FISHING: Reader’s Guides(Second Series 2)
by Arthur Ransome, C.B.E., Litt.D
Published for the The National Book League At The University Press Cambridge 1955.Re-issued 2013.
A review by John Andrews.
Fishing by Arthur Ransome – Reader’s Guides – first published in 1955 for The National Book League (set up in 1924 by the Society of Bookmen in order to promote reading, particularly amongst the young) by Cambridge University Press and re-issued by them again in August of this year is a small paperback numbering with its index no more than 31 pages. Within these however, Ransome creates a recommended list of books numbering almost one hundred titles split into in nine categories: – The Indispensables, Trout Fishing, Grayling, Sea-Trout Fishing, Salmon, Coarse Fishing, Fly-Tying, Miscellaneous and Older Books which turns out to be a moving and enlightening walk around the shelves of his own personal library. Rarely before has a list read as poetry but this one does.
The introduction takes up half of the book but within its few pages Ransome sketches out a number of worlds each inhabited by figures whose description even anglers today will instinctively recognise and amongst whom are a group of northern roach men given such brevity that they could be Orthodox Russian priests on a long journey across the Tsarist Russia that Ransome knew so well after the time he spent there as a correspondent in the years prior to the revolution in 1917, ‘I have heard a party of match-fishers in a railway carriage arguing over the tinting of maggots, praising this one chrysoidine, that one anatta, and seen them, each to prove his point, set their big fatted gentles, in gorgeous colours, wriggling on the table between them.’ It is not long before Ransome returns to Russia and this time for real in reference to a writer who clearly had a huge influence on him, ‘The float fishers produce fewer books, but among them are the best. I think of the chapters on fishing, chapters from which the very essence of angling pleasure seems to distil like the mist rising on a summer’s morning from a placid river, that were written by a Russian, Sergei Aksakov (1791-1859), who said that trout-fishing was “too restless” and preferred to watch his float’.
Not that trout fishing is neglected in the list, far from it, and one is left feeling that if there was one book that Ransome might have taken with him to a mythical desert island it would have been his own father’s copy of Pritt’s Yorkshire Trout Flies (1886), ‘and in it an old hair cast with a “light partridge and yellow” still surviving. I remember as a small boy taking feathers from birds my father had shot to Pritt lying ill in bed. Pritt gives sixty two patterns but my father’s copy has a manuscript note, “An old fellow in Upper Wharfedale used following casts. (1) Little Black and Yellow, Waterhen, Woodcock, Snipe and purple till April 26th (i.e: arrival of swallows) when he changed to (2) March Brown, Iron Blue Dun, Light Snipe and Yellow Partridge, which he fished through the season and always did as well as anyone, T.E. Pritt’.
Yes, there are almost one hundred books on Ransome’s list and each one is as deserving of a mention and a quote as the other but as Ransome himself says ‘still there are many books not yet mentioned that never gather dust, I must stop taking books from the shelves. After all, I have got to put them back again’. Ransome’s list made me take my own books down from the shelf and I’m happy to say that amongst them are some that made his cut, Chaytor’s Letters to a Salmon Fisher’s Sons, written in 1910 as a loving instruction to his sons on how they should fish for salmon as they grow up, and which turned out to be an elegy for both after they were killed in the Great War. The entire How to Catch Them Series is included by Ransome but because this is 1955 only the first seven from the series – Tench, Roach, Bream, Perch, Chub, Pike, Bass and Trout make it onto the list. However throwaway and commonplace these books have become (the series spanned 44 books the last of which was published in 1969) they stand up today as brilliant pocket guides and you may pick up copies of the seven Ransome mentions for less than £10 each. His description of Richard Walker’s Still-Water Angling (1953) includes the note, ‘The 44lb carp caught by Mr. Walker and now swimming in a tank in the Aquarium of the Zoological Gardens, Regents Park has endowed its captor with immortality’.
There are, like any list, omissions, no section at all on sea fishing and not a single book on the subject although it is probably touched upon in some. Not that Ransome was short of candidates in 1955, books such as Haslope’s Practical Sea Fishing (1905), Cooper’s Modern Sea Fishing (1937) or Taylor’s Tunny Fishing for Beginners (1934) would all have held their own amongst the other books on the list. Given Ransome’s love of the railway it is also surprising that there isn’t a mention to the guides that each of the regional railways published in the 1930’s Tomkin’s Fishing in the South (Southern Railways 1934) or Scott’s Salmon & Trout Rivers (L.N.E.R 1935), both of which were replaced by the 1955-56 edition of Where to Fish (The Field), the first of the ‘Indispensables’, ‘There can be no fishing if we do not know where to fish’.
If there is one book on the list which I had to recommend beyond any other it is one of Ransome’s own Rod and Line published by Jonathan Cape in 1929. Ransome says of its inclusion, ‘I do not like putting my own book in this list, but, unless I do so, I should have to omit Aksakov. Forty years ago on a lake in Russia I promised “that I would some day try to share with other English fishermen the very great pleasure I have been given by the first and most delightful of Russian writers on fishing”. It would be ridiculous to pretend that I have changed my mind about him’.
But the last words on this list rest with Ransome and with one of the writers he recommends, ‘So it is with our fishing books. We do not think of them as books but as men. They are our companions and not only at the riverside. Summer and winter they are with us and what a pleasant company they are. All trades are represented here’ says Ransome, men perhaps such as Thomas Tod Stoddart who when asked by a contemporary who had risen high in the world of commerce asked him what he was doing with his life as an angling writer replied, “Doing? Doing? Man, I’m an Angler”. Buy this little book, obtain what you can from the list and consume each one with a hungry mind and you will be well on the path to being an angler too.
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Fishing by Arthur Ransome is published by Cambridge University Press (ISBN 9781107622180) and costs £7.99 (US$12.99) from the C.U.P. shop. Those wishing to read the books on the list can find most at The British Library or ‘must do some careful fishing in the secondhand bookshops’.