‘What I’m striving for in my life now is establishing a balance - being involved in a little of each of my interests instead of doing one thing to the exclusion of everything else. So when Gary Brooker says I will be a fisherman until the day I die, he’s probably right. It’s just that I don’t need to do it every day or every week.
I’m constantly striving to be a more consistent human being. I don’t want to be predictable but I don’t like the idea of people having to wait while I make up my mind about what I’m going to do next.’
So when he stopped drinking and tried to fill all his time, Eric plunged into another hobby, fishing, with an all-consuming zeal.
It began through his friend Gary Brooker. The pianist, who lived a few miles from Eric, often went to the local pub with him, and one day said to Eric: ‘I’m going fishing tomorrow.’ Clapton replied: ‘Ah, I used to go fishing over in Ripley when I was a kid. Caught a perch once.’ He was persuaded by Gary that fly fishing was different: it called for a psychological victory over a delicious trout or salmon, rather than coarse fishing which produced carp or perch to be thrown back. Intrigued, Eric saw it as a potentially healthy obsession, one that might contrast with his heavy drinking. Fishing and drinking did not mix well. Brooker, a skilled fisherman, taught Eric to cast, and within weeks it was totally dominating Clapton’s life. He bought a place on the River Test in Wiltshire and went trout fishing for days on end-and those absences added to the strain on his marriage as a now bemused Pattie stayed at home. When he returned with trout, she gutted them and prepared them for the deep freezer, but inwardly pondered the new ‘fence’ that fishing had built between them. Yet it was not without Clapton’s dry humour. Once after a day without a catch, he wanted to impress Pattie with his prowess, so he went, like many another fisherman before him, to MacFisheries store to buy some trout in a crazy attempt to fool her.
Eric agrees his days of fishing were ‘very selfish’ but argues that as an alcoholic coming off the booze, he needed to be selfish. ‘It was my life and if I hadn’t started taking steps to get straight again, I was going to die. Because even if I wasn’t drinking, I could have died of misery. You can end up committing suicide while sober. So for me fishing was great contemplation, meditation, and a way of getting physically fit again. For that first year, it was absolutely necessary to have some kind of exercise---with fishing you tend to have to walk a lot. It could have been tennis, squash or golf, but I chose fishing for the first year off booze. The second year, I should have eased off and maybe started setting up a new lifestyle. But I carried on fishing. And that’s when it became anti-social. It definitely contributed to a division between Pattie and me.’
The American tours for up to six weeks, the concerts all round the globe, and the recording sessions, all without Pattie, added to the strain on the marriage. Eric’s obsessiveness made it difficult for him to contemplate changing his ways. While Pattie nursed her grievances, he in turn felt very aggrieved when, returning home from the airport after a long tour, he found her absent. She often forgot when he was due home.
Roger Forrester, with the world-weary look of one who had observed Eric’s fetishes a thousand times, said fishing would not last. Meanwhile, when Eric’s concert tours were planned, Forrester was asked to book only hotels near fishing facilities. Eric spent many hours of each day out on lakes, alone, and a new worry loomed: he would be so tired from such a long day in the fresh air that he wouldn’t have enough energy for the show.
‘We went fishing everywhere,’ says Gary Brooker. ‘In Japan we had a boat and drifted down river in the rapids and didn’t catch anything at all. But Eric said it was much better than being stuck in the hotel room. And he got so immersed in it that the last thing he wanted to do was stop off at a bar for two hours’ rest. Booze is not part of the sport, except in America where they load the cooler full of beer as soon as you take the boat.’
Back home after a tour, Pattie’s role as a ‘trout widow’ increased. Eric left at 7.30 in the morning and did not return until late at night from his solitary fishing outings, usually with three or four trout for Pattie to clean and freeze. He collected rods and reels and all the paraphernalia with predictable feverishness. On tour, as soon as the party arrived in a town and he had checked into his hotel suite, Eric was scouring the local phone directory for the name and location of the fishing tackle specialist. The phone would ring in Nigel Carroll’s room: ‘Right, I’ve found the shop. Let’s go.’ He bought dozens of rods and reels, but gave many to his friends.
The intensity of the fishing days and nights surprised even Gary Brooker. Eric went to a lake not far from his home in Surrey, or to his position on the River Test for five-hour sessions at night, or to Scotland or to one of the four trout lakes run commercially by ex-Who singer Roger Daltrey in Sussex.
‘His casting’s good and he’s sometimes caught fish when I haven’t,’ says Brooker. ‘Once, down at Roger Daltrey’s, I caught one and he caught five.’ Eric took great delight in boasting of his expertise. ‘Did you see what they were feeding on, Hornby?’ he said, using his mocking nickname to Brooker. ‘It was a pheasant tail nymph,’ he said, describing the fly he had chosen.
Clapton enthusiastically told Brooker several
times that fishing had replaced alcohol in his life. Gary recalls
one outing which emphasized how seriously Eric had immersed
himself in the sport. ‘There were some fish in the river,
and a trout rising underneath a branch. It turned to his fly
three or four times. It was difficult to cast the fly to it, too.
And Eric chirped up like a little boy: "I’ve got a real
challenge on here, Hornby. I’m not gonna give this one
up!" Eric loves the confrontation of fishing, as well as
encouraging Pattie to cook the trout. Gary Brooker believes he
will never completely give it up. But by 1985, Eric’s
keenness on fishing had gone on to ‘hold’.
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