Friday, 13 January 2017

Small Things. Quiet Achievements.

Enforced rest caused by a frightful pox upon my legs and kidneys is good for me, though I'm not sure I can keep this up for much longer. I'm listless and lethargic, wondering if I am tired because I am not quite well or tired because I haven't done much. I'm not used to this. 

My Head of Research has told me to get well and strong doing all the things I enjoy. "What do you like to do Polly?" I like to be outside, quietly and vigorously expending energy in order to truly relish something warm and hearty and stodgy. I like the feeling of my cold, chubby cheeks turning red, warmed by log fires and laughter. I like this to have been preceded by a sense of quiet achievement. A day tramping about chasing pheasants would do the trick as would digging in some manure into frost crusted beds. I was looking forward to stalking pike in the frost. From my bed right now, I can almost feel my cold, chapped lips crack with a smile earned from a good catch.  All to much for me to cope with right now although I know I'd feel better straight away for having a good, log walk in the cold, fresh air. Hopefully I'll be stomping round again before spring. Instead, today, I experimented with tying paraloop flies. I also mopped the floor and made a lasagne. Small things, quiet achievements. 

Monday, 20 June 2016

Ephemeral Anguish

I think if we fishermen are honest with ourselves we spend the first couple of months of the season waiting. Throwing weighty nymphs and speculative casts are all well and good but it’s never truly satisfying. 
So, for the early parts of the season we watch and wait for hatches of march browns and clouds of grannom but nothing captivates us like the mayfly. Their life cycle means crazed fish and fishermen. There’s an intense sense of getting to the river “first” at my club at the moment. Members are determined to grab the best beats as they hunt for fish and the mayfly. For many, this is the only time of year they fish. I’d like to say I’m immune but there is nothing quite like watching a river change and go into a frenzy as angry looking trout gobble up lace-like and fragile mayfly. Or indeed my favourite spectacle of all, watching little ducklings strain their necks to snap at them.


Last season enormous hatches blessed my daily cycle along the Thames. They seemed to be everywhere, dancing above the brambles or fluttering into my face. Every evening as I crossed the bridge at Hampton court, there were always a few resting in the stone bridge. Normally, the webs, which span the fine, baroque ironwork at the palace are peppered with mayfly corpses.  I enjoyed listening to squeals of horror as they invaded the garden of my local pub. For me, a resting mayfly on a cool pint glass is a welcome companion.

This year, my cycle rides are spent straining my neck to see traces of mayfly in cobwebs, or their shucks floating on the slower, gloomier parts of the river.  


I’ve become fascinated by scavenging seagulls, dipping and diving for elusive insects over the barges. I question the custody team at work about them, and none have become imprisoned in the Tijou. 
Tijou Screen Hampton Court Palace.

I’m getting desperate. Where are they? I angered a speedy lycra-clad cyclist by dithering on the banks as I searched for signs of mayfly presence. He shouted “fucking knob” at me and I shouted back “Don’t you care about nature you sweaty bastard?” At first I questioned my aggression but I was anxious. Anxious over the whereabouts of an ephemeral insect.

Monday, 13 July 2015

On Marginalia...

My mother said I should never write in books.  Sorry Ma, but I’ve always ignored you on that one. School set-texts were vigorously highlighted and annotated, I even colour coded my scribbles. My museum training tells me that these books are now forever ruined and conservators make me fear biro being both indelible and acidic. My school copy of Pride and Prejudice will probably fizzle and crumble away but for now my teenage scribbles of “ooh er Mr Darcy”,“Go Lizzy!” and “yawn, yawn, yawn” make me smile and have recorded my first impressions of reading that great novel. Incidentally, I don’t actually like the book that much but I did enjoy the BBC seres, you know, the one where Colin Firth jumps in a lake.

I found genuine joy as a student reading the well-thumbed Bodleian copies of the standard texts. In true Oxford pretentious fashion, there would be long commentaries by individual students, arguing in the margins, academic, arrogant posturing.  Other scribbles were more helpful. I am forever thankful to the student who wrote ‘this is bollocks, read Brian Davies instead’. It saved me a lot of time on the run up to a tight deadline. Indeed, I think I remember adding an illicit “thanks” in the margin.  Best of all though, is when you see a scribble in a book that was given as a present and memories of that person and that past flood back. 

There’s a long history of margin scribbling. One of my favourite museum objects ever is Liebniz’s copy of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, in the Bodmer museum in Geneva. It’s annotated all over; the hatchings and blots are the reasons behind their longstanding and famous battle for scientific supremacy in the eyes of the establishment. In my own studies, the daily menus of King George I list pies, eels, and boiled beef in the main, but the margins have hasty additions of things like liverwurst and pretzels- evidence of a German monarch longing for home. There’s a word for these bonus pieces of text- marginalia.  As someone who regularly trawls through the archives, finding an inky, blotchy scribble in the side-lines is always exciting. They point out errors, bring a little context, or just add a welcome human distraction in the endless pages of accounts and bureaucracy I'm often reading.

The skill of fishing chalk-streams is really the ability to skirt your fly close to the reeds, under trees and in the edges. It’s an exercise in reading marginalia, for in these snug spots lie the biggest and most wily of trout. Some fishermen are numbers men, happy to drag nymphs in the main current through shoals of grayling or torture baby trout that rise for anything. Personally, I’d rather endure more Jane Austen; it’s a bore unhooking grayling and they make my hands smell. So, unless it’s a specimen size, these days catching a grayling is a disappointment. I’m not after pewter; I’m chasing gold. So clear troughs of gravel are best ignored.

I’ve had some good trout this season. In April, when it can be a bit cold and dire my father and I spotted a snug spot, where tree roots had made a pretty ring, almost like bathing pool. Although nothing had risen and the river had not yet cleared enough to see through, I plopped a nymph to its edge and winkled out a tubby trout. It was particularly pleasing as I'd tied  it myself to my own experimental design using lots of peacock, green dubbing, and copper.

In early June I had a fantastic and rare, free afternoon following a successful bid at Christies for work. I hopped into my car changed out of a suit and into scruffy stuff in a motorway service station. After a slow afternoon, I was treated to a spate of mayfly. I watched a steady riser on the edge of a flowering flowing stretch of reed. I wanted to speed towards it, but that never works, so I had an agonising slow walk, casting and catching irrelevant small fish along the way. I arrived in casting range, steeled myself, cast and caught the reeds then cast and caught the reeds again. Luckily they were so thick, nothing was disturbed, but I was taking a chance. On the third cast, when by some godly grace my fly landed well and could trace the line of weed, I got her; a plump and pretty fish worth waiting for: mission accomplished.

With time to spare, I took three steps forward and saw a lovely, dark inlet. Again, I willed my fly to kiss the reeds because the spot looked likely. It was. I don’t often boast or brag but this was a good three-pound cock fish, it was also really, bloody, ugly. It had a kype and a generally rather bruised and dark appearance.  Still, this “outsider” of a trout serves as an extreme example of the rewards of fishing on the edges. A wise fisherman told me once, “that if I haven’t lost at least three flies, I’m not trying hard enough”. That can only be because he knows the wisest thing to do is to ignore the mainstream and hunt in the margins.