To go fishing on the Itchen in mayfly season, you either have to be very, very rich or very, very lucky. That’s why I’m so grateful to have a friend in Mike Daunt, arguably Britain’s best-connected angler, certainly the most foul-mouthed, who invited me up for the day on to a particularly juicy beat of this idyllic Hampshire river to try to catch my first trout ever with a dry fly.
I’ll cut to the chase: I got one. About two and a half pounds, I’d say; a handsome brown. I still don’t know quite how I got it — it took in the middle of the stream, where I wasn’t expecting to get a bite. One second it was not there, the next it was. I lifted my rod, reeled it in, with not too much of a fight, and there it flapped, glistening spottily in the net. ‘Right, best put it back,’ I said to one of our very jolly party. ‘Are you fucking kidding? It’s yours to keep!’ he replied. So I took it home and fried it up for dinner and it was perfectly delicious. This is how a chap’s life should be all the time, I decided.
And that’s the real reason you want to spend time hanging around with a fellow like Mike Daunt. Sure he’ll teach you how to spey cast for salmon if you pay him and you don’t mind being sworn at. But much more important than that, he’ll teach you how to live. One of the secrets, he’ll tell you, is to follow his own example and make sure you never do a day’s work in your life. As he puts it: ‘This is not because I have private money — I haven’t — but because everything I have done has been such fun.’
Now he has written his autobiography, and if you take one paperback with you on holiday this summer, make it The Bounder (subtitled ‘the riotous true-life adventures of a bon viveur’). Besides being a hilarious, very easy read full of great anecdotes, it doubles as a self-help book so wise and inspirational it really ought to be compulsory reading in schools. (Young readers, I imagine, would particularly warm to the tale of the master and matron he witnessed bonking during an illicit fishing jaunt at Rugby, especially the bit where he startles them and the poor chap gets frozen in flagrante, with the result that the mortified couple have to be carted off to hospital covered in a blanket, still stuck together…).
What I hadn’t realised till I read it — why would anyone? Daunt is always such an infuriatingly cheerful cove — is what a thoroughly miserable childhood he almost had. His father was a test pilot, brave but philistine and remote; his bohemian, cultured mother was an actress, part of the Bloomsbury set. When they divorced, the misogynistic judge blamed his mother as a ‘scarlet woman’ and forbade her from seeing her son, except very occasionally and always accompanied by Nanny to ensure she didn’t influence him too badly.
From such heartbreaking beginnings, this could easily have made the most abject misery memoir. But it’s not, first because of the generosity of all the marvellous friends, neighbours and distant relatives who became Daunt’s surrogate parents — such as the local squire, Jack Ducat-Hamersley, who took young Mike in hand and taught him how to fish. And secondly because of Daunt’s indomitable spirit and determination to make the best of everything.
His time in the army, for example. It wasn’t a career he wanted at all. On the contrary, entirely on his own initiative, he’d won a scholarship to study at Rada, only for his father to put his foot down and insist Mike get a proper job. So instead he ended up with the Royal Green Jackets on active service in Borneo during the Brunei Revolt.
A lesser man, you can’t help thinking, might have felt somewhat resentful at being dragged from a glamorous life on the stage and dumped in uniform in some mozzie-infested hellhole. Not Daunt. He is quite lyrical about the beauties of the jungle and the delights of the natives — notably the local chief, with the shrunken heads of various wartime Japanese dangling from the roof of his longhouse, who, in a fit of generosity offers Daunt the opportunity to sleep with his enormously fat and hideous wife. With a bravura thespian show of extreme reluctance, Daunt regretfully declines. (About the only time in the book he does — having, by his own admission, been born into a happy era when ‘nearly all of us, male and female alike, were more promiscuous than at any other time in history’.)
Subsequently he falls into various other jobs which also don’t feel like work — first, supplying fresh fish to executive dining rooms, then inheriting the fishing school of the irascible but inspirational spey-casting genius Hugh Falkus. Daunt’s clients have included the late Ronnie Corbett, Chris Tarrant and Eric Clapton, who is apparently a lot kinder, more generous and more fun than his miserable demeanour lets on.
Anyway, do read it. It’s charming, it’s funny, sometimes very moving, and life-affirming — even if I’m not sure the title quite does it justice. (I prefer the two original options: A Life With My Rod In My Hand or How to Bugger Cats). Another useful thing it teaches you — and this gels with the advice given by ex-cricketer Ed Smith in a most excellent speech at my old school’s commemoration the other day — is that no matter what you want your kids to do they’re going to go their own way anyway, so you might as well encourage them to follow their inclinations. Enjoy your literary futures then, Boy and Girl. Just don’t expect it to pay for even half a day on the Itchen.