According to Tom Fort, the carbon dating of fish traps found at the Thames-side localities we now know as Vauxhall, Chelsea and Hammersmith is proof that fishing was part of our national life from at least AD 650. Fort, the author of this excellent, balanced portrait of fisher folk in Britain, goes on to argue that devices of a similar kind were probably in operation on British rivers since humans first arrived on these islands.
Freshwater fish have always been important to us. Yet Fort’s main business is less with the history of subsistence hunting or modern commercial fisheries than with the art of catching fish for pure pleasure. That pastime has a narrower story and is usually considered to have begun in 1653, with the publication of Izaak Walton’s classic The Compleat Angler. The following lines from Antony and Cleopatra (circa 1606), however, suggest the hobby was long established even in Shakespeare’s day. “Give me my angle,” announces the queen of the Nile, “we’ll to the river: there,/My music playing far off, I will betray/Tawny-finned fishes.”
If any single species deserves more than its fair share of attention then it is the “king of fish” – the Atlantic salmon. Fort charts its long, mixed history, starting with a single fishery, netting fish around the River Tweed, that sent roughly 120,000 salmon to London a year. Even at the time – around 1820 – it was too good to last. It is perhaps not surprising that it is fishes and their harvests that first confronted society with the concept of sustainability. We were remarkably slow to understand the limits of what were assumed to be God-given bounties: in the late 19th century, experts advising the government on fish populations were still talking of the impossibility of over-fishing.
Perhaps there was some excuse. In the 1970s net-wielding estuary workers could earn the equivalent of an entire annual salary from their factory job by pulling 300 salmon from the River Severn. Not any more. Fish farms today may have made salmon affordable for many British households, but at the cost of near-extinction to its wild counterpart.
Fort covers the modern conservation ground as well as dipping into what one might call the “literature of fish”, especially the large library inspired by the catching of salmon with rod and fly. Yet this is mainly the preserve of a privileged, landed elite, and while the author is interested in this upper-class community, it is his ecumenical approach that is the book’s real strength.
Indeed, Fort reserves his most mordant tones for tackling the inanities that overwhelmed the posh Flyfishers’ Club of Piccadilly in the late 1930s. The club’s orthodoxy about the “dry” fly, which floated at the river’s surface, caused it to drive from its ranks one of its own members who had dared to use the “nymph” – a heretical fly that sank into the water column.
[see also: How a new kind of fish farming could save the UK’s wild salmon]
Fort entertains no such divisiveness but addresses in turn the respective passions animating the three or four million devotees who are still said to enjoy fishing in Britain: obsessive carp fishers, rustic eel trappers and plain old coarse anglers going for anything from tiddler-sized gudgeon to monster catfish. One of the best sections of the book covers the hobby’s heyday, when there were 200 fishing clubs in the city of Sheffield alone.
In 1955 the local Sheffield press described 35,000 people using specially commissioned trains to get to fishing competitions on the waterways of Nottinghamshire or Lincolnshire. Almost all those aboard were male, working-class employees of the steel industry. The prizes they competed for were often kettles or clogs or bags of coal. Yet such was the devotion to their craft that many headed straight from a 13-hour stint in the factory to stand by a canal all day, and then back for the next shift. In today’s Sheffield not a single fishing club remains.
Fort is alive to the poetry that stirs the human soul while fishing, and is very good at evoking the beauty of the riverbank, particularly the effects of light on water. On one excursion, he notes:
The liquid component of the estuary was wonderfully reduced, allowing the mudbanks and sandbanks to reveal themselves like lost kingdoms. The water in the web of channels was glass-like, going nowhere, untouched by current or wind. Its surface was like skin seen under a microscope, grooved by complicated networks of tiny runnels and studded with black, greasy rocks.
All the aesthetics of the wetland environment are available to those who go fishing, but what Fort really understands and cherishes, based on his own lifetime of angling practice, is the existential confrontation with fate as one stands by the water’s edge for hours on end. In fishing, as in life, failure is as necessary to the enterprise as success. It is only when you grasp this truth that you appreciate the story of a man who fought for ten hours to hook a 74lb salmon and, following all that effort, failed to land it.
Mark Cocker’s most recent book is “A Claxton Diary: Further Field Notes from a Small Planet” (Jonathan Cape)
Casting Shadows: Fish and Fishing in Britain
William Collins, 368pp, £20
This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth