The Rules of Disengagement

The year 2020 was one that many will remember with little fondness but, for me at least, it wasn’t all bad. I had some great fishing experiences in the more relaxed times, learnt a lot about photography and (with a little help from Mrs Conway) created a new life that is nearing the end of its baking time as I publish this. 

Pandemic notwithstanding, I think the thing that I’ll remember the year 2020 for most was the spectacle of the country repeatedly going batshit insane over multiple issues. The coronavirus situation trumped everything of course, but Brexit, Black Lives Matter and the American election were also massive triggers. Probably as a result of all the time people had to think, many worked themselves up to unprecedented heights of self righteousness, becoming social media tyrants and raining down firestorms of hate on anybody who dared perceive anything even a little differently from them. It appeared that during the first lockdown, in the absence of things like sport and celebrity bullshit, a good proportion of the people of Great Britain learnt that remotely judging each other was just as entertaining.

This phenomenon just reinforced the fact that we need distractions to function well. The Romans understood this, giving the public ‘bread and circuses’ to keep them amused. Thousands of years later, our culture does the same only we call it ‘Dominos and UFC’. Distractions keep us from thinking too much about whether our lives are entirely meaningful and fulfilling. As generations who grew up being told that we could be whatever we wanted if we worked hard enough and probably didn’t become those things no matter how hard we tried, we’re likely not going to be that satisfied with where we’ve ended up. And dwelling too much on this disillusionment is likely to make us less productive in the jobs we go to but don’t particularly like.

Some years back, I worked with a guy who was a recovering alcoholic. He was clearly a very intelligent man, although he had a pretty cynical view of the world. One particularly slow day, he lent me a book on propaganda to have a look at. It made for grim reading. I still remember my shock at the author frequently referring to the general public as ‘the bewildered herd’: basically a mass of credulous, confused halfwits. Something to be manipulated and misled. Something to selectively feed information so that they think what you want them to think, behave how you want them to behave and buy what you want them to buy. My horror stemmed from the fact that I realised for the first time that this is how the people that run our nation think of us and this is how things actually work. 

Every day, people like you and I are bombarded with lies by people that tell us to trust them: media, advertisers, politicians, celebrities, teachers, managers; even our own friends, partners, parents and children. Yet, the society and culture I am part of supposedly places great value on principles like truth and fairness. This is massively confusing. In a world where lies and hypocrisy are the norm, how am I supposed to know what reality is? Does it really matter if something actually happened or is it more important that enough people believe that it did? These are depressing ideas and if I didn’t have something in my life to take my mind off them then I might be driven to gibbering despair. That’s where fishing comes in.

As time goes on my vision of what I want from my fishing gets clearer and clearer: I want it to be the antidote to the soul-corroding effects of the ‘real world’. There are no worries about truth and hidden motives in my fishing: the experiences are real and mine to interpret. Whereas the real world is littered with empty promises and propositions, fishing promises nothing but the chance to try my hand with very little to lose. If I want, I can shut out the real world when I’m fishing. I can’t be reached or advertised to. In the absence of a shared reality that lives up to its own values, I can create my own that does. The only lies and hypocrisy going on are when I kid myself that I’m not bothered that I missed that last bite. 

So fishing has long been a kind of therapeutic experience for me. Lucky me, yeah? Maybe it isn’t for you. I know plenty of anglers who regularly express frustration at what they perceive as their failure to catch what they want (or the failure of the ocean to just give it to them). I have a really simple solution for this: if catching a fish is really all that you care about, just get a net. It’s much easier. The pleasure in angling is using a sub-optimally effective technique to catch an organism that may or may not choose to eat or be aggressive. If you don’t enjoy the angling and just want the organism – get a net.

As well as only caring about catching, another thing I have little time for is competitive angling and I struggle to understand why others go down that road. For me, competition is a real world thing. Men don’t have to down a mammoth and present it to the hairiest girl in the cave to get her to bang them and not Ogg any more, although the instinct that drove that behaviour is still present. Why on earth would you apply that instinct to fishing though? I’m not an expert on how and why females choose partners but I’m sure it has nothing to do with how many little cups potential mates have for ‘best flatfish’ on their mantlepiece. 

What’s more, with that competition comes a whole heap of negativity to deal with. Rivalry brings out the worst in some anglers, giving them cause to lie, cheat and stab each other in the back. This isn’t fishing’s fault. It has nothing to do with fishing and everything to do with people. Fishing itself is a beautiful thing, it’s only anglers that bring ugliness into it. To me, it’s mystifying why anybody would want this kind of behaviour to be part of something they do for recreation. You can scratch these itches in the real world. You can do it at work and get paid for it. Maybe even promoted.

What I’d like to put to you is simple: if you want to enjoy your angling more, stop thinking about what other people are doing and ask yourself, what do you actually want to experience and what do you want to gain from it? Put your wants at the centre of your fishing life and tune out the overwhelming racket of the real world. As a sea angler, you are truly free to fish how you want for whatever you want and it doesn’t even have to matter if you catch it or not. If you do get a good fish, let yourself be the judge of whether it’s meaningful, not some percentage chart. If you blank but still enjoy yourself, don’t be afraid to say so.

I come home from my fishing sessions recharged and feeling infinitely more able to deal with whatever or whoever decides to shit on me in my everyday life. At the risk of sounding like one of those irritating people who has just found God or vegetarianism and wants everyone else to do the same, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to miss out on that value in their angling. After all, life is fleeting and you’re a long time dead. You might as well enjoy the things you do for enjoyment while you’re fortunate enough to still be on this planet.