Dateline: July 29, 2014 – Twyford, England
Roger Wyndham Barnes died on a Tuesday, on a bright summer day west of London. We knew it was coming – he had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor a year before, and he had been on borrowed time for a good while. It was quiet when it came, peaceful. But the world is a sadder place because of it.
I got the news well into the California evening, when a grieving John Buckingham, one of Roger’s best friends who had been by his side every step of the way, sent me the email. I didn’t read it at first. I knew what it was going to say, and I cried before I read it and cried after. Roger was a fishing guide west of London, who I met in 2003 and who became a close friend, even though I only saw him a few times a year. He was a quiet, gentle man, a great friend, truly a kindred spirit, and he deserved more time than this.
My first fish and first new species with Roger, a European perch, September 2003. This was my 283rd species – I have caught more than a thousand more since I met Roger, and he patiently sat through pictures of almost every one of them.
This all began last summer. John sent me an email that Roger had been having some neurological issues and the doctors had found a tumor. They didn’t know much then – it could have been anything, from benign to worst case, and all we could do is wait. I had been fishing with him just a few months before this, and he seemed fine. It had been a great day – six solid pike despite a blustery spring cold front.
My last pike with Roger, March 2013.
So we waited. There were tests, then scans, then surgery, then more tests, and waiting, and last August 13, the tumor got a name – Glioblastoma multiforme. I raced to Wikipedia, and the news was awful. Life expectancy less than a year, sometimes much less.
I couldn’t change this, even if I was richer than Bill Gates. There was no money, no anything that could make a difference. This thing was going to kill him. There was no one I could yell at, no one to pay, no second opinion. I felt angry and utterly helpless. Imagine how Roger felt.
We sent some cards, I called a few times. Roger sounded tired when I spoke to him, in as good of a spirits as anyone could expect, and as the months went on, he hung in there stubbornly. Christmas came and went, and Roger hung on through the spring. He is as quietly stubborn a man as I have ever met.
When I scheduled a trip to Europe in May, I took a detour to England to see Roger. We set aside a Saturday for a visit, and John told me we could even try to sneak out and fish a local pond for a few hours. He doubted Roger would be able to come along, but I could hope. I didn’t know what to expect, but I wanted to see him, even if I knew it was to say goodbye.
I took the train out to Twyford from London, as I have so many times. I walked up that path from the train station, just a couple of hundred feet, and I walked up to the door I had knocked on so many times anticipating a great day. Katy greeted me – it occurred to me I had never met Roger’s daughter. She was lovely, a young woman just beginning her career and her life with her fiance Sam.
They brought Roger out to see me. Cancer scares the hell out of me, as it does all of us I’m sure, and I had never been close to it before. Roger was thin and moved slowly, hunched over a bit. He looked tired and in a lot of pain. He shuffled in on his own, gave me a hug, and whispered to me “You look terrible.” I smiled. Roger’s sense of humor was intact. He was still in there.
We moved into the garden, and sat down to chat. It was a warm spring day, the kind of day that never happened the first five years I tried to catch a tench. We spoke for a couple of hours. He could just barely whisper, but I hung on every word. He only mentioned the illness once – “This has been quite a blow.” Mostly, we talked fishing. He remembered so many of our catches – the one barbel late in a rainy October evening, the 21 pound pike on a perch jointed Rapala, the bream that somehow ate a swimbait. He still made the same jokes, but he sometimes had trouble getting it out – things weren’t firing correctly, but Roger was still in there.
The bream that ate a swimbait. I am still confused about this.
When Roger took a nap that afternoon, John and I went to a local pond and gave it our level best to catch a Crucian carp, the one English species Roger and I hadn’t captured. John did his best Jaime Hamamoto impression and caught three right next to me, but I couldn’t get one on the hook. Perhaps I had other things on my mind.
John caught this carp on a three pound leader. Roger once caught a 19 pound pike on similar equipment.
We went back in the early evening and took Roger out to dinner. It is such a familiar drive over to the Land’s End pub, Steve Collier’s delightful place by the River Loddon on the edge of town where I have spent so many pleasant evenings and heard so much local fishing wisdom exchanged. Roger had a haddock fillet and mushy peas. I hate mushy peas.
A happier evening in 2012 – From the left – Steve Collier, the owner of the Land’s End, Roger, some big ugly American, and John Buckingham.
We stayed late and we talked. Roger struggled to walk and sit down and stand up. This was a terrible, unfair disease, and as sad as I felt for Roger, I felt angry at the cancer – angry and helpless. We helped Roger from the car and to the table, and I imagined how much Roger, as independent a man as I ever knew, must have hated that – but he never uttered a word of complaint. But as soon as we sat down and could talk, he got just the faintest twinkle in his eye. He was in there – the jokes were in a quiet whisper, but they were funny. (The man who walks into a pub and orders six beers and drinks them right away. And then he orders six more and drinks them right away. The barkeep asks him “Why are you drinking like that?” The man responds “You would drink like this too if you had what I had.” The bartender leans in and says “What is it that you have?” And the man looks him right in the eye and says “About 20 cents.”)
I wished it wouldn’t end, and thought on how a different night, I might have talked Roger into wading the Loddon with handlines, looking for a stone loach. But finally, he was tired and I knew we had to get him home. We said goodbye in the front room where my luggage always stayed when we fished. I knew it was the last time I would see him.
I sat in bed that night and couldn’t sleep, and the image of Roger, already so ravaged by his disease, haunts me.
They tell me that was a good week for Roger. He was in hospice shortly after that, and two months later, on that July afternoon, he died. When I got the news from John, I first thought back to May and that shadow of Roger I had seen. But that wasn’t fair, and it certainly wasn’t right. He was ill, but that is not how I choose to remember Roger. That would be letting the disease win.
So I choose to remember the quiet man who tried his level best to find me every bizarre fish I requested. The unassuming man who moved schedules and braved vile weather to take me out for a day on the Thames. The proud father. The musician who sang and played the blues harmonica. The historian who could explain every odd place name in the region. The artist who produced beautifully detailed drawings of the birds he could spot when I couldn’t even see the tree. This is how I choose to remember Roger. For the hundreds of jokes … and the three good ones. For patient explanations of British humor and the pre-decimal monetary system. For being one of the few people who knew the music of the Bonzo Dog Band. For sharing the tale of the saber-toothed gudgeon and the postcard in his bathroom that simply said “They got me trousers, Eddie.” I choose to remember Roger as the fisherman, the naturalist, the kindred spirit, the humble, simple guy who probably never guessed how much we all loved him.
In May, when I finally left Roger’s house that night after dinner, the last thing I said to him was “Thank you.” Not goodbye, but thank you. I couldn’t get it all out just then, but I hoped he knew why.
For 11 years of close friendship. For 44 days on the water. For 535 fish. For 167 pike. For 16 new species. For a dozen secret corners in England that will be part of my heart until the day someone has to send that same email about me. I hated to lose Roger, but I am a lot better off for knowing him. Godspeed you, old man.
Roger and a very young Katy. This was the first photo he ever showed me.
Another photo of Roger that is proudly displayed in his home. Note the name of the boat.
My first pike with Roger, September 2003. I would catch 166 more with him in the 11 years afterward.
My first “double” (1o pounds +) with Roger, September 2003. I would catch 46 more doubles with him.
Steve and Roger, Marlow Weir, 2004. This is my favorite picture of Roger.
Roger liked Marta a lot – she never wanted to fish for 14 straight hours in the rain. This is her first pike with Roger, October 2005.
My first and only barbel. Driving rain, about 3 hours after any other guide would have left for home, October 2005. Roger called it “Finny Todd, the Demon Barbel.”
Bisham Abbey, October 2005. Sight like this were almost – almost – as treasured as the fishing.
On a frozen, flooded March afternoon in Twyford, March 2007.
Trying to warm up at the Land’s End, March 2007.
Marta and another pike with Roger, May 2007. As fellow musicians, they had a lot to talk about.
A video of Roger belting out a blues song. He was good.
Roger would risk life and limb to retrieve a lure. Marlow Weir, February 2008.
One of Roger’s many connections in the music world – Barrymore Barlow, drummer for Jethro Tull, at Shiplake Weir, July 2008. I went to a Jethro Tull concert in 1980. Barrymore didn’t remember me.
Roger on a summer day at Shiplake. We got seven good pike, July 2008.
Tench warfare, July 2009. I finally, finally caught one after six years of trying, and I had to hijack John’s swim to do it.
We celebrate the tench, July 2009.
Sometimes they wouldn’t even let me ride in the boat. Marlow Weir, July 2009.
Temple Weir, July 2009. The weed patch in the background has produced dozens of pike for me.
Getting under the hood, July 2009.
At the Land’s End pub, October 2009. Roger had haddock and mushy peas. On the left is Dave Harding, bass player, angler, and great friend of Roger’s.
Barton Court, October 2009. This quiet chalk stream is where Roger introduced me to float fishing for trout.
Barton Court, October 2011. Roger refuses to lose a float rig.
“Wyndham in the willows.” Undated, from the Buckingham collection.
Roger with Dee, November 2009. (Dee is Roger’s girlfriend – not a younger niece as people often guess from the photos.)
Marta’s biggest pike with Roger, 11 pounds, July 18 2010. 4pm.
My biggest pike with Roger. 21 pounds. July 18 2010, 4:01 pm. Take that, Marta.
In rain or shine – motoring through the fog at Bisham Abbey, October 2011.
We celebrate a three-spined stickleback, Ewell, October 2011.
Roger at one of his childhood fishing holes, the River Mole, October 2011.
Wait! That’s no Greek statue! Temple Weir island. June 2012.
Roger in the front room at home. I rarely saw him out of fishing kit, but he cleans up nicely. From the Buckingham collection.