Friday 18 December 2020

The Kids Are Alright

At my age it is very tempting to focus on differences between the world I grew up in and what kids might experience today. It's no doubt a rich vein for bloggage, but any observations I might offer would probably be quite unreliable, because I can only guess at what it's like to be a young teenager in 2020. Guess, and shudder. So rather than be lured down that path I will instead take a look at some similarities...

As a boy I was passionate about fishing. My bedroom wall was papered with pictures of fish, mostly Keith Lindsell paintings cut from the Angling Times. Bedtime reading would be a fishing book of some kind, or the ABU 'Tight Lines' catalogue, an annual parade of mouth-watering tackle beyond my budget. And as often as possible I would be out there, fishing. As a twelve and thirteen-year-old I would catch an early-morning Met Line train from Preston Road Station to Croxley Green, or Ruislip, or Rickmansworth, and be out until dark. Sometimes I would meet up with a friend, though often I would be alone. What I am trying to convey is the all-consuming nature of my passion. I absolutely loved fishing. It was my escape, my solace, my sphere of aspiration.

And I am quite sure there are youngsters in 2020 who feel the same about birding, or fishing, or nature in a broader sense. Exactly the same. I am convinced that kids today are capable of being as wrapped up in their interest as I was in mine. Such obsession is a timeless thing.

In my early teens I began to yearn for broader horizons, and the obvious route seemed to be membership of a fishing club. Somehow I learned about Glacier Angling Society, and their fortnightly coach trips to the Thames, the Great Ouse, the Hampshire Avon. One evening in late spring a member of the Glacier AS committee kindly called at my home to take me to my first club meeting. His name was Howard Matthews, but everyone called him Ginger. We drove to the Black Horse pub, on the Grand Union Canal in Greenford, where the club meeting was held in an upstairs room. I sat quietly in a corner and observed  proceedings through the smoky fug. The chairman read the minutes of the previous meeting, asked if there were any 'errors, inaccuracies or omissions' and moved on to the night's agenda. This was my introduction to a world with which I became very familiar over the next few years. The coach trips were a great adventure to a youngster like me. Just hanging out with all these grown-ups was a novelty. Ginger took a generous interest in my progress, and I was a keen student. A few times he and I went on fishing trips in his battered old VW van, including my first ever visit to the River Kennet in about 1974. Ginger was married, with a small child, and in the warped light of 2020 it might come across a bit dodgy that a man in his 30s would take a young lad of 14 or 15 on an all-day fishing jaunt. All I can say is that such a notion never occurred to me. Nor to my parents I guess; certainly they never raised it. What I do remember is how encouraging it was to have Ginger and some of the other club members take a genuine interest, and teach me stuff. There was also banter and leg-pulling aplenty of course, and I remember the whole chapter with fondness.

I have less than a handful of photos from those days, and only one with me in it. Here I am, aged about 14, with a modest bream from the Great Ouse at Roxton in Bedfordshire...

That shirt!


Folks of my age who were birders as kids, rather than anglers, might have grown up with YOC trips and suchlike, and I'm sure were similarly inspired by the adult birders around them.

Likewise today, I have absolutely no doubt that kids benefit from kind encouragement as they pursue their interests. Older enthusiasts have a wealth of knowledge and experience, a fertile source of motivation for youngsters. Possibly without realising it, they can coach, inspire and set a good example. And when those kids grow up, perhaps they will look back, as I do, and be grateful for the Gingers of their youth.

However, the world of 2020 presents challenges. For example, Sunday coach trips with the fishing club are a thing of the past. YOC-type outings likewise I expect, though I could be wrong. As I was pondering how to write this post, a question came to mind...

Where do I meet young birders these days?

This is a sobering question. I never see them. In the 18+ years that I've lived in this part of the country I can only think of a couple. One of them is now in his 30s, and I'm not sure the other is even a birder any more. So the answer to that question, for me, is not 'in the field'. So, where then?

On Twitter, that's where. I don't do any other social media, so cannot speak for them, but birdy Twitter is populated by a good number of keen teenagers. In the past year or so I've become increasingly aware of that fact, and now that I have finally noticed them all I feel kind of obligated to do something about it. So I have started making an effort to 'follow' them, to 'like' their posts, and sometimes to respond to the questions they ask. One young birder on Twitter, a sixteen-year-old, recently posed this one: 'How many lifers has everyone had this year and what was best?' It is really heart-warming to see that this innocent question has garnered more than 150 replies, mostly from adults. I wonder how our young fellow birder felt on getting that enthusiastic response? I have begun to see that Twitter is actually a vehicle with serious potential for encouraging youngsters. I must keep that in mind...


  1. I was a young teen who benefited from YOC trips innthe early 80s. I flourished under the tutelage of the adults there and even met some of those adults outside of the group for days out in the countryside. Like you, I am aware now that this sounds... well, dodgy. But it wasn't. And my interest and expertise blossomed with there support and encouragement. I'd love to return the favour to the youth of today. I feel strongly about supporting and encouraging youngsters - that's why I'm a teacher. But sadly, I would never entertain the idea of running the modern equivalent of a YOC group. It's just not worth the effort... the risk assessments, the vetting, the distrust of adults wondering about my motives. No way! And that's Really sad. Like you, I try to be encouraging online... but even then I am cautious of not being over enthusiastic. Such a shame. If I was that shy 12 year old nerdy birder now, who would encourage and nourish my interest?

    1. Thanks for this, Ken. Your experience as a youngster sounds quite similar to my own. Your point re vetting, risk assessments and whatnot hadn't really occurred to me. But yes. Such a sad indictment of our time that an adult's motive will inevitably be viewed with suspicion when it comes to interacting with kids...

  2. Oh dear... spotted some spelling/grammatical mistakes in my reply... also not a good look online for a teacher!

  3. Great post Gavin and it only scratches the surface of outdoor pursuits in modern times. Personally, I was into birds and yearned to fish from my short trouser days, it was always in there, bursting to get out. I spent my days wandering the fields and hedges looking for wildlife and was drawn by the lure of water from puddles up.

    Today, the only kids I see with that degree of enthusiasm are the gypsy boys but they are usually looking to kill something. There's a trend amongst them and a few hangers on, to steal bird feeders, put a stick through the feed holes and smother it with glue to catch finches and tits, presumably for financial gain.

    None of the other village boys go beyond the rope swing and spend more time riding bikes over the hills of the old castle that look for birds, bugs or mammals.

    Birding has become a very middle class pursuit which is likely to put more kids off it than toward it. It's a shame, I've introduced kids of all ages to fishing but birding, well, it's not on a little screen is it.

    1. Thanks Dave. You're right, it is a shame. Like you, from a very early age the natural world drew me like a magnet. All of it. But of course, there were no little screens back then...

  4. Yes Gav, the Glacier Angling Club. I joined it the year after you did. I was also in the YOC but birding didn't grab me the way the fishing did, but much of that was down to the contact with and hopefully the approval of adults - not one's relatives or teachers.

    I remember how you described the revelation of the speech and behaviour of the anglers in the club. Wow! just don't tell your mother!

    That once per fortnight outing gave me an escape and a means to prove myself not useless at everything. On reflection, my catches involved a huge element of luck. Which was an aspect that Ginger wasn't slow on letting me know about!!

    To be fair, looking back at the fifteen year old version of who I am, I would have viewed me much the same way as he did. Though his reaction on me announcing I'd just caught a Thames Barbel would take some beating in it's abruptness. He was correct in everything bar the fact I really had caught a Barbel.

    I wish I could go back in time and fish those two or three years again. Great times.

    1. Ric, sometimes I wonder if I look back through rose-tinted specs, but your last sentence suggests otherwise. I agree, they were great times. And very much of their time as well. It's a world that no longer exists, and recalling it makes me feel old...

      And yes, the Glacier anglers were a pretty earthy bunch, weren't they?!

  5. Great post Gav, that mirrors my own childhood, exept your Ginger was my Geordie a retired miner and birdcatcher... regarding kids on twitter I sometimes get direct messages from young birders, ie lad of 16 sending me pictures of his artwork for comment, another who was coming to Northumberland on his holidays, odd ones from local kids who I try to encourage as much as possible with emailed info and in one case I dropped off a load of Northumberland Annual Repoirts to his gran's so he could get some basic grounding in county birding. I always try to encourage them...

    1. That's really good to hear, Stewart. I can well imagine young bird artists especially looking to you for a bit of help and inspiration. Brilliant! And your helpful emails remind me of something else...

      When I was looking to broaden my angling horizons locally, I recall that Ginger gave me a handwritten document of three or four pages detailing good fishing spots on the River Colne within walking distance of Uxbridge Station. With maps, diagrams, details of exactly how to approach each swim etc. I wish I still had it.