Love Madness Fishing by Dexter Petley is the Caught by the River Book of the Month for April. (Little Toller/Caught by the River, hardback, 232 pages. Available in the Caught by the River shop here, priced at £15.00.)
John Andrews reviews.
In the decades since Dexter Petley started writing as he put it ‘somehow, sitting on the gas fire at work behind the trade counter at 7.30 in the morning, in an old beige war issue Civil Service notepad’, he has gone on to write many books including that first novel Little Nineveh, to its successors Joyride, White Lies and One True Void to his translation of Maurice Genevoix’s The Fishing Box (shortlisted for the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize) in addition to editing a collection of new angling writing Powerlines for the Two Ravens Press. In between his long form pieces lit up early editions of Waterlog Magazine and latterly have helped Fallon’s Angler establish itself as a new angling quarterly. Tibor Fischer described him as ‘Izaac Walton with attitude and Mogadon’.
His new book, the memoir Love Madness Fishing, reads like the bastard child of Swift’s Last Orders and Dickens’ Great Expectations found abandoned in the rain by the side of the A21 and picked up by a passing van driver with a penchant for the poetry of Billy Childish whose public bar party trick is to eat his pint glass at closing time. It draws on all of Petley’s work, populated as its pages are by the real individuals who inspired so many of the characters in his fictional work. There they existed as ghosts and phantoms, haunting the pages until the last one in each book was read and giving them a weight that was beyond their sum of paper and card. Here the ghosts come back and reveal themselves to have been real all along. As Dexter says in his introduction ‘THE WORDS; I HOPE; ARE PEARLS FOR LAURE. THE BOOK, ITSELF, IS FOR THE NAMES WITHIN’. And what names they are, names that are vanishing from the English landscape as cruelly as the ash. All the margins are shrinking, all the wastes are being built over.
Dexter’s father was Glady Win Henry Petley, born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1919. ‘He rode a horse to school bareback and attended lessons in bare feet.’ His own grandfather was Hellfire Jack of Tairua, one of the most ‘notorious seamen of his time’, so it is no surprise that Glady Win, or Mac as he was to become known, having stolen someone else’s identity, ended up on the SS Orcades and from there on the east coast of England working on PLUTO (Pipe Line Under the Ocean) in preparation for D-Day. There Mac met Dexter’s mother Doreen Josh, or Don as she was known, in Gravesend NAAFI Canteen and ‘married upriver in Greenwich’. After the war Mac worked as a cab driver and when a daughter Lulu was born and the work began to dry up, the ‘Petleys loaded up their belongings, strapped the furniture to the roof and set off for the Weald of Kent and East Sussex border to seek their fortune and to have a son in the country’. A fortune eluded them and by 1955 when their son was born, Mac’s occupation was listed as ‘Rodent Operative’ and the Petleys lived on All Saints Road, a red-brick council estate and ‘haven for the drifters of 1945, men and women cut loose from pre-war ties by duty, chaos, the scattering of war. Down All Saints Road we had a Welsh Miner, a Scottish spinster, an East End boxer and the Kiwi with his Cockney. Mac wasn’t the only rat catcher. There were three ex-gamekeepers and enough Land Army women who’d trapped and ratted for victory before going back to boiling the sheets. In fact it was All Saints and Sinners Road: a gypsy family of ten who carved wooden tent pegs, men who worked in the gypsum mine, an engraver, a retired Sheffield tram driver, a chimney sweep, a nurseryman, estate gardeners laid off on the eve of war, bus drivers, dustmen, coalmen, milkmen, widows and the wounded’. One of those characters, Doug Cavey, is central to this book and in a way is the father figure that Mac so clearly failed to become. It will come as no surprise to those who follow the work of Petley closely that Doug Cavey, a motorcycle daredevil with a tin leg, was the self-styled owner of KV Products: ‘Leather Goods, Shooting and Fishing Accessories’ and as Trout & Salmon trumpeted ran a ‘TROUT FARM IN A COUNCIL HOUSE’. Like Spud in Danny Baker’s ‘Cradle to Grave’ Doug epitomises the unique spirit of the Fifties, a man on the make in more ways than one. ‘He was the peoples’ mender. From his hard-up neighbours, the coalman’s jerkin, the down-at-heel spinster’s suitcase, to the tall countrymen in brogues and cravats with their Pall Mall rod cases the front door opened on them all.’ It may have been Mac who one day ‘came through the back door with a fishing rod instead of a headache’ but it was Doug who taught Dexter how, where and when to use it.
Throughout the chapters of Love Madness Fishing, a fishing reel and a fishing rod are the true constants that accompany the young Petley from the jaws of his Secondary Modern (‘I was its last ever expulsee’) into the arms of Sarah and beyond to a bullet drenched Angola and an Eighties London gripped by anarchy. When Sarah goes mad her young lover feigns the same and for his trouble ends up between the walls of Barming County Asylum. There he listens to ‘Diamond Dogs day and night on the Farm Villa hi-fi’, has ‘tea in the patients’ canteen with female axe murderers’ and is sprung by the son of one of the nurses, Liam Dillon, who takes him eel fishing on a stretch of the Medway so menacing that only the forgotten fish it. The narrative grows more unremittingly bleak and even fails to lift in the company of the comical Mark and Alan, Dexter’s co-conspirators in the Hawkhurst Specimen Hunter’s Group who ‘put the mockers on me and it was ‘ooh ducky’ from the off, like Morecambe & Wise interviewing me for a job in a flower shop.’ But it is through them that Dexter meets another of the book’s surprises in Alan’s cousin Royston, ‘one of those half-pikeys who would kill you if you looked at his sister. Long black hair, earring, slack chinned, coming on hard all the time. He hung out with the greasers on the seafront and always looked like he’d just got up from sleeping under a leaking chopper’. A killer in waiting he might have been but he fished like an angel and if there is any beauty amid the maelstrom of hard truths that make up Love Madness Fishing, it is in Royston’s company rather than in the clutches of Sarah that Dexter finds it. ‘We’re on the cliff tops along Fairlight at sunrise. There’s a sea mist turning custard-yellow and the grass is soaked in dew. We’ve clambered up from the Spoon a mile away where Royston kicked me awake at 5am and said ‘Come on, moosh, git your crust rod and come with me.’ We’ve a rod each, a bag of crust, a packet of hooks and a landing net between us. Way down below us is the sea, a guessed-at sound, but the mist begins to part as a breeze wipes it away. The pond is a thousand years old, a hole in the mist, round and less than half an acre, reed-lined and black and dead, dead still. We stand and watch, the blunt noses of torpedoes rubbing through the reeds or sucking down moths. Wild carp, real medieval fish which conquered Hastings in 1066, all golden green doubloons and shielded up to defend their sanctum, black knights on a cliff top. The swoosh of our crust rods was like arrows at dawn. We’d somehow slipped through that other stupid business going right then down at the Spoon. We’d come to some agreement with the world. Even if we knew it couldn’t last, that we were fishing on the edge of tomorrow, nothing else mattered but that crust on the water and those unyielding wild fish.’
And as that short passage illustrates so clearly, in Dexter Petley’s company you are never far from beauty for he wields a pen as well as he wields a rod. Douglas Cavey would have been proud of him, one of the last true English craftsmen whom he helped to nurture and even though Petley will break your heart in the book’s final paragraph the way he does it is so beautifully executed you will forgive him: for here in 232 pages published by Dorset’s Little Toller is the story of a true child of the country whose language is at times seamless and immaculate. It is a cup of tea brewed on an open fire and drunk from a petrol tinged billy can – an important work forming a missing piece of patchwork on the blanket of classic English country writing. This is the country of blood; dirt and bone made up of the nature of ditch water; cordite and cold despair.
In the title pages of the copy of Joyride that Dexter gave me when we first met he wrote “16 Juillet 2002; Burgundy: To John; Author of THAT fishing book. For the opening up of disused roads, for caravans and carp, for the roasting of sparrows on pen-knibs, sacks of hares, buckets of eels, breakfast gudgeons and BOOKS GALORE’. Now it is my turn to address my co-correspondent of ‘Letters From Arcadia‘ directly, to echo his words and to leave these ones on the birdtable: ‘Well done Dex; YOU have written THAT book’.
John and Dexter will be reunited at Caught by the River Thames in August, and Port Eliot Festival in July.
John Andrews on Caught by the River