‘Gone Cuckoo – An Afternoon With Chris Yates’

14 July 2008 // Caught By...

Words by John Andrews, photos by William Yates

It was summer 1978 and I was fishing the last swim in Lodge Pond, the one up by the swamp, not much of a swim more of a window on a reed bed and not much else. Tired of catching gudgeon and stunted roach under Winfield floats my mate Mark Pickering suggested that we go specimen hunting. Neither of us knew what a specimen was or how to hunt one but we did know what specimen hunters were. They lived in green canvas igloos called brolly camps and congregated on the shores of southern lakes and ponds. They spent their summers in mirrored shades and surplus, waders on at all times, subsistent on a diet of bangers in beans and lake water. They rarely spoke to you and frequently fired at you with whatever weapon came to hand from airgun to catapult. They burnt deckchairs, normally yours, when the wind turned to the north. They were the outlaws, angling’s equivalent of the angels at Altamont. Being a specimen hunter was cool, who cared about specimens? Just being able to shoot people sounded like fun on its own. And so it was that I baited up my six foot glass spinning rod and lobbed out six pieces of Green Giant on a size six. I didn’t expect a carp to take the bait, least of all a wildie, a logbooked Leney. All of that was in the future. But a carp did take the bait and soon it was in the reeds. There was only thing for it. Send for a specimen hunter, they would know what to do. Mark legged it round the lake and came back with an H-Blocker in a Barbour who set off into the swamp. I was still holding onto the rod waiting for the fish to appear in mid water. It did not and the line went slack. I thought it was all over but moments later the specimen hunter appeared with a carp wrapped in his landing net. We peered into the depths of the mesh. There it lay, a 6lb common, my first ever carp. H-Block took one look at the fish, worthless in his eyes because it wasn’t a double, and one look at us before casting his verdict, “Fucking Noddies”.

Summer 2008, and I’m recounting this story to Chris Yates. It turns out we fished Lodge at the same time, on the same opening day of 1979. In his book ‘Four Seasons’, Yates records the day as inauspicious, ‘The 16th was as inglorious as a war with one army. A cold night, combined with a mass force of carp anglers and a bank like the lake-bed. I was quite glad to come away. The cottage seemed more of a retreat than the pond.’ Lodge Pond was a local lake for Yates stocked once with Leneys and which in 1949 produced one of the country’s largest hauls of carp to the writer Chapman Pincher who carried his catch strung up by washing line to the London offices of the Daily Express to be photographed. Getting Yates to talk about his carp isn’t easy for he once spent his whole life in pursuit of the giant of Redmire Pool and now you sense he’s had his fill. There’s no distance left to run. But when he does his verdict is no less damning than the one I’d heard years before ‘Any carp under 10lb is a good fish.’

For a man so associated with carp and bicycles Chris Yates is refreshingly friendly. He even drives a proper car, a knackered old Toyota diesel estate whose electric window system would appear to have been fashioned from an amalgamation of faulty Magno Electronic Bite Alarms. It smells of landing nets, gaffer tape and spilt tea. And I’m sitting in the passenger seat of this vehicle because Barrett thought an interview with the man considered to be angling’s true keeper would be a fitting launch for Caught by the River. I feel like a junior Gene Hackman in a remake of ‘The Conversation’, a man in possession of a suitcase containing a tape recorder and a notebook. We head off to an estate lake at Fonthill and park up on its shores. Yates has fished here for almost two decades initially drawn to the lake by its history and its atmosphere. Although he fished for carp throughout this time it was the other species in the lake which made it so unique. The tench, the perch and the sea trout. In the 1950’s when the country flooded the run of sea trout into the lake from the sea thirty or so miles away via the Hampshire Avon and the River Nadder was so vast the keepers had to board off the chalk stream above the lake to stop the natural brown trout population being swamped. The descendents of the sea trout who were trapped in the lake still swim here, sea trout gone native, misplaced ferox who get caught occasionally on boilies, leads and anything that moves. In turn they are eaten by pike that can turn a man pale upon hooking. All of these fish and encounters with them are described to me by Yates. Before we leave Fonthill it becomes obvious that the tape recorder is staying in the case. I feel as though I should ceremoniously hurl it into the water. This isn’t an interview, this is an afternoon to be spent Yates style, a swift pint, a slow conversation during the longest hours of the day. Waters, stories, paths and lines crossing. Autobiographical out-takes punctuated by the bell for last orders and the prospect of hunting horn marking midnight on June 15th. It is an afternoon made for the imagination like the time I took a detour from a prison visit and ended up at Roger Deakin’s house in Eye where the door was ajar, the kettle still hot on the stove and the resident nowhere to be seen. The opposite of incarceration. A still-life, a snapshot that has stayed with me ever since. The book that was to become the posthumous classic ‘Wildwood’ in pieces on the table.

In the conversation between Yates and I there are plenty of people in common for there to be any awkward silences; Stan Lamport, the old baliff at Lodge Pond who always dressed in a tweed jacket and fished the margins for carp using maples and a Mk IV. Roger Barnes, dear friend, the last surviving Thames Professional who Chris fishes with occasionally at Temple Weir, Tom Fort, the cruelly dismissed former angling writer for the Financial Times who once advised me never to write about angling if I wanted to be happy. Dexter Petley, fellow member of the resistance and wearer of cuckoo costumes who with his partner Laure Claesen translated Yates’s favourite angling book of all time ‘The Fishing Box’ originally written by Maurice Genevoix in 1926. A book any extract of which tells you why it is admired so much by Yates:

‘Bailleul stared at the carp, then the man. Almost beside himself he’d dared ask:
“Er….. you caught that? …… On a rod?”
The man smiled imperceptibly.
“With wheat? On a broad bean? Hempseed?”
“Well……..like that.”
Some people round them laughed. They knew Najard. Vigon the innkeeper, Trellu the quarryman, old Buvat who fished with rod and line three hundred and sixty five days a year. Bailleul had gone very red. He continued shyly, watching the lean man and his bulging haversack slumped beside him on the bench.
“Ten pounds,” Vigon said.
“At least twelve,” Trellu outbid him.
But Najard, into his moustache:
“Between eight and nine.”
Vigon weighed it on his balance with Roman numerals. He announced it:
“Eight and a half”.’

The roots of Yates’ remark about ten pounders recorded in a conversation remembered in 1926 without the aid of tape recorder or briefcase. Long before Yates, myself or Gene Hackman were born. Harking back to a time when a cuckoo costume and memory was all you needed, a bow in the line to be tightened every now and again.

That Yates became the writer for his generation almost never happened at all. He wanted to be a composer, he learnt music before words, his childhood filled with the records his father played, on the record player and on the piano, awkward symphonies by Shostakovich and obscure English composers. But instead of a musical instrument Yates picked up a fishing rod. Yet the appearance of music explains so much. In a way Yates has much in common with the composer, he’s an Edward Elgar of the angling world. A man who grew up to live in a wood and whose only running water came from a well. A man without a watch who turns his head frequently to listen and identify birdsong, an acquired taste certainly, but as English as tea. Each obsession with a new fish mirroring the work of a new symphony. Yates started carping in the sixties when he wore drainpipes and rollnecks and travelled up by bus to Llandrindod Wells in Wales from Surrey with his brother Nick and their friend Alan Crozier. In the years that followed Yates worked as a photographer at the weekends and fished through the weeks. His life was at odds with the orthodox rhythm. He stepped through a door that in 1974 others would have closed automatically. In the words of Barry Mills who witnessed his record breaking carp in 1980,
“Yatesy’s cracked it!”

Yates loves the night rather than the day, the inspiration for a book he has yet to finish but which you sense may be his greatest work. One he has been working on for over twenty years. But before that is to come his book about the sea. The medium that every English composer must confront at some time in their working lives. Yates went to Dorset to finish ‘Out of the Blue’, shutting himself away in a cottage on top a cliff with just a pen and paper for company. In the same way that perch swam through the pages of ‘How to Fish’ it is the bass who swims through ‘Out of the Blue’. These are the fish that Yates is obsessed with now. Fuelled by the knowledge that not a single one of the quarry he is baiting the hook for will have a name or will have even been caught before. The empty beaches of a chalk lined coast crumbling away into the sea becoming the new swims. Places without rules or licences. The occasional shoals of mackerel bigger than towns which come and go quicker than the time it takes for line to snap. And on their fringes, bass, the size of which the hopelessly addicted angler, dressed in Moncrieff hand me downs, can only dream of.

Yates first angling article ( on roach fishing on the River Waveney in Norfolk )
was published in 1968 during the Llandrindod years. His first diary entry came a while before that. He insists that whatever he has done in his life there ‘would always have been fishing, it has been a constant’. But perhaps writing has been the true constant, an unconscious vocation developed over thirty years in articles, books, on radio shorts and even on the back of postcards, some of which sell in auction for hundreds of pounds. Before I leave Wiltshire my final picture of Yates is not one of him fishing or of climbing a tree, but one of him explaining the days in which he shut himself off and wrote the last few pages of ‘Out of the Blue’. “I did not eat. I could not eat. And I certainly didn’t fish’.

* * * * * *

‘Out of the Blue’ by Chris Yates will be published by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books) in early September. The Daily Telegraph will be serializing the book in four sections every Saturday in August. Order your copies of the newspaper at the newsagent now. Read Yates’s bit and keep your ragworm in the rest. See the dust jacket for the book here.

‘How to Fish’ by Chris Yates was published by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books) in 2006. The Field said of it, ‘He transcends the subject matter and explains better than any other why fishermen go fishing’.

‘The Fishing Box’ by Maurice Genevoix and originally published by Grasset & Fasquelle was translated by Dexter Petley and Laure Claesen and published in English by The Medlar Press in 2005. It was shortlisted for the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize. It is illustrated by John Richardson and available at Medlar Press. Yates was not the only admirer of this work, Ali Smith writing in The Times said of it, ‘Perfectly lyrical in its combination of beauty and brutality. It is rich and strange…….keeping its slightly nostalgic, archaic note.’

‘Four Seasons’ by Chris Yates was published by The Medlar Press in 1996. In it Yates describes fishing the River Rother at Fittleworth in Sussex, a place where Edward Elgar rented a cottage when working on his Enigma Variations. ‘Four Seasons’ is available at Medlar .

An account of Chris Yates’ fishing years at Llandrindod Wells in the 1960’s was published by Peter Smith in the March 2007 edition of the magazine Classic Angling.

‘Wildwood – A Journey Through Trees’ by the late Roger Deakin was published by Hamish Hamilton in 2007 and is available at Penguin

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