Caught by the River

A Fool and His Eel

21st September 2012

A Fool and his Eel – Mark Walsingham
Review by Jon Berry

I ought to declare an interest first; I have known ‘Skeff’ Walsingham for sixteen years and we have fished together on occasion. We are both members of the infamous, bamboo-wielding cabal that is the Golden Scale Club and a forensic examination of this book will reveal a handful of photographs that include both author and reviewer. In a climate where the phrase sock-puppetry has taken on new and sinister meaning in the book world, I’d best come clean.

That said, Skeff didn’t ask me to review the book – Jeff did – and I would have kept silent if A Fool and his Eel had been terrible. Fortunately, for all who enjoy intelligent angling literature, it is anything but.

This is essentially a fishing memoir. Skeff has written prodigiously for angling magazines for many years, and is perhaps best known for his monthly Ashmead Diairies in Carpworld, but I have always slightly preferred the more surreal contributions he made to early editions of Waterlog. His writing has always articulate and thought-provoking but pieces like Fishing in Nod were exceptional.

A Fool and his Eel lies somewhere between the two. There’s whimsy, technical know-how and, in his recollection of an infamous Golden Scale firework incident, some downright daftness, but the story is one of a fishermen who has enjoyed a varied angling life in remarkable places – and who still can’t quite believe his luck.

As readers of his Ashmead Dairies would expect, carp do feature prominently, but this is not another single-species book. We are taken to Redmire Pool and, when the author befriends Chris Yates at the age of sixteen, Rivertree, but there is much that admirers of other species will enjoy. There are adventures in remote Scottish outposts, pastoral chalk streams, great barbel rivers, even the Great Barrier Reef, and a detailed account of how the author and his wife finally acquire their own water. In each, Skeff manages to capture the beauty of the moment and the essence of the fishing to be found there. David Miler’s colour illustrations abound, and are exquisite.

Skeff’s traditional approach – the use of split-cane rods and archaic reels, in particular – is evident throughout, but the writing here is at its best when he records the positive influence of work, friends and family on an angling life (the author is a Senior Project Manager for the National Trust, a role that has given him access to places most of us only visit in daydreams).

All too often, angling memoirs portray considerable indulgence, a reckless disregard for anything without fins, but that’s not the case here; there are giant fish aplenty but a sense of perspective is never lost. The carp angling genre in particular is bursting with anglers who have abandoned careers, wives and families in search of monsters, but A Fool and his Eel is proof of the folly of this; that said, Skeff’s success with carp and other species is impressive, and the abundant photographs are enough to have the most resolute of specimen hunters drooling in to their bivvy slippers.

Someone, somewhere, will doubtless draw up a list of the finest angling books of 2012. I don’t imagine Skeff will be remotely interested when that happens, but A Fool and his Eel will be up there with the best of them.

Freebird Publishing, £30

Jon Berry.