Mike Daunt is a terrific raconteur and he invited me fishing on the Itchen. And he’s written a great book.
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.
Read the rest at the Spectator.