Caught by the River

Farson's Way

11th November 2013

NPG x12100; (James) Negley Farson by Howard Coster(James) Negley Farson by Howard Coster

Farson’s Way by Malachy Tallack.

Negley Farson was a writer, a wanderer and a seeker of adventures. He was also an angler. And though he sometimes described it as one of his “useless virtues” (the others being shooting and sailing) it is for his book Going Fishing, published in 1942, that he is best known today.

I read it first when I was 11 or 12, at a time when I consumed just about anything on the subject I could find. Our public library in Lerwick had a copy, I suppose, because it contained a chapter about fishing in Shetland. And it was to that, predictably, that I turned first.

“For sheer grandeur I doubt if there is anywhere a more magnificent part of the world than you will find in the Shetlands [sic]” wrote Farson, in characteristically gushing style. “Sea trout caught in the salt estuaries or in those peaty burns, or brown trout taken among the granite ledges of the windy lochs, will provide you with memories with which you can invigorate yourself for the rest of your life.”

It was an exhilarating read; and when I’d finished that chapter I went back to the beginning of the book and ploughed my way straight through to the end. The USA, British Columbia, South America, Russia, England, Norway, Yugoslavia: Farson criss-crossed the globe. He wrote of a stream in the West Country where “you will fish all day with a cast so fine that it looks like a strand of a brunette’s hair”, and of a river in Chile where trout under 5lb are thrown back for being too small. I turned the pages compulsively, both envious and inspired.

When I returned to the book recently, it was as rich, as breathless and as magnificently readable as it had been when I first encountered it, twenty years ago. At its heart – behind all those fish and all that hyperbole – was a fascinating man, a man who wrote, travelled and drank tirelessly. He was also a man who lived through, and witnessed, some of the most dramatic moments of the early twentieth century.

Negley Farson was born in 1890 in New Jersey. He was brought up by his grandfather, who was a general in the civil war and a Pensylvania congressman, but who had fallen from grace in his later years. It was an unsettled and unpredictable childhood, and angling became a means of escape: “the further away from home it was”, he once wrote, “the better it would be”.

Bright, ambitious and restless, Farson left the United States for England in 1914, working first for a manufacturing firm, then later as foreign correspondent for the Chicago Daily News. It was in this role, as an itinerant reporter, with the freedom to go wherever he pleased, that he truly and marvellously excelled.

Farson’s great talent, it seemed, was to be in the right place at the right time. In those days when intercontinental travel was a rather slower and more complicated affair than it is today, he managed always to be where he needed to be to get a story.
He was in Petrograd (St Petersburg) when the Russian revolution broke out. He interviewed Gandhi several times, and saw him arrested in Poona. He witnessed John Dillinger’s naked body laid out on a mortuary slab after the bank robber was shot in Chicago. He was in the Irish parliament the night they voted to abolish the pledge of allegiance to King George. He watched both Lenin and Stalin make speeches. He met Hitler, Roosevelt, Ramsay MacDonald. He drank with F. Scott Fitzgerald and out-drank Ernest Hemingway.

Farson also flew for the Royal Flying Corp (he pretended to be Canadian in order to enlist) but crashed his plane in Egypt while showing off to friends on the ground. He could easily have died, but instead suffered extensive damage to his legs – one of several such injuries during his lifetime –followed by bone infections that would plague him for a very long time. Over the next decade and a half, Farson spent three years, cumulatively, bedridden or in hospital.

It was in some ways typical of this man, with his poor health, his restless habits and peculiar priorities, that in the early hours of January 8th 1927, as his son Daniel was emerging into the world, Negley, according to his autobiography, was wearing an “iron surgical boot” and “sitting upright in a bed in a room two floors below writing the last chapter of a novel he had determined to finish in thirty-one days flat”.

Far from settling down once his son was born, Farson continued to travel the world, family in tow. Daniel, he wrote, “first entered salt water in France; he had his first love affair in Berlin with a little Siamese princess … [and] caught his first trout in a mountain lake of Yugoslavia”. In his early years he would also be introduced to Hitler, who patted him on the head and called him a “good Aryan boy”.

Like his father before him, Daniel’s was to be an unconventional and unsettled childhood. And though he felt overshadowed – at first by Negley and later by his more famous friends – he was to become something of a success himself: a writer, photographer and television presenter, and a notable figure in London’s cultural scene in the 1950s and ‘60s.

I met Daniel Farson once, though I had no idea who he was at the time. It was 1997 – a few years after I first encountered his father’s book – and I was on a train from London, heading for the Glastonbury Festival with a friend. The two of us sat down together at a table, where we were joined by a well-dressed and well-spoken old man who seemed eager for company.
I remember someone not yet drunk but working on it. A bottle of champagne stood on the table between us, and was steadily emptied as the train moved westward.

Between Paddington and Castle Cary the man regaled us with stories of people and places we knew nothing or little about: of his friend Francis Bacon, and of Soho. We listened – too ignorant to say or ask much meaningful in return. But the man seemed glad to have an audience, and for the length of that journey we were glad to be it.

It was not until five months later, when I saw his photograph and his obituary in the newspaper, that I learned who this man had been. And it was not until recently, when I read Negley’s autobiography, The Way of a Transgressor, that I made the connection between father and son.

Daniel Farson died, aged 70, at home in north Devon – at the same age and in the same house that Negley himself had passed away, nearly forty years earlier. Both men were alcoholics; both were killed by drink.

Back in the spring of 1927, when his iron boot had been replaced by a plaster cast, Negley Farson left his wife and new-born son for the first time, and headed north to Shetland. He went to write about the Norwegian whaling boats that were then working out of the islands, and his account of the killing of a fin whale is horrifying and thrilling in equal measure.

Three years later he returned to Shetland with his family, after a particularly difficult writing assignment in India. On that occasion, the purpose was relaxation. And, of course, fishing.

Malachy Tallack is a writer and singer-songwriter from Shetland, currently exiled in Glasgow. He is editor of The Island Review.