Your word for the day - and as an educated sort you probably already know it - is “halieutic”.
“It means of or pertaining to fishing” and it is so ghastly I’m glad it is not in common use. There are fine writers about fishing and there are fine writers from Ovid to Orwell, Homer to Heaney who have loved fishing but wasted time writing about other aspects of the human condition. Jonathan Swift, writing in his 60s, speaks of the fish he lost as a child: “The disappointment vexeth me to this very day, and I think it was the type of all my future disappointments.”
I had the pleasure of fishing Rydal Water for pike the other day, a rod and ‘plastic’ as they call one of the many pike lures these days, in one hand and Dorothy Wordsworth’s diary about her brother fishing exactly the same water in much the same way 200 years before.
The angling story has drama at its heart. But it is personal journey. Now I spend a lot of time putting shooting on telly, I can reveal that shooting is a simple narrative. For tens of thousands of years around stone age campfires, our ancestors sat and told tales. Ug would give his half an hour on how he redecorated his cave. Not very interesting. Arg would tell how set out and killed a mammoth - very interesting. Og tells the tale of the fish he landed - interesting, especially if it’s a tale of a “hunt by water” of a “mighty fish” such as Moby Dick, but the mammoth story usually wins. That’s the problem with fishy tails - they had to compete with stories about wildlife with sharper teeth. So angling bows politely to shooting and becomes in literature as HT Sheringham called it: “A branch of human activity with its roots in culture as well as hunger.”
To that end, I like the 19th century Just William-style diary entry from a 12-year-old boy called Smythe: “Coming back from church caught a minnow with my hands. I ate minnow.”
Writing in the 1920s, Major Hugh Pollard backs up this view: “Very Small Roach caught by Very Small Boys may be boiled in a pie dish with vinegar, peppercorns, onion etc, and served cold as a breakfast side dish, but only the small boy should be obliged to eat them.”
Only when media can find a way of planting a story into your head so it becomes a subjective experience does a fishing story work well. Telling the tale objectively like a shooting story is not so fascinating when it’s fishing - and if you want it to be about fishing.
Part of the problem is that you are not after an animal that exhibits cunning or danger, unless you are Herman Melville, or Peter Benchley writing Jaws. And Hemingway’s The Old Man & The Sea is no more about fishing than Lady Chatterley’s Lover is about gamekeeping. You are instead, as the philosopher JW Dunne puts it, challenging “Nature - wayward, cheating, laughing, alluring, infinitely diversified, entrancingly mutable.”
As a journalist, I find it hard to wrench myself away from the 18th century equivalent of a tabloid story about a “pike that when taken was found to have an infant child in its stomach”. Literary anglers in the 21st century - like the narrator in A River Runs Through It - are depicted as drab and seldom more than stubborn. The tragic figure of Norman Maclean’s brother Paul is of course too interesting to allow him to be a proper stereotypical angler, even though he was good at fishing. If reading the phonebook elicits the comment “great cast, terrible plot” then the modern stereotype of the fishing story should be the opposite - terrible cast (great casting of course) and astonishing plot.
If anything, the angler is a natural bad guy. A hook and line have long been symbols of deceit. Or consider the world as a pond and Death as a fisherman.
I find it amazing that our old enemy the commercial fisherman has only starting getting his deserved bad press in recent years. A fishery scientist friend of mine came up with some of the science that closed down the cod fishing on the Grand Banks, off Newfoundland. He has had a rougher time from commercial fishermen than most. He told me that only one word need be applied as a description of commercial fishing: “greed”. Yet commercial fishermen get their literary introduction as Christ’s first disciples. It’s Jonah’s revenge. For the period of literature 33AD to around 1850, they are the untouchables.
The important year between those dates, as any fule kno, is 1653. Cromwell’s protectorate has banned festivities, yet the King Charles II will be restored within a decade and among the subversive royalist literature to come out that year is a story that starts on the festival of Mayday: Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler. It’s not much of a book to begin with but it is soon augmented by Charles Cotton and its future fame is assured. It sets on the page a marker for what the angler of the day is like. I call Piscator a righteous dude. For a rather more literary take on him, David Profumo and Graham Swift describe Walton and Cotton’s fisherman character as: “garrulous, inquisitive, courteous, eclectic, humorous, a shade childlike, sybaritic, a touch Polonian, and terribly English.”
Other important dates include 1456 when the Treatise on Fyshynge in the Boke of St Albans came out; there was a year during the second century when a writer - the Roman Aelian - mentions flyfishing for the first time in a surviving text. I would also point to periods such as the 18th century when the real rise of the sport angler took place, the early nineteenth when the first coarse angling clubs started to separate gentrified flyfishing from working class carp and pike, and the end of the nineteenth century - a time when English society began its love affair with Scotland and writers promoted the idea of the angler as rugged outdoorsman.
I inherited my great grandfather’s sporting library and it is typical of this latter kind of writing. I am particularly fond of Major Cumberland’s book about Shooting Sheep in the High Pamir which has those lovely chapter headings in the contents full of elipses that offer no suspense, and, rather like Hollywood movie trailers today, save you the bother of reading the whole thing. To paraphrase: “Set out after large rams in the Himalayas … Abdul carries the guns … failure to find rams … shoot Abdul”.
If we did anything to add to the stereotype of the angler in the 20th century it is to emphasise the city suavity of the type. From the Edwardian age onwards, a gent can leave his practice in town on a warm May afternoon and make it to his riverbank in Hampshire in time for the evening rise.
I don’t believe it is coincidence that in the same period we see the rise of the English superhero. Until the Scarlet Pimpernel (published in 1905), Sherlock Holmes (mainly written in the 20th century) and others, the only English superheroes in literature had been kings, queens, admirals, generals, Robin Hood. After the First World War writers drilled down the model to include Biggles, Bulldog Drummond and it went through further refinements such as James Bond until we reach Lara Croft today. I know these characters dazzle with their bon mots and careful purchase of Turkish cigarettes for example but they are also hewn in that same drab/stubborn image of the stereotypical angler. American superheroes do not fish. A showy fellow like the Incredible Hulk probably goes turkey shooting in his spare time.
Part of the way through the 20th century, the atom bomb went off. Marxist critics like to point out that its bright light cast a shadow across the rest of 20th century literature. Even George Orwell writes crossly: “As soon as you think of fishing, you think of things that don’t belong to the modern world. The very idea of sitting all day under a willow tree beside a quiet pool - and being able to find a quiet pool to sit beside - belongs to the time before the war, before the radio, before aeroplanes, before Hitler. There’s a kind of peacefulness even in the names of English coarse fish.”
Now I don’t agree that the bomb marked the end of great fishing writing. If anything it marked the beginning of an impatience for more. So why is it so hard either to be a great fishing writer or, as an editor, to find one?
About 20 years ago, I was part of the team on a new magazine called Salmon & Trout. Not Trout & Salmon, nor the then popular Salmon Trout & Sea Trout, nor Trout Fisherman, Trout Angler nor even the radically named Fly Fishing & Fly Tying. We reckoned we were fairly original. So good were we indeed that IPC Magazines bought us and closed us. That looks great on a CV but it’s lousy for the bank balance.
In its brief life, the editor and I set out to find the best British flyfishing writers. It was quite straightforward. There wasn’t any. There still aren’t any great writers. There is original writing - and I commend to you Nick Fisher who writes the weekly fishing column in Shooting Times. There are good articles. My favourite from those old days was by Robin Armstrong, who persuaded a friend to swim in to the sea off Plymouth and splash around holding a stuffed sailfish while Robin took a picture of himself pretending to play it. He says he had phone calls about his April Fools article “beachcasting for billfish” for years - most hoping it were true.
Two kinds of fishing writer exist: the Grub Street kind and the vain. Both are involved in the alchemy that turns the fishing experience into a symphony of prose. And you should avoid any angling writer who uses the word “symphony”. Comparisons to music, like comparisons to holocausts, seldom stand up.
I look for a sense of individual struggle in angling stories that cross my desk or linger by my loo - and I also look for language. Language has more than a walk-on part in a tale of a fish and a fisher, especially foreign language. I like William Scrope’s description of a “monstrum horrendum ingens of a fish”. As a hack, I grasp at Latin to fling at a fishing piece. There’s something about the way it is italicised which not only gives an article gravitas with a capital ‘arse’ but actually serves to wake up the reader.
We use quotes in the same way. Who can resist the motto of the Flyfishers Club: “Piscator no solum piscatur” - “There is more to fishing than catching fish”.
I find it hard to resist a big fish story. Ted Hughes’s pike and Bishop Browne’s salmon in the Nith have a head start. Though I also want delicacy - and no clichés. Do not hire anyone who says the words “bar of silver”. That kind of writing shouldn’t even make it on to the fish section of restaurant menus.
I love a pike and a salmon story. I loved Sir David Attenborough’s BBC television interview with Wilfred Thesiger. Attenborough said something like: “Have you ever actually shot a lion?”
Thesiger replied along the lines of: “I have shot 68 lions. I shot nine in one day. But the greatest moment in my life was when I caught my first salmon.”
If you want great fishing writing, turn to the anthologies, not the magazines. Jeremy Paxman makes a fair stab at it with his book Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life. Profumo and Swift aren’t bad with The Magic Wheel and then there’s BB’s The Fisherman’s Bedside Book, which unashamedly looks not for great writing but for stories about big fish, yet is much much more than the sum of its parts. Jeremy Paxman can’t resist an insult and you get a sense of his delight when he quotes Robert Louis Stevenson observing of a line of coarse anglers watching their floats : “You might have trepanned every one of their innocent heads and found no more than so much coiled fishing line below their skulls.”
Asking someone to write about fishing and convey the same emotions it offers is like asking someone to do the same for music. And there - I have broken one of my own rules. Sometimes it is achieveable but unlike a story in The Sunday Times which has to make the reader more significantly angry after they have read it than before, I don’t know how. Here’s Ted Hughes discussing floatfishing, breaking my rule and it works: “You are aware, in a horizonless and slightly mesmerised way, like listening to the double-bass in orchestral music, of the fish below there in the dark.”
Sometimes, I would find refuge as an editor in that wonderfully attractive English literary style of doggerel. This was written by the great war poet Rupert Brooke before the war:
Fish (fly replete in depth of June,
Dawdling away their wat’ry noon)
Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear,
Each secret fishy hope or fear.
Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond;
But is there anything Beyond?
This life cannot be All, they swear,
For how unpleasant, if it were!
One may not doubt that, somehow, Good
Shall come of Water and of Mud;
And sure the reverent eye must see
A Purpose in Liquidity.
We darkly know, by Faith we cry,
The future is not Wholly Dry.
Mud unto mud! - Death eddies near -
Not here the appointed End, not here!
But somewhere, beyond Space and Time,
Is wetter water, slimier slime!
And there (they trust) there swimmeth One
Who swam ere rivers were begun,
Immense, of fishy form and mind,
Squamous, omnipotent, and kind;
And under that Almighty Fin,
The littlest fish may enter in.
Oh! Never fly conceals a hook,
Fish say, in the Eternal Brook,
But more than mundane weeds are there,
And mud, celestially fair;
Fat caterpillars drift around,
And Paradisal grubs are found;
Unfading moths, immortal flies,
And the worm that never dies.
And in that Heaven of all their wish,
There shall be no more land, say fish.
You occasionally find this kind of joyful English poetry where it’s not supposed to be. This is an English translation of Oppian’s work of the second century AD and I’m sure it’s not meant to sound as much like an entry for In Lush Places as it does: “The scenting mullet creeps with slow advance / And views the bait with coy retorted glance.” - poor Oppian could have no idea of the comedy in the English word “mullet”.
So like the proverbial drowning man, all I can grasp at is this straw: literature depends on fishing far more than fishing depends on literature. Virginia Woolf didn’t have much connection with angling - apart from a watery death. Yet she and WB Yeats saw the connection between angling and fishing. Rather like Orwell, she wrote that: “We have, as Mr Yeats said the other day, no great poet because since the war farmers preserve or net their waters and vermin get up.”
The critic David Profumo read this piece by Woolf and concluded that it shows how fishing ‘inspires’.
It’s a halieutic experience and perhaps we were better off not knowing what ‘halieutic’ means.