A fine beginning, and nearly a quick ending to the long, devious journey that had brought me to the Tarn, one that had begun in the elegant tackle shop of Hardy Brothers in Pall Mall, London, very handy for the club members of St. James—the kind of shop where you can arrive only by taxi. By a stroke of luck, the manager, Mr. Lee, was free, having just dealt, so he said, with the needs of the Duke of Devonshire. "The Tarn," I said, ignoring his name-dropping, "in southern France. Suitable flies and tackle."
Mr. Lee came back fighting. "The French folio," he ordered, snapping his fingers. A young assistant shimmered away and returned with a leather-bound volume. It proved to contain letters from several generations of Hardy customers recounting their findings in France. Astonishingly, though, not one of them seemed to have fished the Tarn. The chalk streams of Normandy, certainly. The fast rivers of the Pyrenees and the Savoy Alps, by all means. Also the southern lakes. But not a word of the Tarn.
This did not faze Mr. Lee. When in doubt, apply general principles. Dry flies, wet flies and nymphs for all seasons built up on the counter. "You'll need a fast-sinking line for the mountain torrents, sir," said Mr. Lee and immediately an assistant was tying 100 yards of backing on a No. 6 sinker. I seemed to have a new rod also and a lightweight landing net. Drifts of leaders accumulated. With a pair of studded waders over my arm I found myself out on the sidewalk. Game, set and match to Mr. Lee.
In Paris the equivalent of Hardy's is St. Hubert. Surprisingly, there also the Tarn was a mystery, but a gentleman with a thin mustache whom I would have matched against Mr. Lee any day was able to suggest some fly patterns that would undoubtedly meet my needs. I left with these and a superb fishing vest with 12 pockets finished in kid leather, without which I could not possibly manage. (For sportsmen who might fish the Tarn in future, I feel I should point out here that I was eventually able to purchase the correct Tarn patterns in the post office at Ste-Enimie on the banks of the river. But don't expect any style.)
There were further delays. Heading south on the Autoroute, it seemed a sin and a shame not to break the journey at Vienne, not far from Lyons, for a visit to La Pyramide, one of only 16 restaurants in France considered worthy of three rosettes in the Guide Michel in. Unhappily there was no possibility of a reservation until lunch next day. But such experiences come rarely. I decided to wait, booking a room at Valence nearby.
That meant killing an evening somehow, and Valence seemed to have few resources until I saw a neon sign in the main street, LE PUB TWICKENHAM it said. I should have remembered that south of Lyons is one of the great strongholds of rugby football in France. In the provincial glumness of Valence that sign beckoned like a harbor light. Twickenham is the big rugby stadium in London where international games are played. Undoubtedly, this was where the fans gathered and I was entirely right. Inside, any space left over from framed team photographs was hung with international rugby shirts. The blue, with thistle, of Scotland; the red, with ostrich feathers, of Wales; the white, with red rose, of England; the Irish shirt with a shamrock; the South African with a springbok; the New Zealand with a fern; the Australian with a wallaby; and, naturally, the light blue of France with the cockerel superimposed. A true Valhalla and presiding over it a man I immediately recognized, Elie Cester, until two years ago a first choice front row forward of the French International XV. Around him, poring over copies of L'Equipe, were lesser but still imposing figures. I knew exactly what to say and as I went up to the bar to order a past is I said it. "Barry John...c'est terrible, hein?"
That opened the floodgates all right. I knew they would not have heard about it. Barry John of Wales is the greatest rugby player in the world. And on the day I left home for my trout-fishing trip he had announced his retirement from the game at the ridiculous age of 27. Once the shock was over, those gallant Frenchmen assisted me to mourn, even though the news meant that in 1973 the chances of France beating Wales were greatly enhanced. (She did, last month, 12-3.) We mourned steadily through the night and the people who switched on their bedroom lights at four a.m. in the main street of Valence as my new friends escorted me back to my hotel probably didn't even realize that our voices, upraised in O'Reilly's Daughter, were simultaneously paying tribute to the departure of a great one and to the cross-pollination of cultures that meant that such a classic song was known wherever rugby is played.
Twelve noon was the time set for my lunch at La Pyramide and it says much for the stamina of us trout-fishing rugby men that I was there on time. There to greet me was la patronne, Mme. Point, an old lady with piercing eyes who has been known to refuse to admit naive English and Americans for lunch because they have asked not only for aperitifs but gin-based ones. Myself, this morning after, had no wish for an aperitif, not ever, not for the rest of my life.
The mousse of trout, with which the meal started, was delicate and light enough to master. I might have managed the pate de grives also had I not been foolish enough to ask the waiter what grives meant.
"I do not know the English word for them," he said, "but they are the little birds that are always flying around the olive trees." Mercifully, I did not learn until later that they were thrushes. But I was able to take a little of the turbot poached in white wine and was only shown up in my true colors while trying to hide my portion of poulet de Bresse under my dauphinois potatoes. Madame and the headwaiter were desolate. What was wrong? I couldn't tell them what was wrong. How can you tell the proprietress of a restaurant with three stars in
that everything tastes of pastis?