Giles Catchpole can't find a priest
IWAS WALKING DOWN THE STREET the other day when I saw a skip outside a house that was being renovated. In the skip was the usual assortment of builders’ detritus: broken bricks, some plasterboard, several empty cement bags, sundry odds and ends of skirting and coving, quite a lot of very elderly cabling and a length of lead pipe. paused for a moment and looked. When I lived in south London many, many moons ago there were almost as many skips in our street as there were Golf Gti-s and that is saying something. Almost every single Victorian cast-iron fireplace moved house in those days. Out of one terrace, into a skip, that night out of the skip and into the back of a GTI, round the corner and back into another house in the next street. We used to call it skip diving but now it’s called architectural salvage and is a billion-pound industry. How times change, eh? The point, however, is this – my sister, the one married to the angler with the decent bit of water, has taken to pickingup with her spaniel on a local shoot. However, she has something of a problem with birds. She can manage the dead ones but she’s not so comfortable with the not-so-dead ones. And the spaniel brings her plenty of those. That being the point, rather, of having pickers-up about the place with spaniels. So I gave her a priest for the proper and effective despatch of the not quite mortally wounded partridges and so forth. I picked it up at a local game fair for a few pounds. It was a simple thing, stainless steel, decent heft, just the job. And it worked perfectly well until she addressed, quite vigorously, a lively pheasant with it and managed to break it. So I set out to find her another. I went to the local angling emporium, a place full of Shimano spinning reels and camouflage pop-up tents and aisle after aisle of the most exotic baits you could ever imagine. It’s a Willy Wonka shop for carp specialists, you see, and when I enquired about a priest they looked confused. When I explained that it was for killing fish they looked at me as if I was from another planet. And a hostile planet, at that. Which I sort of am, when you think about it. Although even in our world now, we don’t kill fish, do we? I expect priests on salmon rivers today are looked at in the same light as a spring-loaded gaff. Anyway I made it out in one piece, though it was a close-run thing, I reckon, and went round to the gunshop instead. “We did have one,” they said. “It was a staghorn version. Hung about for ages. £49.99 it was. We could order one for you, if you want?” At 50 quid, I was less than enthused. I mean, I’m fond of her certainly, but 50 smackers fond? For a priest? I don’t think so. So I went round to the other gunshop in the town – the good thing about living in the country is that we still have proper shops, you see – and asked them if they could help me out. “Typical,” says the gunsmith, “a year ago or so, a bloke came in here with a bunch of whackers that he’d made on his lathe and asked me if I would like to sell them. They just sat here gathering dust for months and months and I never sold a single one. I couldn’t give ’em away. So he came and took them back. Now you’re the second person this week looking for one. Just typical.” But he hadn’t seen the bloke since and had no means of contacting him. I actually have a priest in my fishing bag. It isn’t a posh staghorn version, either, and nor is it a modest thing of stainless steel. It is a fairly hefty brass tube that contains a spoon for investigating the contents of caught fish and also has a measure, up to a foot, engraved on the outside. Which makes it rather more than a simple priest and anyway I still use it for despatching an occasional trout for the table. Which means that I am loth to give it away. Especially for use in the killing of game birds. So I was contemplating how times have changed and how it is the small things – like looking, unsuccessfully, for a priest; I wonder how many people actually refer to it as a priest these days? – that signal potentially significant shifts in social attitudes when I turned the corner and found myself confronted by the skip. And that lead piping lying in it. And I thought to myself, “Four inches of lead pipe secured by a brass screw, top and bottom, to a handy length of broomhandle, leather bootlace loop handle. Hang it from your belt or stick it in your boot. Made to measure. Proper job!” And I had that lead pipe out of the skip and into my Bag for Life before you could say Thomas à Beckett. Some things never change.
“...I explained it was for killing fish.”