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A water-based religion: how fishing liberates the mind

For fishermen, even the smallest grayling lifted flashing from the water stands as a true image, a true sentence, the scrap, as it were, of a greater truth.

I didn’t fall in love with fishing until I was 30. One September afternoon in Scotland, an old schoolfriend, Nick, rigged up a rod and walked me to a sluice gate near Golspie. Salmon can be kind to learners. On my third cast I hooked one. The tug on the line had the firmness of a handshake, and was a reminder of the hand in my favourite childhood legend, finning up from the riverbed to catch a sword. The passing of Arthur was the first thing I read that caused me to burst into tears.

That five-pound handshake at the sluice gate welcomed me to a world I had previously wandered through with eyes half-closed. I began at last to understand Nick – someone I’d known since I was 12, but had not fathomed until the moment of my own induction. When he plopped his line into the unknown he was trading in mystery, or what psychologists might call a water-based religion. For Nick, I realised, the world was cast afresh each day he fished; each cast a personal prayer.

“There is no going back in the matter of sensation,” wrote another fisherman, Ernest Hemingway. From then on, I piggybacked off my work as a journalist, and fished in Iceland, Patagonia, Tasmania, Canada. I caught my first “trophy” on Lake Snyder near the Arctic Circle. There was a boil on the virgin water as the pike surged after the lure, darkening to a bluish green the instant before it struck. I thought at first this was a “lunch fish”, but in a reverse of the normal angling story the pike grew in the net until, by the time my Dene Indian guide held it up, it had expanded to 47 inches. “Jesus, people go their whole lives without catching a fish like this.” He stroked it back into the water, and gradually the dorsal fins straightened and the pike glided off, shaking its head as if it had been at the dentist. The effect of sharing the company of this creature, if only for a few seconds, was to make the energy drain from my body and my limbs shake. I felt privileged, connected, italicised. I felt like shouting, as the American fisherman and novelist Thomas McGuane shouts after landing an 18 pound trout: “I’m a human!”

Purists will open the bellies of their catch to study what the fish has fed on and so choose a suitable lure. Because I let him go, I never found out what my pike had eaten. Yet it is odd what treasures you do find in a fish. One 17th-century pike was found to have a human baby in its stomach, while on Midsummer Day 1626, a sizeable cod was caught off the Lincolnshire coast and taken to the Cambridge fish market where a slimy canvas sack was located inside it, containing three treatises bound together. “This Booke was then and there beheld by many with admiration.”

Aptly, my fishing mentor Nick was a book publisher. It was with him and another publisher, John Hatt, that I discovered the River Hodder in Lancashire, where I have gone for the past 20 years, usually with the same two companions, to fish for sea trout.

The similarities between anglers and authors have long been trawled over. The angler has to know how to read: the position of the sun, the speed of the water, where the fish live, how the fly will present itself across a stream rippling with maybe ten different currents. He selects a fly from his fly-book, and his method of casting his line – the way it blossoms back, or doesn’t – has this in common with a line of prose: it cannot hide his character – although, paradoxically, everything condenses towards trying to suppress that character. To have any chance of catching a fish so alarmable as the trout, you have to blend in with your surrounds, take on their pace, distil yourself into a still and silent shadow until you are indistinguishable from the trout.

As always on my first morning on the Hodder, I squirm along the bank: this impatient, messy, blind, noisy form a crushing argument in my own person against the qualities needed to catch a fish.

My aim is simple: to untangle myself into becoming what normally I am not. And so achieve that meditative state in which the contemplating mind is carried forward by the flow of the stream – until it is both cleansed and primed to make connections; to strike, to hook.

Every ounce of concentration is on the fly, which acts as a peephole into a separate world.

My fly today is the gift of a veteran Lancashire fisherman, who has no truck with what he calls “fly-fishing nonsense”. “All you need is a piece of pheasant’s tail and some copper wire, preferably plum brown in colour from an old transistor radio, and some ochre strands of wool.” That and a small hook. For him, the perfect hook has a shank length two-and-a-half times the size of the gape, with a round bend. Even so, he cautions, it’s not enough to put a line out and wait. “The secret is concentration. Brain, muscle, ear, eye have to have coordination. You can’t teach that.”

After flogging the same stretch of river for 20 years, I still consider myself a novice, pre-linguistic, overly conscious of the gap between the fish and the word. Yet the large sea trout I am hunting, which I spotted rocketing vertically out of a calm elbow of water, is only a decoy. What I love almost best about fishing is another property it shares with reading and writing: it concentrates the mind, while at the same time liberating it. It is much less about catching a fish than releasing the fisherman.

This ecstatic dreamtime lies within the reach of anyone able to bait a hook and is what many of us, really, are angling for – a settled but excited state of mind in a place of outstanding beauty. The late art critic and passionate fisherman Robert Hughes, referring to the mystical connection that can result from such a combination, calls it a “feeling of oceanic peace and oneness with the universe”. This, as he knows, is close to the language of organised religion.

Hughes is not alone in appreciating why Christianity should have adopted the iconography of his favourite pastime, a fish sketched in the dust a coded emblem of one’s faith.

Does any other sport appeal so shamelessly to the Bible? Anglers like to remind us that Seth, the son of Adam, was a fisherman, as were four of the Apostles who were mending their nets when Jesus offered to make them “fishers of men”. Which recalls my number-one pescatorial story. It is about a Chinese sage who sat all his life by a river, dangling a straightened hook in the water, catching nothing. Word of his peculiar habit spread throughout the empire until it reached the ears of the emperor himself who one day made a detour to the river. “Pardon me,” he asked the sage. “What on earth are you fishing for?” The old man turned to the emperor: “You.”

Finally, on my second afternoon, I feel an ominous tug. If ever there’s a “moment of truth”, this is it. The fish will either escape, leaving me holding a straightened rod (is there anything more dead?), or the fish will not escape.

Not a sea trout, alas. Merely a six-inch grayling. Which tenderly I return.

Yet I am not cast down. For fishermen, even the smallest grayling lifted flashing from the water stands as a true image, a true sentence, the scrap, as it were, of a greater truth. A muscle of light and agitated life that connects the angler to the universe. “In looking for one fish,” says McGuane, “you find another – and maybe in the end you find it all.” You just have to look. 

A longer version of this piece can be heard as part of BBC Radio 3’s essay series “Looking Good”, on 31 January at 10.45am

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist