It was probably my Headmaster, Mr. Bleasdale’s constant exhortations that we should be charitable that caused my conversion to Zealot. I was a zealous champion of the misunderstood, and of the underdog, and there were quite a few underdogs at Bartholomews, cheapest of all cheap preps that fed its poor charges into schools that were clearly of low ranking, long before the broadsheet Sundays made such ignominy a matter of yearly public record. Soon, I’d been roughly floored several times by the form top dog Bussey M., who delighted in dragging born-to-be-victim Lawrence Howes across the quad, into the mud. My gallant and charitable moves to protect the underdog met with swift retribution from the alpha male. Howes almost certainly still sports a dewdrop, hanging perilously from his right nostril, and is almost as certainly still a victim. There again, he was a clever lad, and his father may have pulled strings so that today he’s something in the foreign office, with dominion over many burly Busseys . But back in childhood my role was thus gloriously defined. I wore it as a halo.
Archie was together feared and admired at the fishing club. A gaunt, door-high figure, with a short Hitler moustache and a slight leer that might have been a scowl. His coat was a long black Belstaff, which, fair enough, was appropriate, because he arrived at the coach pick-up point on an ancient Vincent motorcycle, with attached sidecar. Scattering us pedestrians, he rode it up over the pavement, and left it on the park grass. The coach gained, he strode as always to the back seat, where he slept fully stretched for the duration of the journey. There was no question of anyone else taking Archie’s seats. Davy Constance once made that mistake, and was quickly hissed out without a shot being fired. That was another thing about Archie, he was a man of few words, actually almost no words. He could talk. I knew that because I once heard him order a pint of beer in a straight glass when we stopped at that pub in Windsor, the one where the Hell’s Angels congregate. The bearded Angel with the CND badge marked out in silver studs on the back of his leather jacket had meekly moved over to let Archie into the crowded bar. The Angel was bulkier, but Archie’s black waves, restrained by a palmfull of Brylcream, soared a good foot above the crowd.
The coach company understood perfectly well the potential for anglers to leave groundbait and perch slime on their upholstery. The fishing club charabanc bore the scars and smells of many outings. Its brown striped moquette seat covers were well specified for their task, but even so shone with the grease and dirt of ages. Through a heavy veil of Capstan Full Strength cigarette smoke, the Saturday football results were reviewed with total disregard for tender ears - proof that my Mother’s concerns about my consorting with ‘that rough fishing club crowd’ were well founded. A dawn crawl through white-lit Merton, and onto the grim winter yellow of the new dual carriageway, took us to the Thames at Canbury Gardens. It was the day of the Grand Christmas match, and although he didn’t yet know it, this was to be my day with Archie.
With the halo still shining, I had argued with my junior fellows that Achie was misunderstood, that under his bestial exterior there lived a sensitive, kindly, but perhaps shy man, who would melt in the light of understanding, and especially the adoration of a kid. Here indeed was charity, and with it faith and hope. Davy Constance said Archie would throw me in if I hung around for more than a minute. Neil said more worryingly that Archie had once fought in Malaya, and knew how to kill a man without leaving a mark. Anyway, Mr. Bleasdale’s words echoed through, and I stuck to my plan to get under Archie’s guard.
We drew for the walk-off, and moved out in order, each angler rule-bound not to pass the man in front, until he stopped at a swim. It was a rule that Archie ignored with a passion, his favourite ploy being to declare for his chosen swim loudly, and woe-betide anyone who had the temerity to steal it, simply because he’d luckily selected from the bag the magic number one. Drawn three behind him, it took me a while to reach Archie at his chosen swim, the known hotspot in front of the riverside restaurant. I slipped in just upstream, increasing the distance by several yards after a warning glare from Archie.
No-one doubted Archie’s ability as an angler. He was good. In common with one or two others at the top of the club’s match rankings, he used a fearsomely long rod called a Super Chelt, a man-sized cane rod that required iron biceps to heft it, if it was to remain effective for the duration of the match. In order to begin my insinuation I wandered down and asked him for some advice on setting up my float tackle. In answer, and without wasting a glance or a word, he momentarily held up his tackle, then cast expertly off his centrepin reel to the head of his swim.
Just watching Archie was a frightening business. Even though he couldn’t prevent me from spectating from there, on the towpath, he would occasionally glance at me, with daggers in his eyes. I stood my ground. ‘Neil says you were in Malaya,’ I remarked. Archie sort of gruffed, without actually replying. ‘I think you could be club champion this year,’ I continued. Archie ignored me, and cast again. ‘I’m trying to learn a bit from you,’ I said, ‘when I’m a senior I’m going to get a Super Chelt too.’ ‘Neil says you can kill a man without leaving a mark.’ ‘ Have you read Mr. Crabtree goes fishing.’ Archie threw his bait cans into his basket, and strode off upstream trailing tackle. I followed as quickly as my thirteen-year-old legs would allow, and at a respectful distance.
Archie set up his stall on a landing stage just below an island. Again, I slipped in just above, then squatted on the boards of the staging within talking distance. ‘I hope you don’t mind me watching you today, I said, ‘I’m really trying to be a good angler.’ Archie whipped around, and I think he was going to bawl me out, but then his float went under, and so I shouted ‘Your float, your float.’ Distracted before he could hurl abuse at me, Archie struck, then skittered a little ruffe across the surface and up to his hand, where he unhooked it. Reaching back into his basket, he took out a cork, the sort they used to use on medicine bottles, and impaling this onto the poor little fish’s dorsal, he cruelly tossed it back into the river, where it bobbed around helplessly, and floated off on the current. Then, he turned to me, and grinned with a gold tooth glinting, as only the Devil himself could grin. I knew at that moment that I really hated Archie, and that my Godly headmaster, Mr. Bleasdale, had been wrong. But, two excellent things happened then, before I could leave this diabolic figure to the unrelieved misery of his own company. The angler below Archie bravely scooped the little ruffe out with his landing net, and returned it to the river without the cork, and Archie’s float went down again on the very next cast.
Archie’s strike met with absolute solidity, and the Super Chelt bent into a half-circle. Even Archie was unused to this sort of prospect, and uttering terrible adult words he started downstream to follow the fish, which was moving slowly but surely out to the centre of the river, where it stopped. The cry went up, ‘ruddy great fish’. Anglers from upstream and down gathered to give advice. But no advice could aid Archie, who was now shouting at other anglers to get out of the way as he stumbled along in pursuit of his fish which was by this time fifty yards out, and again moving downstream. ‘Give it line,’ said a man, newly-arrived on the scene, and who I knew to be our club secretary. A tug with two barges in arrears hove into view from downstream. ‘That’s your lot,’ said a local.’ But the fish was in the deep centre channel, and the tug and its charges rode past without catching Archie’s line, which he’d sensibly buried into the water rod and all as deeply as he could. ‘Want a fag mate?’ Archie accepted the lit hand-made, then he cursed appallingly and spat it out when he found that it had gone out en route to the corner of his mouth. With small, occasional changes of direction, the fish moved inexorably downstream, past anglers who reeled in and joined the throng of advisors, past the restaurant with its Christmas lights blazing, and down to the railing by the power station hot water outlet, where it showed a sudden burst of speed, then stopped.
By this time the fish had been on for over an hour. A man with an expensive Rolliflex camera arrived from the local paper, and after taking some pictures asked Archie for his age, name, and address. Archie, sweating profusely, spat more adult words, and the deeply shocked newspaperman melted back into the now large crowd. ‘That’s a carp,’ said someone at the back, and the crowd murmured in general agreement. ‘They go over twenty pounds ere, it don’t know its ooked,’ said another older man. ‘Could be a big eel though,’ said another, ‘if it is it’ll run right through the bridge, always do, and that’ll be that.’ A local said he’d get a boat from someone he knew, and disappeared though the crowd, who shot him admiring glances, for his being so well-connected. The fish skulked on the bottom, and soon the man with the rowing boat appeared from across the river, and hung expertly just upstream, in readiness, happy to be near the centre of the stage, if not the star. The veins were standing out on Archie’s forehead, and a dozen winter-worn flies, attracted away from the towpath dog droppings, buzzed around him excitedly. ‘Don’t get that boat near the line,’ shouted someone. With the general air of expectancy, and all the hubbub, and the conjecture coming in from all sides, there was quite a festive atmosphere. ‘He’s trying to pull the plug out,’ said a newly-arrived old-timer. But that had already been said several times earlier in the afternoon, so he didn’t get the laugh he thought he deserved.
As if on cue, the fish started off downriver again, with all in tow. A way before the railings above Kingston Bridge the requisitioned rowing-boat slid ashore, and Archie stepped in, rod arched against the sky. ‘It’s definitely going through the bridge, so it’s an eel for sure,’ said the man who’d spoken earlier, ‘I’m tellin yer, it’s a record eel.’ Again, the crowd murmured knowingly, and as the fish, the angler, and the boat disappeared through the arch of the bridge, those at the back, being less hemmed in than those at the front, ran off to make their way across the road bridge. By the time they reached the opposite bank, Archie was ashore, and had resumed the fight. Above, on the bridge, the traffic hummed past unknowing, and a choir struck up Hark The Herald Angels Sing.
I have dined out on this story for forty years, and it becomes no less surreal for all its long teeth. The finest moment was yet to come. By the time the party reassembled on the northern bank there must have been a crowd of fifty, so even with the natural wastage of old age, accidents, and emigration, God-fearing witnesses even today are not scarce. With all advice spent, and a general feeling in the crowd that something would have to give, a shout came from a man up on the bridge that he could see the fish under the water, and it was huge. Archie’s rod gave a jag, and a cloud of mud and gasses billowed up from the river bottom. Archie gained some line. Seconds later a Perspex dome appeared on the surface, and through its heavily-misted transparency a man’s startled face stared open mouthed at an audience he could never have expected. Amateur sub-mariner and crowd goggled at each other in stunned silence for what seemed like hours, but was probably seconds. To this day I can still see the wretched Archie, horrified, incredulous, his rod still bent hard into a tiny submarine that he could now plainly see.
As if in terror, the sub-mariner submerged in a flurry of bubbles, and Archie’s rod broke at the middle joint splice. The crowd were wetting themselves with mirth.
Of course, the journey home was a total delight. The myth of Archie was completely dispelled, so much so that when someone called out ‘Caught any good submarines today Archie?’ everyone laughed like drains, and without fear. It was a wonderful start to the Christmas festivities. Archie didn’t come on club outings after that.
So the love thy neighbour as thyself, faith hope and charity, and be thy brother’s keeper sermons, well, they somehow got set aside on that day, at least in the sense that I no longer feel driven to seek piously for the innate good in everyone. The good in some people, like Archie, is too well hidden. It did though put me in mind of another of Mr. Bleasdale’s great Christian assertions. ‘God,’ he said, ‘pays his debts without money.’ Too right he does.