All we had become, all that we had aspired to, and achieved. Then won and lost; all gone, drifted into memory. Just like the Great in Britain, lost in that moment in the referendum where we put ourselves before the beautiful greatness of helping the Europe that needed us, again, the others who needed us – which, finally, is the only thing that ever made my country great. Now it is something different, something in a brave new world that I barely recognise. But this: upper Tees.
And it has to change. Or, at least, if I am to be a part of it, then it has to change. English fly fishing, out there in the competitive arena. Well, a nonsense. Yes, a nonsense, a travesty of what it should be. Could be. Was once, for some brief, treasured moments. I remember. All of it, all the euphoria, the sharing of such moments. You would love it. You would, you know, and you could be a part of it, because we could have it back, again, even though now it seems so far away, so high up – here, on the Vah.
Honestly, really, honestly, what is it now? Is it the time of Skues and Sawyer? Oh, definitive, paradigm shifting, but today; come on. Is it the showmanship of Oliver Kite or Arthur Cove and those thrilling times? Lovely, shining memories, but not even close. Is it what the truly competitive, English greats like Leadbetter and Ogborne offered us? Well, a bit closer, but still so far away from what it can be. I know, because I touched it. Really touched it, and grasped it as one of the foundation stones of my life.
Here is the bottom line. The question: is it about those Facebook photos, those grip and grin pics that show the world of ‘friends’ just what a fishing genius I am with my conquest – all those beautiful inches – because I’m better than you? Well, is it? Not necessarily a rhetorical question, because for many of you it might just be so. Or, perhaps it is more to do with this special place I once found, where a group of fly-fishers achieve something that is utterly beyond what you thought possible. My team-mate, John Pawson, once said to me, on the cusp of my first World championships – ‘You are part of something that those back home cannot possibly understand. We have a special bond, here, that will never, ever be broken.’ He was right, you know. We went on from there to win the Worlds, in Canada, far from home. I was the highest placed England rod too, the individual bronze – because my team-mates had put me there. I could not possibly have done it without their input, without them, the men, my friends. I was the one with the luck, with the lucky draw, and whatever skills I had in the moment, were honed only by their enrichment. We won the World Championships, because we were a team. Just that. And then, upper Ternoise, northern France.
And what have we now? I scarcely waste the effort to go there. I am embarrassed by recent England fly-fishing team performances, at every level, every discipline, across the gamut. The individual has come before the team and it is there, right there, that the plot was lost. You see, I don’t care about how wonderful you are as a fly-fisher, not, anyway, unless you can give me something, give my wonderful sport something that takes it to the next level. Can you make me smile? Honestly? Because – there are thousands who can do what you and I can do, given the circumstance. What I want is what you can give beyond all that. You see, we have fly-fishers up there with the best in the world, up with the French, Czech, Polish, Spanish… We do. I mean, look at Iain Barr’s smile at the Worlds in Scotland, not so long ago. L’Ecosse, far enough from home, on wild waters, to really count for something. Believe me, this was a great, great performance, by the team that supported Barney to achieve this result, for us. Something to celebrate. I was here, then, in that moment: les Sept Vallées, northern France. I wish I had been with my friend, as we were together the year before, in Norway, and won the silver medal together.
I watch the French, and others, in admiration, mostly… I watch them form a team, make a team, and sometimes it takes my breath away. Sometimes, I can only admire, and then, I wish – so wish – that we all remembered how it was in England. I want that again. Eden, and our few remaining wild rivers, of consequence, are not enough.
I was recently honoured to become the new England rivers team manager. In fact, I see this as being to date simultaneously the single-most overwhelming honour and challenge that I have experienced in my sport. I have been given this chance, this moment, to make the change, to recapture what we lost, years ago. I don’t know how long the moment will last, and if I will really be given enough chance, by you, to take this journey back to the top. Back to where we have something to say. A special place, in this sport that has defined my life. I was here once, with my friends, including someone who could be a world champion, another English world champion. Perhaps. Vah tributary, Slovakia. As Lawrence (of Arabia) said: ‘It is only a matter of going.’ Allons-y.