Fishing / Books for Christmas: The parson who fished not wisely but perhaps too well: Keith Elliott regrets the fact that 1993's angling angles failed to match Shakespeare's best lines

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THE BEST book I have read this year puts forward a novel thesis - that our greatest playwright was actually a fisherman. Shakespeare as an Angler, written by the Rev H Ellacombe, suggests that lines such as

'The luce is the fresh fish; the salt fish is an old coat'

(Shallow, Merry Wives of Windsor)


'I think this be the most villainous house in all London road for fleas;

I am stung like a tench'

(2nd Carrier, Henry IV)

provide incontrovertible proof that Will was actually a keen fisher.

Well, it's certainly an interesting theory. He quotes from Othello to The Tempest to Coriolanus to back up this idea. It's probably a load of old tosh, but the vicar of Bitton (perhaps best known for his The Plant Lore and Garden-craft of Shakespeare) at least makes interesting reading.

Which is more than can be said for most books on angling published this year. Why does a sport with such infinite variety attract such prosaic writing? Come back, Will, we were just joking about your comedies not being funny.

In fact, one of the year's best issues is not a new book at all, but a reprint of something written in 1945 - The Fisherman's Bedside Book, edited by Denys Watkins- Pitchford, or 'B B', a former art master at Rugby School. Watkins-Pitchford, who died in 1990, was a prolific author on wildlife and the countryside and won the Carnegie Medal in 1941 for his story of the last gnomes in England.

The Fishermen's Bedside Book (White Lion Press, pounds 17.95) is a mixture of many writers, though B B is not afraid to include his own offerings. Enhanced by his excellent woodcuts, the subject matter ranges from mahseer to skate.

Those who delighted in Hugh Miles's magnificent A Passion for Angling series on BBC2 will not be disappointed by the book of the series (BBC Books, pounds 16.99). The first fishing book ever to make the bestseller list (it reached No 6 in my local W H Smith), it cannot hope to match the incomparable filmwork but it does pretty well in conveying the whimsy of Miles's art.

On a less philosophical level, Practical Carp Fishing (Crowood Press, pounds 19.95) by Julian Cundiff is a very clear exposition on today's carp fishing. Cundiff is one of the most successful and innovative of the modern carp anglers. He's also typically dedicated:

' . . .When I continued to fish on all winter, I didn't have a single run between 3 November and 20 February. While it would be easy to blame the fish, it was all down to the fact that I had picked an unproven winter venue, and had failed accordingly]'

But this is very much a book of success and how to achieve it. The writing won't dazzle you, but it's very clear, comprehensive and ideal for those who want to stay out all night and catch big scaly things.

Trout and salmon fishermen all think they lead such interesting lives that we'll all want to read their exploits. But the year's best game reading for me is Trout: A Fisherman's Natural History (Swan Hill Press, pounds 24.95) by Rupert Watson.

A thinking man's book, this: less about catching trout than the life and times of the world's most popular fish. Ranging from heredity to man's influence (pollution, pesticides and abstraction), the book does not shy away from controversial issues. I think it's the first fishing book I've read that has admitted a basic problem: 'Sadly, it must be true that at the present time, the main problem with fishermen as a group is simply that there are too many of them.'

This one may leave you feeling a little uncomfortable, John Bailey's Casting Far and Wide (David & Charles, pounds 17.99) will leave you feeling envious. With pictures of huge mahseer, Nile perch, char, catfish and ferox trout, Bailey wanders the world in search of decent fishing. But he's generous enough to share with readers how to get there, the problems and what to take.

There's even a chapter on my less than successful expedition to Ecuador to catch arapaima, which he has generously included in a book subtitled Great Angling Adventures of the World. Great escapist stuff.

My own small contribution to angling literature this year has been the story of double world champion Bob Nudd, How to be the World's Best Fisherman (Boxtree pounds 17.99).

It was the most difficult book I've ever written because Bob cannot remember his first rod, where he fished, what he caught and how he caught it. But it's really aimed at keen competition fishermen, who, fortunately, will never notice.

Or maybe they will. Perhaps one day, someone will analyse it as closely as the Rev Ellacombe did Shakespeare. But you'll just have to take my word on that one. It was published in 1883, and has never been reprinted. Ah, they don't write books like they used to.