Abridged Introduction to A Twitch Upon The Thread
by Jon Day
Like the narrator of Norman Mclean’s A River Runs Through It, I have always been haunted by water: by the things it contains – both fish and meanings – and by the things it hides. As a child I was an obsessive angler. I spent my weekends exploring the waterways of north London with a cheap plastic rod my parents had given me for my eighth birthday. I mainly fished the Regent’s Canal, which ran on a spur near the end of my road. I didn’t catch much. But every so often, usually when I had just about given up hope, I would catch something alive: a small, brilliantly coloured perch, with its armoured cladding and crest of protective spines, angrily raised; a roach with silvered, shivering flanks. Sometimes, at dusk, I caught eels: wide-eyed ribbons of yellow and gold, preparing to head off to their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea. Once I caught a pike so big it broke my wire leader. I was secretly relieved when it swam off into the weeds. I have fished many waters since, but the canal was my first love, and its hooks are buried deep.
Back then I thought of my fishing rod as a magic wand which I could use to probe the humdrum surface of the world. I liked the fact that you never quite knew what lay beneath until you’d fished for it. Any stretch of water might contain something wild, and each cast had the potential to connect you with it. The anticipation mattered more than the catch. Even after you had caught something, you could never exhaust a water’s meanings.
I continued to fish through school, and then at university. On afternoons when the spring sun had warmed the water, I would leave the library and cycle a few miles to a local stately home, where the gamekeeper had stocked the slow-flowing river which ran through the grounds with fat and sluggish rainbow trout which tasted of mud. Here I learned to fish with a fly – an artificial bait made of feather and fur tied to a bare hook – casting elaborately, using nothing but the weight of the line to carry my lure out into the stream. Fly fishing was a dance and, though I was and am still an awkward partner, I learned to love it too.
After university, life intervened, and I forgot the pull of the water and packed up my rod. But a few years ago I moved with my family from the centre of London to the suburbs, looking for space to start a home. The land around our new house was low-lying, damp and waterlogged: criss-crossed with streams that snaked their ways between the terraced houses. At the end of our road ran the Dagenham Brook, an old agricultural ditch now deadened by industrial runoff and foaming with jolly reefs of detergent. Half a mile to the west lay the river Lea, London’s second river, which runs south from its source in Hertfordshire to join the Thames at Leamouth.
The summer after we moved I began to stalk the riverbank again. I would linger on a bridge on the marshes on my way to work, watching river carp cruise the margins and perch hunt in packs in the middle of the flow. One brilliant summer evening I watched hundreds of tench that had moved upstream to spawn in the weed fronds under the bridge. The following autumn I dusted off my rod and took it with me when I went to the river. I wanted to know fish again: to feel their heft on the end of the line, their weight in my hand. I wanted to connect with something, even if I wasn’t quite sure what it was I hoped to connect with.
It seemed serendipitous that we had moved to the banks of the Lea. Izaac Walton, the father of English angling writing, fished this river before me, and wrote about it in The Compleat Angler – still the most famous fishing book ever written. Walton’s book takes the form of a conversation between a fisherman, a hunter and a falconer as they walk from Tottenham to Hertfordshire, fishing as they go. It is, to modern readers, a strange, formless book: as meandering as the river it describes. But with it Walton invented a new hybrid genre of literature, mixing practical advice with lyrical description and essayistic digressions on the nature of faith, and the lives of fish and people. The Compleat Angler was an instant success, and has never since been out of print, but it isn’t to everyone’s taste. In To Hell with Fishing the American writer Ed Zern advised ‘If you think this book is dull, go curl up with The Compleat Angler. Then try to uncurl.’
Walton was a shopkeeper and biographer, but he was also a fanatical fisherman and a deeply pious man. He had supported the Royalist cause during the English Civil War but lost his political influence when, a few weeks before his book was published, in 1653, Oliver Cromwell marched into the House of Commons and ordered his men to drive out the members, cementing his authority over parliament. For Walton fishing – and writing about fishing – provided an escape from the affairs of state. ‘I will walk the meadows by some gliding stream,’ he wrote in his book, ‘and there contemplate the lilies that take no care, and those very many other various little living creatures that are not only created, but fed, man knows not how by the goodness of the God of Nature.’
I first learned to fish around the time I learned to read, and I soon came to think of angling and reading as complementary activities. To read you had to learn the shapes of letters and how they fit together; to fish you had to learn knots and the names of rigs, as well as the behaviour of your quarry. Both fishing and reading provided access to imaginary worlds, worlds that were hidden from others. While sitting and watching your float, the water became a book, and to fish it well you had to learn to read it, too.
To work out where the fish might be you must watch the surface, searching for the riffles which might betray the presence of some underwater fish-holding feature – a submerged log or the undercut on an opposite bank – or the smattering surface splash of fry fleeing from predators. Gradually the geography of the water swims into focus: its texture, its subaqueous cartography. You map the snags that might threaten to break your line. You get to know the dips and runnels of the riverbed, finding the weeds where pike like to lurk, kneading the water with their pectoral fins before ambushing your bait with a snarl and a swirl. You note the shallows that contain shoals of baitfish and lodge them in your mind.
Once you’ve found where the fish might be lying you have to learn to read your rod and float, too. There is a typology of bites to familiarise yourself with. Perch take with a few brief nibbles followed by a confident, downward tug. Roach and rudd take with a delicate inevitability. Eel bites are more obscure: harder to read. The float jostles the water a few times, lies flat, and is then pulled slowly and surely under. If you strike too early you’ll feel a whisper of lips caressing the hook, a swirl in the depths, and then nothing.
In his guide to teaching and writing poetry, Poetry in the Making, Ted Hughes described the relationship between angler, water and float as a reflective one. When fishing with a rod and line, he said, ‘[Y]our whole being rests lightly on your float, but not drowsily: very alert, so that the least twitch of the float arrives like an electric shock.’ It’s something like meditation, this feeling, or prayer: a distancing from the world in which allows you to encounter it at a single point, in relief, more intensely.
Jonathan Raban, one of our finest writers on water, inverts the relationship between literature and angling. If for Hughes fishing was a bit like poetry; for Raban, writing is a bit like fishing. ‘Every piece of writing’ he has said, is:
Like a pond, sunlit, overhung by willows, with clustering water lilies, and, perhaps, the rippling circle made by a fish rising to snatch a dying fly. This much could be seen and appreciated by any passing hiker. But the true life of the pond lay below the surface, in deep water where only the attentive and experienced eye would detect the suspended cloud of midge larvae, the submarine shadow of the cruising pike, the exploding shoal of bug-eyed small fry.
Reading well allows you to fish well, just as fishing well might teach you to read.
It is true, too, that writing about fishing is often a way of writing about other things. Piscatorial prose is a capacious form, accommodating all sorts of meanings in its depths. The earliest fishing books, like Walton’s, were morally as well as practically instructive, telling you not just how to fish, but why you should fish. Treatises written in legalistic syllogisms outlined the benefits of angling in terms of spiritual fulfilment. For Dame Julia Berners, the purported author of the earliest fishing book ever written in English – A Treatise on Fishing with an Angle – fishing was not just a way of procuring food: it was a means of passing the time and contemplating the glory of God. ‘If the angler catches fish no one is happier in spirit than he,’ she observed, but even an angler who fails to catch benefits from time spent fishing, for ‘whoever wishes to go angling must rise early, which is good for man in this way: that is to say, good for his soul for it shall make him holy; and his body healthy by making him whole.’ Izaak Walton’s great friend Sir Henry Wooton said that fishing was ‘an imployment’ for his friend’s ‘idle time, which was then not idly spent: for Angling was after tedious Study, a rest to his mind, a chearer of his spirits, a diverter of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness.’
The counter-argument – that fishing is a tedious, pointless or even nefarious activity – has been bobbing under the surface of angling prose since the beginning also. In a footnote to Don Juan Lord Byron called angling ‘the cruellest, the coldest, and the stupidest of pretended sports.’ In his 1803 Sporting Dictionary William Taplin defined it as ‘a dull diversion, and, in my opinion, calculated only to teach patience to a PHILOSOPHER’, and accused angling of being not just a boring, activity, but a dangerous one. ‘Time lost by a river side,’ he said, ‘in the frivolous and uncertain pursuit of a paltry plate of fish, instead of being employed in business, has reduced more men to want, and their families to a workhouse, than any species of sport whatever.’
One reason fishing has been such a popular subject for writers may be that a day on the riverbank often seems to conform to the structure and logic of narrative. Angler’s stories tend to drift into the mythic mode: they tell of enormous, impossible catches, or the ones that got away. An angler’s day is composed of three acts: anticipation, doubt, and finally acceptance, whether or not you catch anything. Sometimes you feel that fishing stories are told not to inform their readers but, as in the confessional, to unburden their tellers.
This is because, in part, fishing writing is never really about fishing, or never only about fishing. For both Berners, who was a Prioress, and for Walton, writing about fishing was really a way of writing about faith. For some angling is a devotional activity, and fishing writing a way of praying to T. S. Eliot’s ‘brown god’ of the river, a god of water and flow. Virginia Woolf said that the best fishing writing is always about places as much as it is about people or creatures, and is bodily rather than cerebral. It lifts the body ‘out of the chair’, she observed, ‘stands it on the banks of a river, and strikes it dumb.’
It is also the case that since the nineteenth century, angling writing has been tinged with loss and a sense of decline. In 1893 Charles Dickens was already lamenting the dwindling numbers of fish in London’s rivers. ‘Salmon’, he declared, ‘have entirely ceased to enter its waters. Shad, once very plentiful, are rarely taken. Smelts, which used to come up to spawn as high as Chiswick and Mortlake, and give profitable employment to the fishermen, are no longer seen in sufficient numbers to pay for their capture.’ ‘Does anyone go fishing nowadays, I wonder?’ asked George Orwell in 1939. ‘Anywhere within a hundred miles of London there are no fish left to catch.’ Perhaps it is because fishing reminds us of our youth, as Orwell went on to argue, that the dominant note of so much fishing writing is nostalgia.
Fishing, like a particular kind of reading, isn’t really confined to books. It makes the world a bigger and more legible place. To cast a baited hook into an unknown water is to ask a question, or a series of questions. Partly it is to ask: is there anything living there? Partly it is to ask: what will I do if I catch? We fish because we want to know something, but what it is we want to know is never very clear.