Dear Bill - A letter to an angling agony aunt
Cliff Hatton gets put on hold
Whoever would have thought an angling magazine might one day see a need for a feature like ‘Get it off your Chest’? My problem isn’t one of a peculiarly ‘fishy’ nature and I don’t really see how you can help - other than to let me, well, get it off my chest.
Over the past eight or nine years I have grown accustomed to spending at least one day of the winter week-ends fishing somewhere in the wilds of West Norfolk. In that time I’ve learned a great deal, not just about the angling opportunities, but also of the vibrant Fenland folk; the joy of infinite flatness; sugar-beet harvesting, and the fascinating design of the drains-system. Countless windy days on the grey-chiselled Relief Channel and its tributaries, and endless evenings of warm reflection in the inns of East Anglia have pleasingly conspired to bless me with a sense of belonging in this strangely attractive region. Understandably then, I had become a little anxious that one particular trip which friend, Mike, and I had planned a couple of months before would not be possible: the prospect of skidding through four frozen counties to find the fens solidified was daunting, to say the least.
Gazing out at the kids in the street that afternoon back in early December, the ‘obvious’ hit me as surely as one of their snowballs: why not give the Anglian Water Authority a ring? If anybody knew about water conditions they did! I phoned the AWA Headquarters in Chelmsford and was connected by the switchboard lady with “somebody who might know”. It transpired following a four minute wait that “somebody” didn’t know but she was helpful enough to suggest I “try their man in March”. Perhaps I should explain, Bill, that the telephonist wasn’t suggesting I get back in early Spring: March is a town in Cambridgeshire. Well to be quite honest I wasn’t expecting a detailed weather report from Chelmsford, that town lying considerably closer to the equator than Norfolk, so it was with a merry heart that I slumped into the settee, tapped-out the recommended number and made myself known to Melanie at the Middle Level Commissioners.
‘Good afternoo-oon!’ she piped, ‘Can I help you? Mel spee-king!’
‘Yes, thank you. I’d like to know if the drains-system around the Welney area is affected by ice at the moment’
‘One moment, Sir, I’ll put you throo-oogh’. Her tone was uplifting, Bill, and at that moment I felt confident of having my answer in the bag, but after ten minutes of the 1812 Overture on xylophone, I began to wonder if this had been such a good idea. But then I was back in business!
‘Good afternoon. You are speaking with Trevor Marsh, Assistant Deputy Under-Manager. How may I help you?” I recalled my question and put it word-perfectly to Mr. Marsh, mid-thirties I fancied, still at home, very probably into Hornby Double O.
‘I am most sorry, Sir. I am unable to answer your question. Welney is, in fact, outside of our jurisdiction. I shall furnish you with the number of the office you require. It is Ely…’
Beware the idlers of March, Bill!
I scribbled the number in red biro on the card I’d bought that morning for my daughter’s birthday. Realising my blunder, I blurted the B-word and then phoned the good people in the Ely office from where, with a stiff back wind, a typist of the slimmest build could spit and almost hit Welney post-office. They could answer me surely. With growing unease, and with reckless disregard for the peak phoning rate, I listened to a distant hand-set endlessly warbling and breaking off now and then to snatch a breather. I pondered that B-word: how telling it was that so many people spell it ‘ox’; and is it just me, or does everybody have their life put on hold while the woman in front pays for her shopping with old scrunched-up coupons, settles the weekly paper-bill then spends an eternity selecting six different varieties of scratch-card? Is it just me?
Suddenly, I was through and eager to talk. ‘Good afternoon! I’ve been referred to you by the Middle Level Commissioner’s office in March and they assure me you’re able to give a report on water conditions in the Welney area’
‘One moment, Sir, I’ll transfer you…’ What a waste of a well-constructed, clearly delivered question, Bill! Anyway, I waited, concluding as I traced the pattern of our crazy yellow wallpaper that ‘ocks’ really was the correct way of ending the B-word: that was proper English.
A voice. One of plain-shirted management. Thirty years service at least and intolerant of fools. ‘Ely Pumping Station. Reed here, how can I help?’
What a difference a “you” would have made, Bill: he sounded really put out. I replied in similar spirit, tired of the same old patter in any case. ‘Is the River Delph liquid at this time, Mr. Rush?’ Silence.
‘Hello?’ I ventured ‘Are you still there?’
‘Yes, but the name’s Reed, and I don’t understand your question; perhaps you could re-phrase it’. He understood alright and I swear I heard his lip curl, but I obliged him, conscious of my sarcasm.
‘Could you tell me if the drains-system around the Welney area is free of ice at the moment? Reed couldn’t say yea or nay, though ironically and, perhaps appropriately, he lived alongside a main drain and hadn’t noticed its condition that morning and wasn’t that funny? Apparently, the people I should have contacted in the very first place were in Norwich! Bill, I feel sure you will know of worse cases than mine, but this really was driving me up the wall; I was beginning to feel like a tele-sales operator with an impossible target. Anyway, not at all confident - because Norwich is miles to the east - I dabbed their number, posed my question and was told, unsurprisingly, that they only covered the Broads area. I suspected Reed of a stitch-up.
‘Surely’ emphasized a Margaret Thatcher sound-alike, ‘Surely you should be talking to someone in the Fens area if your enquiry concerns the River Delph? Kings Lynn will help you, I’m sure’. Yep, he’d stitched me up. The Iron Lady gave me a number which I added to the scrawl already defacing my beautiful Joanna’s birthday card, now reading “Congratulations! Now you’re 803179!” I really couldn’t believe my ears, Bill, and I began to gnaw my nails and to want a wee.
Catching sight of the wife’s ciggies, I pounced and snatched them from the coffee table. I lit one, undoing all the good work of six months abstention, but I couldn’t lose momentum now. I thought of England, and that if the Delph hadn’t been frozen at the time I began my phone-in, it certainly would be by this time. Hand-set on lap, I keyed-in something akin to the opening of Carmen then fish-flipped deeper into the dralon for the response…how strange, I mused, that a ‘Reed’ had passed me to a ‘Thatcher’.
‘You are through to the Anglian Water Authority Regional Headquarters, Kings Lynn. If you require information regarding blocked toilets, press 1; if you require…’ You know the score, Bill. I eventually got around to jabbing 9 for “anything else” and used the ensuing pause to light another fag.
‘AWA! How can I help you?’ This one just had to be a Debbie so my reply was to the point. ‘Is the River Delph frozen-over, please?’
‘One mo-ment’ she sang, and we continued in unison: ‘I’ll put you throo-oogh!’
A man in an ivory tower picked up his phone.
‘There’s a Mr. Gordon Bennett would like to speak to you, Sir’ informed Debbie seriously. I got in quick.
‘Sir, since lunchtime I’ve asked half the population of Cambridge and Norfolk about the condition of the River Delph; y’know, snow and ice and all that? Do you know? Can you help me?’
His tone was expressionless and even, like one about to knock a golf ball into a paper cup, or having his temples massaged by the P.A. ‘Nnn-o. Can’t help you with that one, ol’ boy’ He perked–up a bit then. ‘However, I believe there’s a chappy does something or other on the sluice-gate at Salters Lode. I’ll get someone to give you his number’.
So! The Anglian Water Authority, proud possessors of a thousand Land Rovers, as many offices and at least three quarters of a million workers was knackered without the aid of an isolated old carrot-cruncher in the middle of nowhere! It sounded promising though. Like a virtuoso, I tapped-in the number expecting a heavy Norfolk brogue to come down the line. Bill, I was close to the end, but that phone just rang and rang and rang. Then suddenly there was a click and I found myself listening to a gale-force wind howling down a distant mouth-piece. Nobody spoke, but I sensed a presence. I saw a face like an unshaved potato and I shouted at it.
‘Good afternoon, Sir! Please. Are you able to tell me the condition of the River Delph at the moment? Please!’
The reply was simple. ‘Yes, Sirr, oi certainly am’. I waited for his verdict but heard only the gusting wind and the plaintive mew of lapwings.
‘Well wossit like then!’ I screamed. ‘Is it wet? Flowing? Ripples an’ all that?’
‘Oim afraid nut, Sir’, he concluded, ‘It’s sullid focken oice!’
As I initially implied, Bill, such trials are probably universal, but it’s good to know someone is listening to us anglers. Perhaps we can talk at some time; what’s the best number to get you on?
Adapted from ‘The Weather Forecast’ originally published in David Hall’s Coarse Fisherman.
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