3 OCTOBER 1992, Page 7


Aprofessional comedian would have been delighted to match the volume of merry mirth on both sides of the House during last week's emergency debate on the economy. John Smith managed to raise a general guffaw by the very mention of the pound sterling, value of. As a country we are in danger of falling into one of our peri- odic spasms of the giggles again, inspired by the example from the top. Mrs Thatch- er's greatest single contribution in the 1980s was that she convinced the British People that they need not be an interna- tional joke. In the 1960s and 1970s, the very mention of Great Britain, British trades unions, British industry, the British econo- my could reduce middle-class dinner par- ties to helpless mirth. In the early 1980s, there was a real recovery not only of self- respect, but also of a belief that Britain could still do many things well. Now, once again, all this is at risk. We ask each other what on earth this country manufactures that any other nation could possibly want to buy, except tickets for the National The- atre. We thank God fervently that some Japanese car manufacturers are good enough to employ us as metal-bashers for them. We now look forward to 1993 as aus- terity year, when Robert Maxwell rises from the dead to call upon us all to back Britain, and a clutch of Woking typists puts in an extra ten minutes for the national economy after a televised appeal by Mr Lamont, wearing a Union Jack waistcoat. Ho, ho. At present, this is not a govern- ment which could appeal to the British People to display some earnestness of pur- Pose without appearing satirical. The most urgent reason for Mr Major and his col- leagues to begin to look convincing is that, until they do so, there is not much chance of the country doing likewise.

Ihave spent the past few days fishing in Sutherland, my favourite corner of the British Isles, where mercifully the Govern- ment's embarrassments have not troubled the salmon, and I could not hear Mr Lam- ont singing in his bath. Lots of busy and clever men tell me that they have never fished because they do not have the patience. Patience is unlikely to be among the virtues any friend would ascribe to me. I simply find fishing the most exciting occu- pation on earth. Having once experienced the thrill of catching a salmon, even after eight hours' casting across a dead stream, I can convince myself that the next time my fly crosses the water, a fish will take it. To every fisherman, the very names of a river's Pools have an irresistible magic. Try these, from the Naver: Dal Mallart, Dal Harrald, the Round Pool, Cruives Flats, the Stables, the Potato Park, Jessons. Not convinced?

Sometimes in winter, gazing out on the sweeping panorama of the Isle of Dogs, I keep my sanity by thinking about the whirls and eddies in each of them.

Nothing is impossible on the river bank. I was fishing the Helmsdale in August when my fly caught in heather on the far side. Pulling it free, the cast slashed back towards me, and dropped in the midst of the current. I lifted the rod to cast again, and irritably discovered that I was snagged on a rock. Then the rock started to swim away from me and, ten minutes later, a dis- believing ghillie netted the fish for me. Even absolute duffers can hook salmon. But I enjoy fishing most when I am alone. Last Friday evening, in the failing light, I found myself playing a 15-pound fish which did everything every salmon is supposed to do. It leapt, and ran, and twice tore off the line down to the backing. After ten min- utes, I glimpsed in the distance another fisher driving home. I prayed that he would not see me and stop to help with the net because I wanted to see out the battle on my own. He drove on and, after another ten minutes, all the more nervous because I

knew I had a wind knot in my cast, I had the fish on the bank. Pure bliss. I also lost a few fish last week. But I remembered Jock Bruce-Gardyne's wonderfully courageous and witty Spectator piece a month before he died, when he reflected that heaven might turn out to be hell if you catch them all the time.

Fashions in middle-class conversation tend to change reasonably swiftly (except in country houses that practise field sports during the winter months). But we have now had two years of talking about Lloyd's losses over the dinner table, and there is not the smallest sign of an armistice. I never joined Lloyd's. First, because I did not think I was rich enough; but second, because I was at Charterhouse, a very City- orientated school, which dispatched much of its output to Lloyd's and the Stock Exchange. I could not help noticing that it was the ones the army turned down flat, who in an earlier age would have been packed off to the colonies with a grave fatherly assurance that it was not too late to achieve redemption, who left school to become professional insurance underwrit- ers. I could not readily believe that, some- where between Godalming and Cannon Street station, they all disappeared into telephone boxes and emerged as financial supermen. Well, anyway, whenever life has looked a little glum in the last year or two, I have been able to console myself with the reflection that I am not a member of Lloyd's. Conversation on this issue has at least done a sharp about-turn. Once upon a time smug, fat men sidled up to one at shoots and smirked horribly: 'Just got the Lloyd's cheque. Very nice number — pays for the wife to go off to Portugal with her boyfriend, settles the school fees and takes care of the cartridges. You really ought to think about it.' Now, of course, a frightful inverted snobbery has taken over, whereby everybody boasts about the size of his loss- es. Wives' boyfriends presumably have to settle for Bournemouth. Insiders are all saying knowingly that this is the right time to join. But from my ignorant viewpoint I fancy the game is up. Institutions are about confidence. I cannot believe Lloyd's will ever again enjoy the confidence of the upper-middle classes. As our City Editor remarked succinctly, 'What we have been dealing with here is a unique combination of greed, criminality and incompetence.' Perhaps the middle noun has now been eradicated; perhaps the first and third have been moderated. But, after a generation in which large numbers of otherwise sensible people have staked their all on the belief that Santa Claus exists, I doubt whether those salad days will ever come again.