Indulge me for a minute and picture the following scenario. It’s hypothetical and it’s unlikely but there is, I promise, a point to it.
A man, let’s call him Mr R, buys some land, digs a hole, fills it with water and then adds lots of fish. He creates a few pegs, builds a car park and then opens it as a day-ticket venue. Only Mr R has rules. Rules that prevent certain members of our society from fishing his pool.
He doesn’t like black people, so he bans them. He doesn’t like Asians or Chinese either and bars them too. Oh, and because he’s a Southerner born and bred, he doesn’t like Northerners. Anyone born the wrong side of Watford isn’t welcome either.
Sadly for Mr R, though, his fishery doesn’t remain open for very long. The Equality and Human Rights Commission shuts the place down quicker than it takes Gary Huth to put 600lb in his countless keepnets. Racism, quite rightly, isn’t tolerated in a civilised society. Mr R disappears without trace.
It’s a shame the same can’t be said of Tony Booth. Tony, if you needed reminding, is the real-life Grimsby-based fishery owner who has decided that, like our fictional character, he doesn’t like a certain faction of the UK population much either. Only his prejudice isn’t based on something as obvious as black or white. No, his bigotry is saved for those that originate from Eastern Europe. It’s accents, not skin colour, that determine whether or not you can fish at Trentside.
Tony first made his decision a year ago. Amid a fanfare of self-sought publicity, he posed for pictures all around his fishery, happy to stand next to signs that read ‘No Foreigners Allowed.’ His comments were equally direct. Fed up with what he believed to be migrants catching and then stealing his stocks, he justified his decision by saying: “It is my water, they are my fish and I’ll do what I like. If they don’t like it, tough.”
Now, 12 months on, he’s back in the press, bragging that he was right all along. The poachers, apparently, have gone and the legal challenges - under the Race Relations Act it is against the law for anyone offering goods, facilities or services to the public to refuse to provide those amenities on the grounds of race - have failed to materialise. So far, at least.
Tony, typically, is as bullish as ever.
“I was right to ban foreigners. Everyone knows where I am, yet nobody has come to challenge me on this. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again ¬ they haven’t got the bottle. There was all sorts of talk about action being taken against me, but I’ve heard nothing.
The rule is staying in place and I will happily go to court,” added Tony.
You know the thing that offends me the most, above and beyond the obviously unacceptable and blatant act of racism, is Tony’s purposely provocative language. It’s almost as if he wants and enjoys the fight. Controversy, clearly, is something he relishes.
I’m not denying that he’s had problems, but this is not the way to go about solving them. His stance might not be quite so blatant and incendiary as to discriminate against blacks or Asians, for example, but be in no mistake. To exclude Eastern Europeans is every bit as unacceptably bigoted.
I don’t want to hear any excuses about an owner’s right to refuse entry, either ¬ not when it’s a decision that is wholly illegal. You can invoke that privilege if individual anglers are acting in a manner that contravenes the normal rules, but not because you don’t like the language they speak in.
This might be an example at the drastic end of the scale, but unfortunately Tony Booth isn’t alone in his views about Eastern Europeans. A large proportion of the angling community have bought into the stereotype that this community is raping our waterways of everything that swims. But, in my opinion, that is way off the mark.
Cormorants, otters, crayfish, pollution and abstraction are far more relevant - and damaging - issues that need addressing.
I always find the claim made by some anglers that their venues are being destroyed by Eastern Europeans faintly amusing.
If you believe what you hear you’d think these people are all crack anglers capable of catching hundreds of pounds of fish every time they go out ¬ and not the rag bag bunch of amateurs armed with rods as thick as broom handles, line that resembles a 1980s perm and tackle carried in Tesco bags that I see on the rivers near me.
Anglers they may be, Polish, Latvian or Lithuanian Steve Ringers they are not.
Yes, I’m aware that some ¬ and I stress some - have used illegal long lines, nets and rudimentary electro-fishing gear to take fish, but these individuals are in the extreme minority.
It is my belief, and I have written this before, that far from being the scourge some would have you think, Eastern Europeans are in fact helping to prop up the angling industry during very difficult financial times. Without them, numerous fishing-related businesses - certainly a lot more than have already gone - would have disappeared without trace.
Think about it. Is it really coincidence that rod licence sales have rocketed at just the time that Britain has welcomed swathes of angling-loving migrants? I don’t think so.
We have to be realistic. Eastern Europeans are here in numbers and they are here to stay. Alienating and antagonising them - just as Tony Booth has done is simply not the answer. Education and integration is.
That process has already begun. In Radoslaw Papiewski the Eastern European angling community has an eloquent, bright and welcoming ambassador who, together with the Angling Trust, has created the Building Bridges scheme.
The remit, essentially, is to help with the continued merging of one culture into another. Quite rightly, education lies at its core.
The organisation is still in its infancy and success will be impossible to measure in the short term. But surely the initiative deserves our support.
Division and illegal segregation is not a solution - it’s hostile, intimidating and completely out of place in a sport that has always prided itself on being inclusive of all.
I am not naïve. I am aware that a minority of law-breakers exist, but isn’t that the same within our own angling society? Are we honestly arrogant and short-sighted enough to believe every fisherman with English as their first language upholds every rule? To suggest so isn’t just wrong, it’s downright stupid too.
Education - as the Building Bridges scheme promotes ¬ is the answer. Angling has had an injection of bodies the like of which hasn’t been seen in decades. It’s now up to us to ensure we turn those numbers and the subsequent generations that will follow - into law-abiding individuals, individuals who realise that taking coarse fish for the pot is both culturally unacceptable and now, thanks to recent by-law changes, illegal.
Welcoming Eastern Europeans into our angling community and allowing them to fish our waters isn’t just a legal obligation but a moral responsibility.
Britain in 2010 is a very different place to what it was 20 years ago and it’s high time angling - and men like Tony Booth - realised that fact.