I have been a teacher for 32 years, a head teacher for 17 years and, at the age of 56, this much I know about managing my mental health.

I have just finished Alastair Campbell’s book Living Better: how I learned to survive depression. I found it to be a great read; Stephen Fry’s testimonial, that the book “could save lives” seems to me wholly plausible.

In his quest to find the root cause of his depression, Campbell finds salvation in a jam-jar. In an earlier post, I explained his jam-jar revelation and why it has helped him.

In essence, to manage your mental health you need to identify a number of activities you enjoy doing which nourish you, so that you can better cope when your life feels like it is imploding. Those activities make your own mental health jam-jar taller, and the extra space you create prevents you from falling apart when life gets tough.

Back in May last year, my list of nourishing activities were simple enough:

  • Prioritise Louise, Joe and Olly (Good progress since May last year)
  • Reading (Good)
  • Writing (Good)
  • Fishing (Good)
  • Golf (Poor)
  • Do more housework (Poor)
  • Exercise (Average)
  • Save some money (Good)
  • Pare down material possessions (Good)
  • Make decisions about my future (Good)
  • Breathing exercises (Poor)
  • Find time to reflect on my behaviours (Good)
  • Recondition old fishing rods (Poor)

One of them – writing – has combined with another – fishing – to produce a book, which is available on Amazon from tomorrow, Monday 26 October. The book is not just about fishing. As Professor Simon Bainbridge says in his testimonial, ‘it’s a book about friendship, family and finding meaning through a lifetime’s obsession with “the fish landed and the fish lost”’.

In this tale from An Angler’s Journal, I explain how taking myself off to the river bank helps me to gain some perspective when things seem to be overwhelming.


Fishing is therapeutic. It calms the heart and salves the soul. To get away from the world when “I’m weary of considerations, And life is too much like a pathless wood” – as the American poet Robert Frost wrote in his wonderful poem “Birches” – I will grab my rod and some basic kit and take myself off to a river bank.

And so it was one winter’s day, when I was under horrible pressure at work and the house was full, that I thought it time I tried out my recently renovated Gamages of London six foot long split cane spinning rod. At least a decade older than me, it was the real thing, with a lustrous yacht varnish finish on the cane, near perfect cork handle, and the original porcelain guides.

Antique split cane rods are vulnerable things. They can appear stunning, whilst inside the cane has rotted to dust. The best test of a split caner is to push the rod tip into your front room ceiling at home and bend it double. If its core is decayed, you will soon know as your head is showered in splinters.

The Rye was swollen but the river level was falling. The sediment was settling and I thought it possible that a fish would be able to see a large red and white, deep-diving plug, if I could drag it past its snout. That said, I wasn’t bothered about catching. It was just good to be out. I fished hard, covering the swim systematically. Back and forth, back and forth. The rhythm of the afternoon wore on. I lost myself in the unthinking nature of the task.

The relentless casting and recasting helped me clarify the challenges facing me at work until I could park them in a mental metal box and strap the lid down. My arms ached with the effort. Back and forth, back and forth. The rod was straining just with the demands of retrieving the lure against the formidable current.

I cast again, right across to the far bank, and reeled swiftly to get the lure down to the riverbed and thought for a second I had snagged on the bottom. It was not the usual take of a pike. As I exerted some force the snag began to move across the river. There was nothing spectacular about the fight. It was a grim battle as a decent fish resisted my pressure with the help of the swollen river’s flow. As the rod bent double I thought there was something about it that seemed ever so slightly odd.

I kept the strain on and just as the fish rolled into the net, the top length of cane snapped at the ferrule. I was left with a magnificent 12lb pike, a clear mind, and the task of stripping down my Gamages spinning rod for spares.


Illustration by Marvin Huggins: instagram.com/marvs.artwork

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This post has 1 Comment

  1. Hello Jon, great post. The jam jar metaphor is powerful. And it reflects a realistic and very relatable way to respond to the challenges on our mental health.
    We work with schools to support the daily habits of well-being. I would love to bring our work to schools in the north. I have found a possible source of funding, SHINE trust and now just need a few schools who would be interested in working with us on a bid to support a programme that support learning, well-being and stress management. I wonder if through your network of connections you might be able to suggest a school or a MAT that might be interested in working with us on such a programme. Our website it here – http://www.actionyourpotential,org and the shape of the project is here, all deliverable remotely. Link to programme is here, (https://drive.google.com/file/d/10kgIq8MyfZUf9E1Afp1gLQAFPX1iJ5lR/view?usp=sharing) it’s really cost-effective and designed to support well-being and closing the gap by supporting vulnerable parents and carers as well as the whole school community. If you have any contacts that might be interested or can think of ways I might be able to promote the project with schools in your region I’d be very grateful. We hail from your original neck of the woods, East Sussex, Blackboys village just outside Uckfield.
    Finally – an assembly for students on well-being with one of the key messages we weave into our programme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcJ3Ydvk9SA&t=27s
    Enjoy the October Holiday Sir.

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