by the Colonel. Obvious really?
There were kids in wheelchairs who would form the rapid response team. Kids with walking frames and sticks would create a holding bridgehead. Kids who could walk without assistance were helping those who couldn't - the observing ants made more notes.
Three field marshals arrived, Nudd, Porter and Vincent. All with legendary status and impeccable pedigree.
Field Marshal Robert Nudd, M.B.E, or Bob Nudd to fellow anglers, arrived. Wearing his trademark white flat cap he infused enthusiasm into those who had heard of him. Respectful whispers enlightened those who hadn't.
Field Marshal Dave Vincent, a practical confident man. There's no 'image' attached to Dave beyond ability. He allows his record to speak for itself, which it does admirably. His reputation alone is enough to terrify any opponent.
Field Marshal Jan Porter. One time leader of the Norwegian platoon with a wider experience than can be put into one article. A man whose characteristic all red attire serves to define his personality and enthusiasm.
I won't try and trick you by disguising the event any more. I've done that previously but the same trick doesn't work twice. We were here at Border Fisheries for the second Angling Link disability day. Last year around twenty youngsters took part, this time it's forty. A perfect example that there is a future for angling and another testament to the commitment of the organisers.
I also refuse to attempt pulling on your emotional heart strings. These kids were there to enjoy themselves, have fun, to do something many of them had never done, to achieve something. To be anglers.
Approaching 11 O'clock, Regimental Sergeant Major Peter Thompson mustered the assembly to the tree and explained the remainder of the proceedings. No detail was left out. Wheelchair anglers would occupy the pegs nearest the car park, obvious really. A pole and net was on every peg and every child was accompanied by an adult. All the child had to do was fish, get sun-tanned and drink pop. A smile was mandatory.
Following the briefing all the kids made their way to their pegs, their chatter and laughter mingling with the rustle of the trees.
I was to be Matthew's aide-de-camp for next few hours and Sergeant Deckett was assisting a young man called Paul. Of the two jobs, I insist that mine was the harder. Not for any logistical or angling reason, but purely because Matthew is a Manchester United supporter. As a life long follower of the finest team in the world, well England at least, or failing that Lancashire - OK I give up, Bolton Wanderers are definitely the finest team in Bolton, there is an intense rivalry between the two sets of supporters. Usually though, it's quite easy for me. Most United fans know nothing about football, let alone their own team, but not Matthew. Matthew knew more about Man U. than Alex Ferguson. I tried to bring him back from the dark side by explaining why Bolton are better, but he knew too much about United. In fact at one stage he almost convinced me to go to Old Trafford. I poked myself in the eye with a waggler to snap myself out of it. Sergeant Deckett fared much better, Paul didn't seem bothered by football and Pete is a Spurs fan - so they were on common ground from the off.
Our approach to fishing would be to feed corn, casters and hemp constantly and fish corn or luncheon meat on the hook. Method was short pole at 3 or 4 metres. This caused no end of confusion for Sergeant Deckett, Pete is his real name. He thought someone was winding him up by hiding the reel in the reeds. What was this thing, people were calling a whip? It had no reel! It was short with only a very short line attached to a tiny float. There was no way they were going to get the bait anyway near that central island.
Paul told him not to worry as he had used a whip at last years event and had had the 4th highest weight. A bit of role reversal followed with Pete being instructed in the finer points of whip fishing. Paul suggested an approach of starting on maggot, varying the feed to see if they would come up in the water, possibly introducing a few grains of corn if bites slowed. Pete sat back, learned and made a mental note to mention Paul in despatches.
Meanwhile I discovered that Matthew, far from being the disabled angler here to learn, had a finely tuned sense of logic and timing. He reasoned that loose-feeding little and often would waste time and cause us to miss bites, so he threw in a pint of casters all at once to save us from that inconvenience.
The sun continued to beat down on all of us. There was no escape from it. The smell of factor 20 cream mingled with the corn and hempseed. The ants decided to make use of the notes they had made earlier and plotted a raiding mission.
Whenever I fish a match, the standing joke is that the best pegs on the lake are either side of Dave Collier. It's become so true that I've started to draw my peg and then add or subtract one from the number before telling the organiser. At least that way I'd be in the peg at the side of me. Today blew that theory out of the water. We didn't draw for pegs, we just wandered up to a peg and fished there. Yet still Sarah, the girl sat to my right, started like a house on fire. The young lad to my left also had a reasonable start. It was like Sampras v. Henman as my head moved right to left to right so often my neck hurt.
The fishing started slowly for both Matthew and Paul. Matthew was getting bites, but they were so quick that hitting them was nigh on impossible. Paul suffered similarly. After around half an hour or so we started to get a little more organised and in tune with the peg and the fish. A few small carp, perch, rudd and even a chub and solitary barbel came to the net over the next couple of hours.
Meanwhile Sergeant Deckett drew on his years of subversive missions by locating a second piece of artillery. Using this second whip he could effectively double the potential of the peg. An agreement was drawn up that, regardless of which whip hooked the fish, Paul was in sole charge of landing it. A tactic that worked and provided Paul with the opportunity to further demonstrate his angling skill.
All the time the field marshals were encouraging and inspecting the troops. The smiles widened even more as Bob, Dave and Jan made a point of talking to our guests. Another role reversal. As I watched them walk round to each child for a chat it was obvious just who the celebrities were and I'm sorry Bob, Dave, Jan but you played second fiddle that day. And you all seemed proud to do so.
With only a few minutes left Pete and Paul were looking for the one fish that would take them into double figures. The float dipped, Paul eased into it, letting the elastic do the work, determined not to lose this fish. He let the fish take the elastic and gradually led it towards the bank. Pete turned around and realised who was behind them watching Paul land his 10th fish. It was Bob Nudd M.B.E. Bob took the net, helped Paul land his fish, and unhooked a beautiful chub, which was to be Paul's last fish of the day.
To achieve international recognition in angling is difficult. Bob has achieved this. To become World Champion three times is the equivalent of 5 and the bonus ball in the lottery. To have an angler of this calibre net a fish for you is a real dream. Those who do not go fishing can't understand this. If this had been a film set it would be the equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger asking the tea boy to speak his lines.
Paul was overjoyed to have had a World Champion to help him finish his day, certainly a real angler's tale to tell his friends and family for many a year to come. Certainly a tale for Pete to enjoy being a part of.
The three hours fishing disappeared so quickly that it felt that we hadn't even started. The only way I knew we'd been fishing for more than 10 minutes was a rasping sensation on my neck as the coarse grade sandpaper that had been my shirt etched "sunburn" between my shoulders.
The fishing over, all the fish were weighed in. Every child had his photograph taken with his or her catch and one of the field marshals. It was a pity that the advertising people from Colgate weren't there as I doubt they'd ever see more genuine smiles.
The weights were irrelevant really. Everyone caught fish and I didn't have to pay out on my bet to Pete that I'd tip the remainder of my bait over my head if anyone blanked. The only purpose of weighing in was to decide the order that the children would collect their prizes. From 8oz up to 16lb, every angler caught something. Every angler had a fantastic day, and it wasn't over. The fight that we strive is the fight to survive BUT I WON'T FALL DOWN ----------------------------------------------------------------
Everyone made their way back to the NAAFI for post-battle debate and eager chatter. As promised, no battle had been lost. The catering corps had pulled out all the stops with a fine selection of food for the battle weary. Orange squash for the dehydrated amongst us, lager and bitter for the rest. Sandwiches, sausage rolls, chicken, salad and a myriad of other foods revived flagging energies.
There are moments in angling - only angling - where the enjoyment takes precedence over the initial priority. Catching fish was nice, but ultimately unimportant. The atmosphere of excited anticipation just before the presentation was just such a moment. It's very difficult to describe. The closest I can get is to describe how I felt just before I got married. Respectful quiet, nervousness, interrupted only by whispers of excitement from the onlookers, then the determination to remember the scene as your bride makes her way towards you. And ultimately the relief and total happiness when the ceremony is over. I can only imagine that this is how those children felt as they awaited their names and proceeded to the prize giving altar to complete their marriage to angling.
RSM Thompson gathered us around the tree for a presentation of medals. After the introductions and thanks, far too many to mention here, it was on to the presentation.
The names and weights were read out in reverse order as is customary in events of such importance. Emotions ride high and are an almost overwhelming combination of elation and relief.
Peter concluded the thanks and began the real business of presenting medals. First name to be read out was Alan Kilgallen. His pride evident from his purposeful stride towards Terry, Peter, Bob Nudd and the other dignitaries. He collected his medal, a certificate of achievement and a mysterious goody bag. Applauded and cheered all the way, he made his own way through the crowd. He had caught fish, he'd got the medal to say so. As he turned to walk back, his expression betrayed him and a broad smile exploded across his face.
Next up was Daniel, he required some help to make it up the slight incline to the presentation table. Determination personified, he may need a supporting armBut he won't fall down.
The cheering and applause continued undiminished.
Paul, Pete Deckett's mate, went forward. He wore the look of someone to whom this ceremony was just another day in the life of an achiever. I glanced at Pete, it was difficult to know who was happiest. If you can't collect your own prize, the next best thing is seeing a friend collect his. Pete's applause went up a few decibels. Paul turned and seemed to look straight at Pete. I think Pete may have got something in his eye at that moment. Another huge grin, another success. Another man who won't fall down.
Young Elliott made his way up the hill. A bit of a personality is Elliott, very young and the owner of an expression that can break a heart and weaken the knees. Last year Elliott needed a walking frame to collect his spoils, this year he demonstrated another achievement - he walked to the table, shook hands and collected his prizes. He won't fall down.
One of the Gardner brothers struggled to walk to the presentation table, helped along by the caring arm of his brother. He didn't fall down, his brother wouldn't let him.
Name after name, medal after medal, a constant flow of grinning faces, laughter edged with pride.
My partner Matthew edged his way toward the medals. He walked forward delicately, concentrating on every step. His eye's were wide and seemed to merge into his smile. I ran the back of my hand across my own eyes and cheered to release the emotion. Despite everything, He refused to fall down.
David went forward, helped up the hill in his wheelchair. By this time, you don't notice the wheelchairs - you only see anglers beaming faces and hear their laughter
Finally the last name was called out. Sarah Edwards - 16lb 8oz. Sarah shrieked in delight, "I don't believe it!" she screamed as she wheeled her chair forwards through the crowd. Cheers and applause continued to ring out, tears that had built up during the previous 39 names finally escaped from parent, helpers and fellow anglers. This genuine delight, this total exhilaration she showed explained in a smile why I had been so happy at being invited along.
No one fell down.
How often have you heard great-aunts and distant relatives describe the youngest members of their clan as "my little soldier" as they smile through lipstick 40 years too young for them and pinch the side of your child's cheek with hands whitened by Sandalwood talc ?
Supportive and loving without doubt, and we wouldn't have it any other way, but.
If only they knew. If only people could realise without ever forgetting, if they could just listen to those words and understand them. My children don't fight battles, my children play on swings. My children have it easy, just as I have it easy. The biggest trauma my child faces is a grazed knee every now and again.
The children, the true soldiers, at Border fisheries probably face a grazed knee every now and again too. These kids also face bigger problems, bigger challenges. Challenges that won't disappear as they grow, just change into bigger challenges.
On my way home I turned off the radio and just thought about my day. I had put on my socks, I had shaved myself, I had put my tackle into the car. I'd done it without thought, just as I had originally parked my car without thought. For many of these kids, today had started with the same ordeal that every other day starts. Washing and dressing, getting into and out of a car, walking. A series of events that would be played out again the next day, and every day. Hopefully the time in between was different though, a tiny respite from the rigours of living with their problems. A day when it was proved that there is a future for angling, a day that brilliantly blurred the distinction between what can be achieved by the able-bodied and the disabled.
A day that determination, pride, joy and achievement combined to reconfirm a faith in humanity that is all too easily undermined.
No adjective can really describe the looks on the faces of those children. No words, however romantic, can be said to truly represent the scales of emotion.
And no-one fell down.