Thursday, 15 November 2012

Mad cows and an Englishman

Something a bit different this time. Phil is a friend from long ago and has his own blog which is a very worthwhile read, have a look here. A while back he asked me if I would like to contribute to a piece he had in mind about a mutual friend and I agreed, here's that piece.

Phil starts the story.

It’s a shame isn’t it how our imagination diminishes as we age? We have a collection of children’s rides at work. To me they are just bits of painted fibre glass. To the children that come in they are so much more than that. “Look Mum, it’s Hello Kitty!” They shout as they clamber all over the kitty car. The parents often shake their heads while they begrudgingly put a pound in which sets the ride off in a gentle rocking motion. The children hug the cat and steer enthusiastically with the fake steering wheel while prodding the various pretend buttons. The parents and I look on. It is as if we have been evicted from imagination land without warning or notice.

We had a shop at the end of my road. I can remember it being a plain old hardware shop in the early eighties. The man in their wore a long brown coat just like any Hardware shop owner worth his salt did in those days. Almost nothing in there was of any interest to a six-year-old. Everything was drab and functional. I would go in from time to time with my mum or my dad to get various bits and bobs. A couple of years passed and the shop closed. Maybe the old man retired or the emergence of DIY superstores finished his business off. Whatever, things were about to change in the small shop at the end of my road.

The new owner was a man called Rod. I can remember going in there when he first took over. Basically Rod had split the small shop in two. At the front was all the best-selling hardware stuff, pet foods and gardening equipment. Yawn. As we got closer to the counter my eight year old imagination went into overdrive. Wow. There were bags of brightly coloured powders, rows and rows of mysterious little packets, a cabinet with shiny mechanical things in, some glossy poles with small metal loops hanging from them and best of all, a big rack of stick like things of all shapes and sizes with iridescent tops. The little stick things all had names below them – Chubber, Zoomer, Wind Beater and Waggler (my favourite). For those not in the know a waggler is simply a straight piece of peacock quill or balsa wood or even clear plastic with the top painted a flourescent colour, usually orange. My eight year old eyes could look at all those floats for ages. Rod, rather ironically was a purveyor of fishing tackle.

I have three older brothers and also my parents were keen on canal boat holidays. Fishing opportunities were endless. I can remember getting ten pounds for my birthday and running down to Rod's shop to buy some kit before a two-week summer holiday afloat. Happy times. All too soon though my brothers went off to university. Couple this with the rise of the package holiday my fishing opportunities began to diminish. My Dad wasn’t really interested and none of my mates were either. In fact things were getting tough at school. Being bullied is no fun and has a strange effect in many ways. For example I ended up trying to be nice to people who were horrible to me and horrible to people who were trying to be nice. As a result my pool of friends wasn’t exactly overflowing anyway.

As time went on I began to become friends with the regulars in the shop. There was one man in particular though that seemed to be there more than most. He was a short man, maybe 5ft 8. He had a moustache and a motorbike and always seemed a bit scruffy. This may have been because he was either just going or just coming back from a muddy riverbank or lakeside. He had a nickname which he could never quite describe how he got. For the purposes of this story I shall use he real name – Simon.

Simon didn’t have a job. To all intents and purposes he was a full-time fisherman. This coupled with his lack of social etiquette didn’t endear him to many people. “He’s a parasite,” is how one man described him. It turns out Simon was mentally ill and as a result claimed disability benefit. A series of failed relationships and his reading of the Nostradamus predictions had left him with a poorly brain. He had previously been sectioned and resided for some time in a mental hospital. To the casual observer he was perfectly fit for work. In reality he wasn’t, not even close. Anyway we became friends. Unlike some of my peers at school he didn’t care what clothes I wore or how hard I was or if I had looked at him funny. We just talked fishing with mutual enthusiasm. When I was about thirteen or fourteen he came around my house. I needed to ask my mum if I could go fishing with this strange man. They met and he got my mum’s stringent approval. And so it was. We were fishing buddies.

I didn’t really catch a lot of fish till I started going fishing with Simon. He was an expert and taught me all sorts of knots and techniques and subtleties you just can’t learn from a book. We went down to the river, the canal or more often, to the local reservoir. It was like a little inclusive club up there and I soon became a regular guest. Most of my summer holidays would be spent at the reservoir and usually with Simon close by. We became firm friends and when I was old enough we would socialize together too.

Simon used to live in a block of flats with his girlfriend Mags. In a tragic twist of fate Mags was an alcoholic. Sometimes I would be welcomed into the flat, other times I could hear her going nuts and was told to ‘piss off’ by her. Simon used to joke about the meter reader getting more than he bargained for one day when he opened the cupboard door and it rained empty sherry bottles on him. They were always splitting up and getting back together. Simon would return to his elderly parents around the corner for a few days and then go back to endure some more drunken abuse. I think you call it a vicious cycle.

I was out with Simon once and we ended up trying our luck on a fairly remote section of our local river. We settled quite far apart and after a fruitless couple of hours I decided to see how he was faring further downstream. As I approached I could tell something was wrong. Simon was laying on the riverbank behind all his gear. He was struggling to breathe. “Help me, I’m dying!” Simon mumbled. Having never seen someone in such a state I panicked and sprinted back to my motorbike. I quickly rode to the nearest phone box and called one of my mates that had a car. Why I didn’t call an ambulance I don’t know. Probably because I couldn’t really describe where Simon was. Anyway my mate soon came and we rushed Simon to the nearest hospital. Have a guess what was wrong with him? That’s right. Nothing. It was my first experience of a panic attack.

I can remember the passing of Simons dad. He didn’t seem particularly upset. Simon was a great believer in the afterlife. He swore to me that the day after his dad passed he could smell flowers in the hallway, a sign from his dad that he was ok. While I didn’t believe a word of it I also didn’t find it weird. It was just Simon being himself. Of course the fishing was the main thing that binded us together and we went whenever we could. He was a great lover of our fishy friends but his regard for other wildlife wasn’t always so great. He was fishing once and a duck kept stealing his bait. After the usual techniques for getting rid of it were exhausted Simon deliberately caught it. He took the duck in his arms and removed the tiny hook from the corner of his beak. The duck was unharmed but in Simons’ eyes still a potential nuisance. He removed all his gear from his big fibreglass seatbox and replaced it with the duck. He dropped down the lid and sat back down to carry on fishing. “I could hear the duck bumping around,” he later told me. After ten minutes of solitary confinement in the dark he released his feathery prisoner. It didn’t bother him again.

When I was eighteen I swapped my motorbike for a car and we started going further afield. One particular place we went was very picturesque and well off the beaten track. What made it strange was a family the lived by the river that we were fishing. They lived in a makeshift teepee. I’m not making this up. A thirty something couple and their two children resided there. They also had a big cart horse that grazed in the small field. Simon used to take apples to feed it and it’s owners always gave us a cheery wave. They lived there for months before one day, they were gone. Simon and I used to love it down there. I’m very much hoping my friend and fellow blogger Rob will tell you a tale about Simon when he returned from one of his trips here.

Simon and Mags eventually split up for good and we started going out more. One particular night Simon and I along with our friend Ian were quietly playing pool in a town pub. It was a dangerous place but we were naive. It had doormen but they were just for show. Neither they or Ian or I could save Simon from the kicking he got for absolutely no reason what so ever. It could have been anyone and probably was every weekend in that place. It’s shut now. In yet another bitter twist the council housed Simon just up the road from this pub. He had to walk by it to go and see his mum. He refused and always went the long way around. The mental effects far outlasted the physical ones.

I wasn’t Simon’s only fishing buddy. Steve used to go fishing with him a lot too. They had drifted apart as Steve got older. “He got too competitive,” Simon would say. A similar thing happened with me. I can’t put my finger on one particular thing but we started going our separate ways. It was long after the pub incident and I can only put it down to the fact that Simon got enjoyment from teaching people. He had almost nothing in the world apart from his wonderful knowledge of how to catch fish. He was always helping people. I remember one lad he used to go fishing who had cancer. He had one of his legs amputated and Simon was with him all the way, taking him fishing and sitting behind him, coaching him. I’m hoping Rob can remember this lad.

In my early twenties I had little contact with Simon. I always took an interest in what he was catching though and would find out through the grapevine what he had been up to. He was still fishing avidly and had a new girlfriend. In the year 2000 I moved away. I hadn’t been here long when I got news that Simon had been taking ill again. He was back in a mental institution.

Summer 2012
I was back in town for a few days. When I used to go to the reservoir with Simon it cost just over two pounds to fish there. It cost me nearly nine pounds to go back. It was a glorious day and the venue was fairly busy. I parked up and had a quick scan around. The tower was always one of our favourite areas so I headed around there straight away. The banks were steeper than I remember but I got sort of half comfy and set up my gear. As I cast out and waited for my first bite a pair of ducks splashed about in the water tower and my mind began to wander. I was like this for most of the afternoon.

I had let Rob know that I was there via facebook and was rather hoping he would turn up. I had this really odd feeling of familiarity with the place but not the people there. I yearned to see a face from the glory days. I imagined Simon was fishing a few yards away. I could picture him hunched over his rod, ready to strike and moaning about me casting into his swim. Steve knew I was there too but I knew he wouldn’t show. I carried on, half fishing, half daydreaming. I stayed longer than I normally would have. Like not wanting to leave the warm confines of a quilt on cold morning. The place was comforting to me. So many memories.
After a few hours I packed up and trudged back to the car. The sun was lowering but it was a warm evening. I loaded up my gear and went to open my door. Something stopped me. I looked around and saw a bench by the lakeside just near the car park. I recognised it. I went over and read the plaque. It was placed by the lake in memory of one Andrew Bird. Simon used to take him fishing too. He died at just thirty years old. Cystic Fibrosis. I sat on the bench for a good quarter of an hour just taking in the atmosphere and it suddenly struck me. I’ll go and see Simon. It’s been too long I thought to myself and he wasn’t all that far away.

Woodhouse is a small village but I hadn’t been there for a long time. I’ll know it when I see though I thought. I drove into Woodhouse and nearly out the other side when I recognised the gates opposite the small stone church and parked my car up. The gates were substantial but opened easily. A line of trees bordered the lawned area. Big, imposing trees. Tall and elegant they were perfectly still in the still summer air. The sun rays were filtered by the thick vegetation and the whole area was lit with a hazy glow. I looked to my right and followed the path. I tracked close to the stone wall to an over grown area right in the top corner. It was darker here and I knew I was close.

I crouched down and read the inscription on the big granite headstone. SIMON HARVEY COOKE. This threw me. Was his middle name Harvey? I didn’t really know. Confused, my eyes followed the writing down. I read the rest of the inscription and still couldn’t be a hundred percent sure.
Then I saw it. Poking out of the grave vase. A clear plastic waggler with a bright orange top.
Simon Harvey Cooke died in July 2001. I miss him.

This was my twentieth blog entry and as such I wanted to do something special. I only started writing after reading other peoples blogs they advertised on facebook. Rob’s was one of them and he has very kindly added a few words to the story. Take it away Rob…

Like Phil my first sight of the legend that was Guff, calling his Simon is alien to me, would have been in Roddy’s, officially known as Soar Valley Tackle (the shop at the end of Phil’s road). Most people called it Roddy’s and to Guff Rod was the “fat balding maggot riddler.”. Guff had this way with words you see and loved to dish out nicknames. He fished I would say five days a week on average and would invariably be in the shop at least once a day, usually for quite some time, propping up the counter talking fishing and ripping the mickey out of anyone he could. I think Rod had a kind of resigned attitude to him, you see a lot of people didn’t like him, he didn’t work and was seen as sponging off those that did. His mental illness wasn’t generally apparent, without a doubt he came across as mad as a bag of snakes but in a daft way. The thing is that Guff actually had a heart of gold and would always help out anyone who came into the shop especially youngsters like the young lad with cancer that Phil mentioned. I would imagine that this was frowned upon and seen with suspicion by some parents but there was certainly nothing untoward going on and if Guff took someone “under his wing” as was his favourite expression they learnt a hell of  a lot, he really was an exceptional angler.

As a regular at the reservoir I encountered Guff very regularly, he fished up there quite a lot and sat talking a lot more. His angling was based on a match fishing kind of mentality adapted to suit and he used to knock out carp either float fishing sweetcorn down the edge or floater fishing using a Traverse X feeder rod while surrounded by the matching rod type carpers who couldn’t come close to his results. A few of us learnt from this and followed suit and to be honest I think I learnt more from him in a few years than I ever have from a single person since, I still use a link ledger rig that he showed me to this day.

Lingering was Guff’s speciality, you would see his blue Yamaha RD350 roll into the car park and round he would come, sitting down on his bike helmet and nattering away for hours, I can’t deny for too long at times. He had a terrible habit of eating your bait and thought nothing of grabbing a handful of whatever he could from the bait bucket. Hemp was a favourite and apparently tasted nutty. Tiger nuts, maple pea’s and chick pea’s were all scoffed down and sweetcorn had no chance. It got to the stage where we would hide our bait when we saw him coming as he would eat so much of it.

As a person he wasn’t what you would call tidy but as an angler he was meticulous, he had his rigs and methods absolutely right and remembered everything, he could reel off a list of what he, or anyone else for that matter, had caught years before. He detested liars in the sport and always said that you have to have a good memory to be a good liar and he was absolutely right, time and time again over the years I have seen people trip themselves up on that one. His dedication to angling was relentless, often he would be seen perched on his seatbox without an umbrella in the pouring rain snatching small roach on his beloved Sigma wand, in fact one day he was so engrossed in his fishing that his box gradually moved on the steeply sloped bank and tipped him into the reservoir!

Although he always had a go for bigger fish Guff’s background was pleasure fishing, though he always took it seriously, over time though he leant more towards the specimen side and a 2lb roach was always his dream. He had spent quite a bit of time fishing the River Wreake over the years and I knew that he thought he was close to reaching his goal. One dark autumn night I was alone on the reservoir sitting in my bivvy. I was set up out of sight of the water down a reverse slope and all of a sudden I started to hear shouting. Being alone and quite young I started to panic and couldn’t work out what was going on, the shouting got closer and as I poked my head up above the bank I could make out two figures approaching silhouetted against the skyline, oh dear this wasn’t looking good. Then I started to make out what the shouting was, “I’m pretty, I’m f’ing prettyyyyyy!” repeated over and over, and then I twigged that it was Guff. He was a big boxing fan and was mimicking Muhammad Ali! It turned out that he had achieved his goal and caught a 2 pounder. On the way home he made his mate Ian call in at the reservoir so that he could tell announce it to the heavens.

A five pound chub was another target on Guff’s wish list and he spent time chasing one on the Trent at Thrumpton, it seems an almost ridiculous target nowadays but back then they weren’t common. He discovered that steak was the killer bait and caught countless fish on it but not quite up to the mark. His plan came to an abrupt halt however when Mad Cow disease hit the news, he was terrified of catching the disease from the steak and stopped using it immediately. He did catch his target fish but I believe that it was on a piece of fish.

As I got a bit older I started to fish other waters and didn’t see so much of Guff, he still fished just as much but whenever I saw him he seemed to have more troubles. He complained of illnesses that somehow didn’t seem quite right to me but he thought they were serious and when Andy Bird died he found it very difficult. The two of them had fallen out after Guff said that Andy was selfish. Andy had lived with a death sentence since birth with his cystic fibrosis so I guess that a little selfishness was the least that he was entitled to but Guff found it difficult to comprehend.

The first five months of 2001 I spent abroad, I travelled from Australia into Indonesia, Singapore Malaysia and Thailand. England was a very distant place to me and didn’t occupy too much of my time. When I spoke to family back home I heard of the disaster that was foot and mouth disease and told that I had picked my time well as I wouldn’t have been able to fish. The countryside was a no-go area for months.
A couple of weeks after my return I learnt that Guff was gone, killed by an overdose alone in his flat some time while I was away. It wasn’t the first time that he had attempted to kill himself but I never saw him in a state where I thought it possible. A while later I was flicking through the local paper when something caught my eye, it was the inquest into Guff’s death. I started to read the report with some sadness and then came to a statement that his old mum Sybil had made, it was the Foot and Mouth disease that had killed her son because he couldn’t go fishing. What Mad Cow disease couldn’t do Foot and Mouth had, I couldn’t help but have a little smile at that, Guff would have appreciated the irony.

Last year a collection of classic old floats came my way, sticks by Pete Warren and John Allerton amongst them, I think Guff would appreciate one of those- they were always his favourites. I might even pop one next to that waggler the next time I find myself near Woodhouse.


  1. Well done both, great story. I grew up in a small village so had similar experiences with some great characters and could relate to alot of that.

  2. Characters make the world go round mate and I know of no pastime that attracts so many as does angling

  3. what a cracking read that is well done Rob, brings back a few memories as well... I always wondered what happened to Guff, now I know..

  4. Cheers Phil. He really was an exceptional angler wasn't he, if he hadn't of had his problems and was still here he would have had one hell of a list of fish under his belt I'm sure

  5. Your not wrong there Rob, I always remember him sat over that tip rod.. he really was a master of his craft.

  6. I remember watching him fish that Sigma wand up the ressy in the winter when the roach were small and he knew exactly how long it took for the rig to hit the bottom, any delay and he struck into a fish. He rarely used a swan shot on his link ledger rigs as he thought they made too much noise when they hit the water, quite often he used a string of bb's instead

  7. Hi Rob,Having been away from fishing for many years i am now back on the bank, not as often as i want but i'm here.Myself and an old friend was are out and about catching not vast amounts but nice and steady. It was great to find your blog, what a great read it brought back some fantastic memorys of our times up at the res, i remember having close on a hundred fish in a day!I racall Guff with a smile on my face he was a star, i had many laughs with him. Anyway enough rambling i sure we will see each other about and i look forward to it.Rich

  8. Hey up Rich good to hear from you, Gaz said you were back doing a bit. Drop me an email mate