Angling: A total write-off, or unfinished business?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SINCE GETTING back from Ludlow on Wednesday night, I have spent every spare moment combing the house for the original manuscript of Fishing the Thames from Source to Sea. It's no good searching bookshops for this work. You won't find it. Even John and Judith Head, the world's top fishing bookshop, don't know anything about it. But suddenly, it appears that FTTFSTS could be worth quite a bundle.

The book has already been good to me twice - even though it has never actually appeared on any bookshelves. Living in Maidenhead, Berkshire, back in the 1970s, I fished the Thames so much that I was commissioned to write a book about it.

Jam today being better than bread and jam tomorrow, I forsook royalties and took most of the money as an up-front payment. But some way through the writing (I was downstream about as far as Henley), the publisher went belly-up. Ho hum. It had taken a lot of my time, but then I had been paid most of what I would have earned anyway, and I'd fished a lot of new places.

Some years later, the man who commissioned the book popped up again. He was now working for another publisher. "Remember that Thames book?" he said. "We would like to print it." I protested that it was unfinished and needed a total update anyway. Money changed hands. I started writing.

This time I finished it. To hit the deadline, I wrote right through Christmas, even on Christmas Day. The publishers (White Lion Press, or something), sent back proofs - in those pre-computer days, everything was still typeset. I read through all 100,000 words, made corrections, even added a bit about a new Thames record tench and an update on Thames salmon to give real topicality.

Pictures were a problem. I wanted dozens, they wanted eight. I phoned to ask if we could print half-plates, thereby getting more in. The phone was engaged. I phoned again. Still engaged. I wrote. No reply. I phoned again. Number unobtainable. Yup, you've guessed. They had gone belly-up too.

I lost interest, put the bundle in a wardrobe and forgot all about it. I moved away from the Thames, got married, had children, wrote other books. But I never threw away FTTFSTS. At least, I don't think I did.

Anyway, this week I went to Mullock Madeley's fishing auction at Ludlow (research for my new magazine, Classic Angling, you understand). The catalogue listed item 449 as: "A hand- written manuscript by Major A T Fisher titled The Instructions on Salmon Fly Dressing 142pp c/w four original water colour and hand-drawn illustrations." The estimate was pounds 50-pounds 60. Hmm, quite nice, I thought. Worth going up to pounds 80 for that. I was a bit discomfited to see John and Judith Head themselves there. They are serious book buyers, not butterflies like me. Hope they haven't noticed it, I thought. Fat chance. But so had someone else.

The bidding started at pounds 20. Within seconds, it was in the hundreds. Never even got the chance to raise my arm. The room stilled when it topped pounds 1,000. It didn't stop there. pounds 1,500, pounds 2,000, finally stopping at pounds 2,600. And it wasn't the Heads who bought it.

Afterwards, Judith told me she and her husband had come up from Salisbury just for the late 19th-century manuscript. They decided it was a bit dear when it topped pounds 2,500. After all, they bought an original manuscript with more pages and lots more illustrations for not much more fairly recently, though they did once pay pounds 10,000 for a particularly nice example.

pounds 10,000! Now that's what I call a royalty payment. But I'd be more than happy with pounds 2,600. I bet old Fisher never put in the amount of practical detail that I did. Fishing the Thames from Source to Sea contains the fullest account ever written of Thames salmon, never mind all the other stuff. By rights, the major's book should be worth a fraction of my masterpiece, which is still, though unpublished, the most comprehensive work on the subject.

We're talking history here. I'm happy to accept postal bids... just as soon as I can put my hands on the damned thing.