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)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'