Then and Now
Kevin Perkins stumbles upon some old angling books that put the current scene well and truly in perspective , and illustrate how we should value contemporary writing for what it is.
Whilst I was up in my loft the other day I made the fatal mistake of finding something I wasn’t looking for and then found myself getting completely sidetracked (bet that has never happened to you, has it?) What grabbed my attention were several boxes of fishing books that had been put into ‘temporary storage’ after a recent house move. So the original reason for my trip to the loft was obviously put to one side whilst the boxes were brought down and the contents disgorged all over the floor.
Of course, all the books had to be flicked through, then quite a few were then put some aside for a thorough re-read at my leisure. Whilst doing this, three of long out of print volumes seemed to group themselves together. A quick check of the inside covers revealed that they were all published within a year of each other, and that they were all close to celebrating their half century of publication.
Fifty-year old fishing books, they might just as well go down to the recycling centre to be pulped. What possible use can they be to the modern angler? Methods, tackle and tactics have moved on leaps and bounds since those far off days, these old books will surely just be anachronisms, won’t they? And yet...
The first of these books was about general coarse fishing, written by Colin Willock - a name which will need no introduction to our older readers. With around 500 episodes of ‘Survival’ under his belt, Colin’s knowledge of the natural world was probably unsurpassed. The second book was written by Bill Taylor from Oxford. Bill was not one of angling’s famous ‘Taylor Brothers’ but a schoolmaster, who appears to have been a very accomplished angler in his own right. The last book was on pike and perch fishing and, I am sorry to say, that I know little of the author, John Nixon, other than he wrote and co-wrote a number of angling books.
So, a fairly disparate collection of angling volumes that, on the face of it, seemed to have nothing in common apart from their age. But reading through them, similarities started to materialise, along with many references to tackle and tactics that are still relevant today.
Written in the early sixties, these books reflect a time of revolution in tackle. It was on the cusp of the changeover from cane to fibreglass, and from centrepin to fixed spool, and these events are well documented. Whilst all three authors champion well-made built cane rods, they acknowledge that developments in hollow fibreglass rods meant that they were the future. There is a note of hollow glass Sportex float rods being almost the equal of the best split cane and for spinning, hollow glass rods were already the material of choice.
All three authors recommended the reader to purchase an ‘Avon’ style rod for their general fishing needs, preferably with a screw-in tip ring should they want to make use of one of the new-fangled swing tip bite indicators. And mention is made of a very finely tapered fibreglass extension tip being used as a bite indicator. Hmmm, Avon/quiver rods, some 40 years before John ‘laughing boy’ Wilson made a fortune out of the concept...
Centrepins and Wallis casting were covered, but readers were being directed towards fixed spool reels, albeit with recommendations to buy the best the reader could afford. ABU’s and Mitchells were favoured, although the ‘Intrepid’ range was commended for those on a tight budget. With reference to the Mitchells, they were praised for their smooth operation, but marked down for the flyer operating the ‘wrong way’ for trotting. For pike fishing, multipliers and braided lines were recommended, Plus ça change!
In both the coarse fishing books, baits were mainly bread, worms, maggots and some form of flavoured paste, with the caveat that there was no ‘magic’ bait, and the angler would have to work out for themselves what might prove to be the most productive. Groundbait was covered, though this usually referred to mashed bread with various additives to bulk it out, and in the case of those bream fishing it was deemed necessary for the angler to equip himself with upwards of 50lb of ‘stodge’ in order to keep a bream shoal in front of them.
Both coarse books make reference to match fishing and the preparations and equipment needed to take on this challenge. Whilst the basic kit they both recommended would do, it seemed it was quite easy to go ‘over the top’ with match tackle in those days. So much so, that in the early sixties it was permissible to take a ‘batman’ or callow youth along to lug your tackle to your peg, particularly if you had up to 60lb of groundbait on hand should you be lucky enough to pick a ‘bream hole’. Bill Taylor makes a case for the need to do this as some match-winning bream weights on the Thames at the time were 140lb plus.
Madness, you say? Well there is an illustration of Normal Seal, winner of the ‘Coronation Cup’ picking up his £450 winnings from a bookie at a time when the average weekly wage was around £16!!
The bulk of the fishing advice concerned rivers, stillwaters being fished ‘only; when tench, carp or pike were the quarry’. It should be noted that there are several pictures of specimen 15lb carp being landed, that size of fish being notable at the time. Although 2lb roach, 3lb perch, 5lb chub and 20lb pike were regarded as specimens then, and that is probably still the case today.
A final note on rivers should be the cautionary note that the Trent at the time was ‘not much better than a sewer’ in places and there are pictures of great rafts of detergent foam heading downstream from Nottingham. At least there has been a complete reversal in the state of this river in the intervening years.
Other nuggets of information to be found were explanations of the epilymnion, thermocline and hyperlymnion layers in lakes and the effect of wind direction on fish behaviour. There are illustrations of how to take scale counts and tables showing where the scale counts on various species overlap, and how that can cause confusion. There are drawings of fishes’ pharyngeal teeth should positive (if a little drastic) identification be required.
Fly fishing is covered, but with the emphasis on catching dace and chub, along with grayling. And this is not the usual blasé throw away chapter about what to do with your trout fishing gear after September. There are detailed descriptions of the life cycle of flies, in particular the Ephemeridae, Perlidae, Trichoptera, Sialidae and Diptera groups, how and when they might be attractive to coarse fish and the best way to imitate each of them.
There is a passage on fishing and the law (which has possibly been amended by now) but listed are the basics of riparian ownership, the medium filum aquae (mid-point of river, lake or stream), that fish are deemed ferae naturae by law and are not subject to common law such as larceny, and that public rights of way are not an entitlement to fish etc. etc.
Also detailed is how the reader can join, or even set up an angling club, the benefits and possible pitfalls, how to form committees and formulate rules. Legal niceties, stocking, re-stocking, insurance, dealing with bankside vegetation, or the lack of. But the strongest recommendation is that any and every club should be members of the ACA.
A fulsome chapter is devoted to the setting up of fish. Whilst it is not something greatly practised today, to see the amount of detailed work and time involved in mounting a fish in a glass case that will give you an appreciation for the high prices charged for these ‘works of art’
All three volumes contain a variety of DIY projects and details of repairs that anyone, even those with rudimentary handyman skills can accomplish. This is one area that has fallen by the wayside in the intervening years. Then you would be proud to use and show off something you had fashioned with your own hand. These days you would probably be laughed off the bank for even bringing something without a recognised logo on it out of your tackle bag. You might get away with a home-made spinner or plug, probably a float, and enjoy using them, but beyond that...
You could probably buy all the electrickery bits required to make a bite alarm from your local Maplins, (other electrical suppliers are available) but the cost of the components, the time needed to assemble it, and the look of the finished article would certainly negate the inner glow of using something home made.
But there was one thing which struck me as a common thread which bound the authors of these books. And it relates to a recent thread on FishingMagic along the lines of ‘Books that should have been written’. All three of these authors knew, and fished with, Dick Walker. Their writings about him are respectful of a fellow angler, and they are contemporary, meaning that the passage of time had not burnished their views. What they certainly are not are the gushing, forelock tugging and genuflecting comments that we sometimes read today.
Barrie Rickard’s biography on Walker is a case in point. The contributions and research seem to have been sanitised to present a life lived in a squeaky clean bubble. Going back to the books, there is a reference to Alfred Jardine. Here was an angling giant, whose reputation was beyond reproach, with tackle innovations and record breaking fish to his credit. But...later research has shown that it transpires old Alf wasn’t adverse to inflating the weight of his captures if a record was to be gained. (An angler bigging up his fish, there’s a thing!)
Having taken a knock to his reputation, the reference to him shows another side. It transpires that the annuals of the Piscatorial Society show records of Jardine, Francis Francis and Bickerdye (now that is the Holy Trinity of any generation of anglers) used to fish an annual gudgeon match. The thought of those three on the bankside in their stovepipe hats furiously engaged in a frivolous competition just shows them to be human. And to my eyes, it shows that Alf was more of a lovable old rapscallion than a villain. It’s this human side of nature that seems to be missing from any Walker recollections
Maybe that is the celebrity culture that we now live in; maybe it is people enjoying the ‘halo’ effect of association. Well, I used to work for Graham Hill, (F1 World Champion) and as far as I know, it didn’t/hasn’t made me a better driver. And working for a sportswear company whose sponsored tennis players included Boris Becker, Martina Navratilova and having the opportunity to play against Jeremy Bates (British No.1 at the time) didn’t do a lot for my game either.
The upshot would seem to be that if you want to read about something in the past, you are more likely to get an accurate picture of what was happening if you read something that was written at the time. Relying on some recollections may not always give you all the information you want to make up your own mind on what actually happened.
And just as a footnote...
I’m sure I have read somewhere recently an assertion that Bernard Venables couldn’t stand to be in the same county as Dick Walker. Curious then that one of these books contains a picture of an all-night radio broadcast featuring Dick Walker fishing for carp. Standing not five feet behind Dick is a certain B. Venables, microphone in hand, who apparently had been there all night to give a running commentary...