Cable & Wireless's chairman Lord Young finds fishing is the perfect recreation - even if he doesn't catch anything. Author and angler Chapman Pincher joins him on the riverbank.
In sport, as in business, there are passive watchers and active doers. Lord Young of Graffham, executive chairman of Cable & Wireless, has been a life-long doer, so I was not surprised to learn that he was an angler. Our rods, however, had never crossed before he came to fish with me on a prime stretch of the River Kennet, near Hungerford. 'I have so little interest in being a spectator that I haven't read the sports pages of any newspaper for 40 years,' he told me as he tackled up.
I had read that his pet hate is people who do not tell him the bad news so, as I took him to a promising stream, I reminded him that it was the penultimate week of the trout season and that the big fish we could see making bow-waves were more interested in sex than in feeding. Nevertheless, that day, the surroundings could hardly have been more idyllic. The sun was warm, the trees autumnal, wild geese, ducks and even the odd cormorant were flying, and the trout were reasonably obliging.
One learns more about a person's true character in a day on a river than in a score of social contacts - whether he is greedy, envious when someone catches a bigger fish, irritable when the line is caught in a bush, or curses his bad luck which is usually his own fault. There were no expletives from Lord Young when a good brown trout broke his cast and he was the picture of patience when, through lack of practice, he had casting problems. Even when my wife caught a fine, five pound rainbow trout exactly where he had been fishing, a few minutes before, he was highly amused.
I also noticed that he was a kind man. While playing a trout and wishing to oblige the photographer, he had to wait a few seconds for the sun to emerge, so he audibly apologised to the fish for unduly stressing it and then returned it unharmed. When, under the rules of the fishing beat, he had to retain a larger fish, he showed no satisfaction in giving it the coup de grace. 'I built a lake at my country place at Graffham, in West Sussex, and stocked it with rainbow trout, but I don't like catching them because I've grown fond of them,' he explained. 'I have never fancied shooting because I don't think that I could face up to killing a bird.' Unlike my background as a country boy, which meant that fishing and shooting were inevitable, Young's was urban, beginning in London's East End. So how did he start to fish? 'A friend took me to fish a lake, about 20 years ago, and I was hooked. Now, I much prefer rivers. For some reason, running water is soothing and generates a sense of peace. Fishing takes you to secret places and the whole ambience unwinds me, which is not only good for me but for everyone around me.' Over lunch, I asked Lord Young about his golfing days when, for 20 years, he had a handicap of one or two, suggesting the co-ordination of hand and eye also needed for accurate fly casting. 'I felt tension when I was playing golf which I never do when I'm fishing. It's the last thing I need, which is probably why I don't play much golf now. Fishing may try my patience but that's no bad thing.' I reminded him of Izaak Walton's alternative title for his seminal work, The Compleat Angler - 'The Contemplative Man's Recreation' - and asked if he agreed with my interpretation. Most assume that Walton meant that fishing was the sport for those who wanted time to contemplate, while I believe he rated it the perfect recreation for those who have to contemplate in their work. 'Absolutely' he replied. 'The great joy of fishing is that it is so absorbing that one cannot contemplate about anything else. I enjoy the challenge, but I get plenty of that in a business where there is so much competition. I can go home from the river after catching nothing and still think I have had a good day.' As we had been uninterrupted by the outside world for five hours I asked him if he had a mobile telephone or bleeper about his person. It brought an emphatic 'No way'. His chauffeur would have taken calls on the car-telephone without bothering him before the appointed departure time. I felt that I had uncovered another of the secrets of Young's success - he gets his priorities right.