Blessed list thick with vicars

Fishing Lines
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The Independent Online
SOME of life's great mysteries have been taxing me this week. Whatever happened to all the vicars who used to go fishing? Why don't people sing gay ditties about angling any more? Why did old writers give themselves such stupid pseudonyms? And why does anyone who goes salmon fishing feel compelled to write a book about it?

These are not the idle meanderings of a fine mind gone squishy. I've just received my favourite reading of the year, the annual tome sent out by Salisbury book dealers John and Judith Head. It lists nearly 2,700 fishing books from Bill Taylor's Fishing the Upper Thames (pounds 1.50) to Brook and River Trouting by Edmonds and Lee for pounds 4,500. For angling bibliophiles, it is the definitive catalogue. You want the two-volume de luxe first edition (limited to 75 copies) of Frederick Halford's Modern Development of the Dry Fly, with 33 actual flies built into the book, Biden's Sea Fishes of the Cape or Paul Wellendorf's Alt Om Geddefiskeri, Forord af Svend Methling? Look no further.

A small, unassuming man who doesn't fish, John Head knows more about angling books than anyone else in the world. He has been selling them for more than 30 years and reckons that he's seen nearly all the 25,000 or so books, including almost every variety of Walton's The Compleat Angler (more versions than any other book except the Bible). So his catalogue is much more than a list of books: it contains notes about each one, and he'll give exhaustive details about the author's auntie if you visit the shop.

My first read is to see if any of the books I've collected will be rated with those magical words "scarce" or "rare". I've found a couple of old ones over the past year, but age is not always the benchmark. You can pay pounds 15 for JT Burgess's Angling: A Practical Guide (1867) or pounds 585 for the 1988 Fred Buller and Hugh Falkus's Fresh Water Fishing.

On re-reading the catalogue, I started to notice details. That's when I spotted the religious link with angling books. We know about monks keeping carp and tench in their stockponds, but did you know that the 19th-century vicar usually collared the best fishing in the village?

No wonder so many churches fell into disrepair in the early part of this century: their former guardians were out fishing all the time or writing about it. Look at this: Rev CD Badham, Prose Halieutics or Modern and Ancient Fish Tattle (1854); Rev W Cartwright, Rambles and Recollections of a Fly Fisher (1854); Rev Richard Dunford, The Fishing Diary of a Test Fisherman (1911) - and there are loads more.

Probably a lot of those pen names are vicars too, hiding behind a pseudonym to conceal their idle lives. They range from the cryptic Arundo and Faddist to fly references like Red Spinner, Ephemera, Silver Doctor and Sparse Grey Hackle. And what about Clericus? I'll bet he wasn't the local publican.

More puzzling is the 19th century fisher's passion for a merry roundelay or a sonnet. Opening the catalogue at random, I found The Art of Fishing: A Poem, North Shields; The Angler: A Poem in Ten Cantos (by the aptly named Thomas Pike Lathy); Angling Songs from Border Streams; The Anglers: Eight Dialogues in Verse (1758) and A Collection of Right Merrie Garlands for North Country Anglers. But there are others, including Posthumous Songs of 1847.

You may think it is a shame you don't come upon warbling classics like "The Tench of Thornville House" or "The Ettrick Shepherd's Salmon Song", nowadays. Personally, I would need several large treble hooks lodged in my testicles before I could be forced to sing lines like:

Thou bonny fish from the far sea

Whose waves unwearied roll

In primitive immensity

Aye buffeting the pole!"

But perhaps it sounds better with a Scottish accent.

J and J Head: 01722 327767