Magazine article The Spectator

An Art Worth Learning

Magazine article The Spectator

An Art Worth Learning

Article excerpt


An art worth learning

Preoccupied with other things I've not been able to fish on the Tay for the past two years, but a five-part series on Radio Four, The Philosopher, The Fish And The Dove, running for another three Sundays, has revived my enthusiasm so much that I feel I must return there next May. The BBC's Natural History Unit in Bristol had the bright idea of marking the 350th anniversary of the publication of the world's most notable fishing manual, Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler, sub-titled, The Contemplative Man's Recreation.

It was even cleverer to have chosen that fine actor Geoffrey Palmer to present the programmes as he's also a passionate fly fisherman, confessing in the first episode that the rest of his activities have to be arranged around fishing. He's come to it only later in life, which was one of his few real regrets. Actually, in our week on the Tay, there isn't much time for contemplation except afterwards as, with glass in hand, one surveys from the top of the bank the glistening, rushing water and the dark, still pools, wondering where the bloody salmon are. Then you notice, with frustration, a glint of speckled silver and a fish leaping provocatively where you've just spent three hours maniacally casting. Walton knew all about that feeling, too, writing that the angler 'must bring a large measure of hope and patience and a love of propensity to the art itself'.

Palmer read various extracts from the book and talked to fishermen in the Peak District where Walton spent much of his time fishing on the River Dove. We also heard from historians and naturalists. One fisherman believed angling was beautiful, 'a glorious physical art'. Walton certainly thought so:

Oh sir, doubt not that angling is an art. Is it not an art to deceive a trout with an artificial fly? A trout? That is more sharp sighted than any hawk . . . Doubt not therefore but that angling is an art and an art worth your learning. The question is, rather, whether you are capable of learning it.

An angler told Palmer that the rod becomes an extension of your arm and there was a marvellous harmony between you and your tackle which was quite spell-binding. I wouldn't go quite that far but I know what he means. Wallon would have agreed with him:

For angling is like poetry. Men arc born to he so. I mean, with inclinations to it though both may be heightened by discourse and practice but he that hopes to be a good angler . …

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