Books: Singing milkmaids and fat, obliging fish: Four hundred years after Izaak Walton's birth, John Bailey discusses angling dreams

IN AUGUST 1593, 400 years ago this week, Izaak Walton, the future ironmonger, draper and successful businessman, was born. But commerce was not enough for him, and even in his twenties he was writing poetry. Soon after, he moved into an exalted clerical and intellectual circle where he met and even wrote the life histories of such giants as John Donne and George Herbert. What made Walton was his love of the countryside and especially of angling. In 1653, the first edition of the Compleat Angler was published; the angling hit of all time.

There were at least seven important angling writers before Walton although few today care about them. While they are forgotten, you will find the Compleat Angler in every major bookshop in America and Europe. There have been well over 100 editions of the work - at least one every three to four years of its life. The 1886 edition alone sold 80,000 copies. Royalties would by now have amounted to well over six million pounds. The Compleat Angler has become one of the standard human textbooks, a little behind the Bible but to be set along with Pilgrim's Progress, David Copperfield or Wisden. It has been an examination set book, a gift for half the world's retiring fishermen and virtually every grandchild on the occasion of his first salmon. The Compleat Angler is a continuing curiosity.

Extraordinarily (for anglers tend to be a sniping lot) it has been criticised by very few indeed. In 1658, the book was savaged by Richard Franck for its plagiarism but a great deal of the bitterness must lie in the fact that Franck was a trooper in Oliver Cromwell's army and openly despised the Anglican-Royalist Walton. More surprisingly Henry Williamson introduced his edition in 1931 by saying that the Compleat Angler is 'spoiled by poetical excrescences and is today what we would call hackwork.' But Williamson was a dry-fly purist which Walton never pretended to be (his friend Charles Cotton wrote about the fly-fishing in later editions).

Williamson went on to criticise Walton for using lobworms to catch trout. Strange, this: up here in Norfolk, there are several who remember Williamson doing exactly the same thing when he lived on his farm at Stiffkey and would do pretty well anything to get a basket of trout from the bordering river. In the end, though, even the uncertain tempered Williamson was forced to climb down: 'But enough of this ill humour against so gentle and sweet a man.'

So, with only a couple of detractors out of several million readers, Compleat Angler must have something. It cannot be its contribution to fish biology, which can only be described as a soupy mixture of sorcery and science. For many centuries nobody has believed that eels come from mares' tails dropped into the stream or that frogs commonly blind carp by clinging to their heads. Nor would any angler since around 1750 have learnt much that would add to his catch: what there is in the Compleat Angler about fishing itself is generally either copied, rubbish or long outdated. True, there are glimmers of interest and even insights into future developments but nothing to explain sales on such a towering scale.

The truth behind successful angling literature is that nostalgia is eternal: fishing techniques are soon outdated and stories of battles with big fish soon begin to wane, but nostalgia simply goes on for ever. Wily as a carp, Walton knew this. Though he wrote in the most difficult of years, there is no hint of war, the plague or the pox but simply page after delicious page of singing milkmaids, lavender smelling sheets and big, fat fish that open their mouths at obligingly frequent intervals as the sun shines and the meadow hay ripens. In 1653, fishermen bought the Compleat Angler because they thought it described a world that they had known in their youth, before Cromwell, the Dutch or whoever had tainted it irreversibly. Anglers today are no different. We all tend to believe in a world of honesty, in nature's truths and generosity and friendships untouched by the greed that a carp shows for a big fat worm. No member of the human race looks backwards more fondly than the angler, to summer holidays, to poppy-lined banks and to nets of little fish flashing in the bright sun.

Once this law is understood, you will see that the second best-selling fishing book of all time had to be Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing, published in the early Fifties by the Daily Mirror. To call this a cartoon strip would be a crime. Crabtree was conceived and drawn by Bernard Venables, and I defy you to find an angler today over 35 who does not owe his whole inspiration to Crabtree. Over two million copies of Crabtree have been sold and I remember how we used to huddle in little groups along the canal side, treasuring every single picture, trying hopelessly to copy the elegance of Crabtree's casts. If our little group was typical, then Crabtree has certainly been read by over 10 million anglers and has shaped every single one of us.

Crabtree and his son Peter lived in a world apparently little altered since Walton's day. Valleys are idylls of glistening streams, thatched cottages and mellow brick bridges. The skyline ripples with church spires and stately oaks. We would all read Crabtree, rods lying on the towpath and bicycles propped against the wall; one day we too would find a water without litter, without chemical pollution without yobs ands best of all, with fish fin-perfect and fat as butter. It does not really matter that such a water only exists in the mind of Walton or Venables: we are all happy to spend our lives looking for the dream.

The years 1880 to 1950 was the great age of our angling classics. This was not unlike the period of Izaak Walton's life: the world rocked to the horrors of war, recession, and a disintegrating social, political and economic hierarchy. Added to this, the ills of the Industrial Revolution were reaching their peak. It is hardly surprising that the greatest angling minds responded by stepping backwards, looking longingly to their boyhoods. The classics created are still with us: Where the Bright Waters Meet by Plunket Greene, The River Never Sleeps by Haig Brown and most especially, A Summer on the Test by J W Hills. This book speaks for all who believe the best is somehow lost and the future is frighteningly fragile: 'By now, dusk had come on, stars were in the sky and in the air, bats had taken the place of swifts. All was over.'

1991 was not exactly an easy year: a recession, a crisis of leadership, a worldwide plague, war on virtually every continent - Walton would have recognised it well. Hardly surprising then, if my thesis is correct, that Fly Fishing by J R Hartley should have rocketed into the best-sellers list. This was a made-to-measure nostalgia book, written by Michael Russell who is, in his own words, 'not exactly the heron,' but rather a literary expert with quite enough wit to see the opening. We all responded to the gentle, old fisherman on the television; looking back through misty eyes to the days of his prime, brought back by the noble Yellow Pages. The book, full of crumpets served for tea and trout rising in the lull of summer evenings, was a sure-fire winner. Good old J R, and Izaak and Mr Crabtree: all lined and wise, smelling slightly of pipe-smoke, water mint and good honest shoe leather. That's what we anglers want - not the latest in baits and rigs but an escape back to a world of our youth, or of our grandfathers or, anyway, to the world we have all lost. So, on this 400th birthday, let us raise our pewter tankards, quaff the good ale and bless good old Izaak.

(Photograph omitted)