Fishing Lines: Hooked on musical bait

EVER since the most respected fisherman of the 20th century insisted that a burst of opera could encourage fish to feed, I've been searching for the definitive song to charm my quarry on to the hook. And I just might have discovered the secret.

I'm sure Richard Walker was not altogether serious when he suggested that La Boheme was just the thing to bring trout on the feed, but even in this he proved prophetic. Research in the Solent recently proved that fish do respond to certain sounds.

I've tried everything from humming Schubert's 'The Trout' to belting out 'Glad All Ova' by the Dave Clark Five. A winter airing of 'My Tiny Hand is Frozen' has proved just as unproductive as 'Dace of Wine and Roses'. Perhaps I need to cater for a new generation, I reasoned.

Then I bought The Book.

Its faded brown leather cover gave no clue to its value. I spotted it in an antiquarian book shop and, with trembling hands, I flicked through its hand-cut, heavily foxed pages. I gladly paid the few pounds asked by the owner and I am convinced that The Angler's Song Book, edited by Robert Blakey in 1855, may be the answer to my quest.

This is not some simple compilation of a night's noisy entertainment, put together by some drunken fisherman after a heavy night at the local tavern. Oh no. The book, with, songs from as far back as 1600, immediately points out to us that Blakey was author of The History of the Philosophy of Mind.

A modest man, I suspect. In his foreword, Blakey describes the work as 'a small volume', even though he has collected more than 200 airs and roundelays. He points out: 'All that can be said for their merits is that they are the production of practical anglers, and are addressed to the feelings and sentiments of those who have a sympathy with them in the prosecution of their common craft.' Now that's what I have been searching for: practical songs written for practical anglers.

As I live in East Anglia I resolved to start with 'The King of the Fen Waters':

Beneath the blue waters his palace is seen,

All fishermen truly aver;

And oft as their boats sail slow on the Nene,

They get a sly peep both at him and his Queen,

And loud are their praises of her.

But hold on] That one won't work. You'll be lucky to see even six inches down into the Nene nowadays. And I soon realised that many other songs were designed just for one location, such as 'The Tench of Thornville House':

The sullion wench,

Did catch a Tench,

Fatter than Berkshire hogs, Sir,

Which, pretty soul,

Had made his hole,

Snug shelt'd by some logs, Sir.

Don't write 'em like that any more, do they? Or like 'A Day By The Side of the Tyne':

Then on will we ramble to Wylam's deep holes,

Where the large heavy trout lie together in shoals,

And we'll hook them, and creel them, and make the glades ring,

As with hearts, like our rods, all elastic, we'll sing.

Finding the right number has been proving more difficult than I thought. Some are unbearably gloomy, such as 'The Angler's Distress':

I've lost my rod, my Flies and knife,

Sav'd only fish and purse;

Yet when I think of human life,

Thank Heaven it is no worse . . .

Others are surprisingly bawdy, such as 'The Loves of the Shell Fishes':

A Crab there was a dashing young blade

And he was in love with a lobster maid;

But the lobster maid was a terrible prude,

And she told her mamma that the crab was rude.

Ri too ral, &c.

Well, you can guess that it's downhill from there.

I'm still very hopeful that I shall find a suitable lay, one to tempt even the wiliest fish. But even when I find it, there remains one problem. Many list the melody to which they should be sung. But how many people nowadays know the tune of 'When We Went a Gipsying', 'All in the Downs' or 'The Cork Leg'? Knowing my luck, they would probably require accompaniment by spinet or dulcimer anyway.

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