Great Expectations by Michael Crompton
As was usual in my early career I was a’ fishing alone with my two companions, anticipation and expectation. Perhaps sometime during the morning the third member, excitement, just might put in an appearance. But as the following will show the events of the day will follow me around for decades. They will haunt my memories, question my beliefs and combine in the slow development of the “noble art of the piscator”. So, let the journey unfold and may my fellow travellers who accompany me feel that the journey has been worthwhile.
The low cloud and the mist combined into a velvet cloak of fine drizzle made for a very damp and uncomfortable start to my fishing day. Visibility was poor and with little wind to move the weather system I was still hopeful and expecting some success. As I walked through the dark, dripping wood and on to and along the dam wall a slalom course had been set by the bedraggled “woolly backs” as they lay seemingly immobile as if transfixed to their own parcel of dry ground. Winding my way through the rounded sheep mounds I came to the inlet of the reservoir where I had decided to fish. Both my basket and holdall were wet, I was wet and the whole damn place was swathed within a wilderness of wet. Crossing the stream, I assembled my rod at a favourite swim and noted that the far bank was barely discernible. I could not make out the difference between the horizon of the high ground and the sky. This was a grey misty heavy watery landscape. Seeking shelter beneath my dripping umbrella I tried to concentrate on the red tipped quill float. I was used to fishing alone and with my angling adventures only just beginning I was determined to stick it out despite the atrocious conditions.
I soon became aware of the sound of coughing, a deep throated and persistent rasping cough which seemed to come from the top of the far bank. Could this really be a person or was it the guttural tones of a sheep who had succumbed to the cold and the damp? At one point I did think it was the sound of a car’s engine being brought to life with a starting handle, after all this was the 1950’s! The sound was most disturbing and continued for some time until the cloak of mist partially separated and atop the far bank was a rounded shape. Not a sheep but a man crouched, low on his haunches and close to the ground with his head in his hands and the fearful cough emanating from deep within.
This was someone I had not seen before. Why was he out in this weather when his condition surely suggested he should be at home? As the mist became further diluted his features became clearer. Here was a large powerfully built man, thick-set with a closely shaven head on broad shoulders, but huddled up and obviously in some distress. He squatted on his haunches his head bent in his hands as in prayer. After another bout of coughing he looked up across at me and waved. Unsure if I had seen him, I replied in a similar manner. Still no movement from my float, a change of bait and moving my bottom shot away from the hook to allow a slower descent I hoped for a reaction. After another fitful round of consumptive coughing, the man slowly rose and with a parting wave walked over the top of the high bank and disappeared from sight.
The session continued slowly with only a few small brightly striped Perch and a single Roach to show for my discomfort. Anticipation and expectation had long disappeared and excitement failed to appear and I packed and walked over the bank and retraced my footsteps across and around the obstacles on the dam wall. This encounter although brief occupied my thoughts for some time as I made my way home. With so many unanswered questions whirling around in my mind, I vowed to return to this venue and hopefully to learn more. After a couple of visits when he failed to materialise, I began to think I would never see him again. However, the next time I was late in setting off from home and arrived on the dam wall to see, on top of the bank, his distinctive rounded posture. He was here and I had to pass directly in front of his crouching body. As I approached, the coughing returned and the closer I found myself the more I could hear the gasping, clawing for his search for breath.
“Hello, I thought you might be fishing today.” He spoke slowly in a low voice because of his constant struggles for breath.
My reply was slow in coming for I was transfixed by his appearance. His pallor was washed-out, pale and pallid, his skin was smooth although it was clear he had numerous scars around his eyes and cheeks and his closely cropped hair revealed further mended wounds on his skull. His hands were large yet uncommonly soft looking, not what I expected from a person who looked ideally built for heavy manual work. I could see from the tell tail wisp of blue smoke that he was trying to conceal a cigarette in his partially closed hand. On seeing me observe the curling smoke he commented.
“I have been told I must stop smoking but after so long I cannot. Maybe it will not make much difference?”
All these outward signs gave me the impression of an institutionalised prisoner or at least a successful pugilist who was now past his best.
We talked for a few minutes mainly about being free, in the open air where his breathing was easier. He became quite animated and excited when a swallow flew low across and in front of us.
“There, he is alive and free, not caged or trapped but able to do as he wished, to fly and to soar and to go wherever and whenever, by himself or with others.” Turning to me he said how fortunate I was to be able to wander, to go fishing and to see and observe the natural world.
“You see where I have been for very many years, I could not make a decision, I had to do as I was told, and when, and I saw very little of the sky and the changing weather. I was alone for much of the time and longed to be outside to feel the wind and rain on my face, to walk, to roam and to be, to see and to do things. They have now given me back my freedom. I must enjoy what time I have left.”
“Have you heard of “Strangeways”?”
My heart sank as my brain was jolted. I knew that I was in the company of an “Abel Magwitch” for “Strangeways” was the feared and uncompromising prison in Manchester. My mind flashed to the type of crime he committed, the length of his sentence and why he was released. Had he completed his sentence or had his deteriorating health played a factor?
During this period of my teenage years, my parents used to take me to the pictures every Saturday night in the local cinema, the “Picturedrome” in Water Street. This cinema had a dubious reputation as a “flea pit” and where a polite request for “two tickets and a mallet” resulted in my immediate expulsion to the street outside. Having seen that fine David Lean (1946) black and white film, “Great Expectations” with the opening scenes of the escaped convict, Abel Magwitch, I felt a chill and a sharp clarity entered my mind. For crouched before me was the morose character who was the spitting image of actor Finlay Currie alias Abel.
“You best be getting across the stream and start fishing,” and with that I was somewhat relieved to hasten away. As the time went by, he rose to his full height and walked slowly across the dam wall. I could hear his breathing and the occasional cough, and then he returned to squat in his usual position.
The vibration emanating from and through my rod jolted me from my thoughts and on picking up the rod realised I had hooked a good fish. Being busy playing and finally netting the fish, a nice Trench, verdant green and with a red-eye, I did not see the arrival of “Abel” to my side. Being a member of the Angling Times Kingfisher Guild I always carried a specimen form just in case I succeeded in qualifying for a treasured certificate. This was an ambition to get the Bernard Venables designed black and white certificate signed by angling’s great and good. Having checked the minimum weight for Tench caught in the northern regions I had to weigh the fish, fill in the form and have it signed by a witness.
The weighing went well with the Tench simply resting in the net. “Abel” asked if he could release the fish and it was at this juncture that another side of his character emerged. He wet his huge hands and gently lifted the fish from the folds of the net and slowly lowered it into the shallows. With open hands the fish remained relaxed and did not appear overly concerned. Slowly its gills began to move and eventually it swam off into deeper water. I looked at “Abel’s” face and thought I detected a tear, there was certainly a tearful expression.
“That was something very special for me, thank you. I have seen nature and felt a living fish which I released, I gave it its freedom to go and swim wherever it pleases. It is no longer trapped, caged and confined and you allowed me to play a part.”
With the weight of the net taken from the whole, the Tench did meet the necessary requirements for me to submit the form for a certificate. “Abel” as my witness signed his name. It was Franklin D Jones and now I had a name to the face.
During the remainder of the summer, I saw him quite often and we talked. Invariably he would observe the wildlife, especially the Swallows, the screaming Swifts and the busy Sparrows and all the other free-flying birds. He was emotional when commenting on the space and time they could enjoy, their freedoms and vitality for life. His breathing and his coughing gradually became more difficult and unpleasant for me to witness. After one particular bout his face became ruddy and the veins on his forehead bulged a dark red. I thought he might pass out. What would I be able to do? Gradually he revived and recovered somewhat and just sat on the ground for a while.
Autumn was now approaching and the departing Swallows darkened his mood, he became morose and quiet. By now he sat closer to me and watched with great interest my antics with rod and line. I think it was in early October that whilst I was bringing into the hand a small roach that a pike swirled from beneath my feet in an attempt to secure an easy lunch. The pike shot off into the deeper water and as my reel screamed and the rod bent Franklin came to my side and took hold of the landing net.
“You’ll need a hand with that.”
But the pike had other ideas and after a further strong run for freedom seemed just to release the roach and was gone. The small roach was still lip hooked when I reeled in but was clearly dead.
“We didn’t really see the fish and now it is off to swim forever.”
“Not necessarily.” I said.
Setting up a stronger rod and using a single treble hook to twisted wire I lip hooked the dead roach intending to fish sink and draw. No sooner had I cast it out that it was taken by a seemingly even larger pike which retreated into the depths. It did feel that it was well hooked and I began to play it, letting it take line and run and then gradually retrieving line. It was late in the day and light was failing and by now I was tiring. Run after run occurred, many minutes passed and the fish was still very strong and not tiring. Franklin was by now at my side, brandishing the net, watching my every move and totally engrossed in the unfolding situation.
“If only we could see it, to look at its size and if possible, to hold it in the water for a moment before giving it back it’s freedom.”
Light, by now, was almost gone when I finally managed to bring it to the surface. Even in the fading light, we could see it was huge, of unknown weight and proportions and my net was utterly useless. The bank was too steep, the water too deep to beach it and there it lay on the top of the water. As I brought it closer to the side, I noticed that it was lightly hooked on the side of its jaw. Franklin reached far out and touched the great fish whereupon it shook its head and the hook fell out. From laying on its side, it slowly came upright and stayed there for us to take in its full majesty. Even in what was the last of the fast-fading light we realised here was a magnificent creature who was in the prime of life. It was now free to go, to follow its own path through life. I cannot recall how long it stayed there but we both drank heavily of the experience before with a powerful flick of the tail it disappeared from view.
I turned to Franklin, who by now was on the point of shedding a tear. He spoke of how disappointed I must be not to hold such a creature. Part of me was and part of me was not. Since then I have not caught or even seen a larger or a healthier-looking Pike.
“We saw that fish; it must have been wanting to show itself or it would have gone as soon as it was free. I am pleased that we both saw it and given it its freedom. That is all we can ask, to let it go and live, to be free and to follow in life’s current.”
Having shared another experience, I packed up and together we walked along the bank, across the stream and up the track to the top of the rise. By now Franklin’s breathing was laboured, he was struggling with every footstep. At the top I turned to the left and the path home through the wood, he turned right to make his way home. We parted and I felt that this might be the last time we would meet.
As the autumnal colours gave way to the winter greys and whites and with the passing of weeks and months my angling sessions became less frequent. The next season I still hoped that I would meet up with the gentle giant that was Franklin. But I never saw him again. How I wished I had been bold enough to ask those awkward questions. I presume that the reason for his release from “Strangeways” was that he was very ill and did not have much time left. Perhaps the inclement winter weather finally took its toll and maybe he passed away. Perhaps he recovered sufficiently to start his life again in a different location. For me the angling bug had taken over and I still go a’angling but I will never forget those few joint memories and experiences which took place during one summer over fifty years ago.
The collective memories from one summer over fifty years ago helped to develop my angling philosophy. I learnt much from Franklin especially his views about freedom. “Freedom” is glorious, it is the ability to follow a journey through life at a speed that an individual may choose. To make decisions and to take responsibility, to seek and to aim high but above all to express oneself in any chosen activity. Angling, for me, is so much more than simply the catching of a fish. It is way of life, observing the landscape and the environment, the changing seasons and the annual return of migrating birds. It is the immediate careful release of a caught fish, no keepnets. Look at it closely, handle it with care and allow for recovery before the release. For this I thank Franklin D Jones alias “Abel Magwitch”.