A compleat load of politics

Fishing Lines

The veneration paid to Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler has always puzzled me. As far as I'm concerned, about the only thing you can say for the work is that it has been published a lot (more editions than any book except the Bible and the works of Shakespeare), though goodness knows why.

I've tried to plough through it in three editions, but it never gets any better. The dreary ramblings of Venator, Piscator, Coridon and all those other unlikely characters are about as interesting as collecting grey socks. The book's only other virtue is that it's a surefire cure for insomnia. Ten pages and your eyes are blinking. I still haven't managed 20 pages at one go.

Yet to hear some people talk, you would think Walton's work was the definitive tome on angling (though why anyone should write a book on fishing just because an apple fell on his head is beyond me). The Golden Scale Club, a collection of fruitcakes if there ever was one, carry their crackpot reverence to extremes by visiting his tomb. What makes this doubly daft is that the club's members include the admirable Chris Yates, whose writing makes Walton's drivel look like your first school essay on How I Spent My Holidays.

Recently I discovered that I was not alone in being a Waltonphobe. The American writer Ed Zern claimed he suffered habitual feelings of spiritual inferiority whenever his friends boasted how many times they had read the book, or when they quoted chunks at him.

Zern, though, did something about it. In A Fine Kettle of Fish Stories, he reveals the result of his research. Walton lovers, beware. You won't like what you're about to read one bit. Walton was, in fact, a monarchist whose real name was Matthew Hornaday, and he never fished a day in his life, Zern says. "He was in fact scornful of all outdoor sports and games, though records indicate that he occasionally bowled at St James Green in London until caught cheating in a minor tournament."

Hornaday, Zern says, was an admirer of Richard Hooker, whose biography he wrote. Hooker's equally dull Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity dealt exhaustively with the role of the established church and its relation to royalty and the civil government. Hornaday chose the angling allegory, Zern says, "as an obfuscatory reference to the theologian because a fisherman is, of course, a hooker of fishes".

The book has nothing to do with angling, Zern reveals. "It is, in every detail, a tedious political allegory, intended not for the amusement or instruction of anglers, but simply for the advancement of the Caroline cause and the confusion of the forces of Cromwell. The gist of his thesis is the fundamental illegality of the Cromwellian regime, in the furtherance of which viewpoint he assumed the pseudonym Walton, which is "not law" spelt backwards."

When you look at it in this light, it is apparent that the book abounds in veiled references to ecclesiastical and political figures of 17th-century Britain. Walton's famous reference to frogs as bait ("and use him as though you loved him") is in fact a clumsily obscured incitement to anti-Cromwellian insurrection, Zern says. There is more in the same mould, but you get the idea. Looking at Walton in this light, you can now admit that it's a boring load of tosh and you can't see how anybody except an English graduate could possibly read it on its superficial level as an angling book.

Then again, Zern, a superb raconteur whose writings were once described by Playboy as "wise and witty insights", could have been making it all up.

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