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.

Friday 8 May 2015

Waxing Time

If fly-fishing is a pointless activity, fly-tying is possibly an even bigger waste of time. Unless you are particularly nimble fingered, it’s going to be a slow process. I could buy thousands of flies in the thirty seconds it takes me press assuredly on my Ipad. Instead, thirty minutes of nervous fumbling will get me two flies. It’s an entirely false economy. My kit, my beads, my feathers and my hooks probably make each fly I tie fly worth about £5. On an average fishing trip I expect to lose one or two flies, I probably lose three or four. I might as well be lobbing bottles of Pouilly Fume into the river.

Then again, that’s price. Fly tying is value. I think I can tie a more ethical fly. I can ensure that all my hooks are barbless, I avoid exotic materials. I do wish the welfare of the chickens by suppliers of my saddle feathers were better. It is hypocritical of me to buy free range eggs and buy factory farm feathers. So I’ve stopped buying any new saddles until I can find a better source. More importantly, I know who has tied it. My working conditions are great. This is my shed/office space.

 I am pretty sure that many cheap flies are tied by underpaid people in horrible conditions.
The real value though is in the enjoyment. It’s a truly mindless activity, which makes it mindful. Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in thepresent moment, with compassion, and open-hearted curiosity
As I concentrate on the feel of thread and feather on my fingers, or even a sharp prick from careless hook handling, I am taken away from my daily woes, or lingering problems. This sort of activity is meant to be good for you. The true joy of fly-tying is found through a warm embrace of the ridiculous. Trying to create something beautiful with precision from the detritus of dead things is silly. Surely no sane person should buy a filing cabinet to house nothing else but a motley collection of squirrel tails and dried up rabbit faces? Crazier still, I’m really proud of my neat system for carcass storage.

I had great fun this week trying to imitate Gwilym Hughes’s famous Cul de Canon. It requires cobbler’s wax to add colour and sheen to yellow thread. This is difficult to source and it really is a needless expense at a time when I am trying to buy windows, carpets and kitchens. Therefore, I did a mad thing and decided to make my own. I sacrificed a block of fly tying wax given to me by the magisterial Michael Pattinson of Leeds Fly Dresser’s Guild with much kindness and, perhaps a little disdain, that I wasn’t properly equipped.  I couldn’t bear to melt my lovely block of pure beeswax made by Sally Pointer and her own bees.

Against all sound advice, I melted it in the microwave. My saucepans are far too posh to get covered in wax. It worked and a stirred in a tiny amounts of brown shoe polish using a satay stick. A cleaned up Nespresso Capsule served as a mould. I then had to wait patiently for the wax to set before it could be cut free from its metal shell.

The result was pleasingly disappointing in appearance. For my efforts, I made a small turd that smells of coffee.  

It’s a great tying wax though. The shoe polish has made it very tacky, which will be useful for sticking fur to it. I’m really pleased with the bodies of my first Cul de Canon efforts. The bodies are dull and shiny, a good imitation of a hatching olive. Two hours of mindfully wasted time. Brilliant.

Monday 20 April 2015

Dipteran Dreams or Cycling to Work along the Thames Towpath

The truth of the matter is that buying and owning houses is not conducive to fishing or writing. Most weekends last season were spent traipsing through beige houses with beige carpets and bedspreads that were probably owned by beige people.  People of Surrey, you should know that you can buy things from places other than John Lewis- liberate yourselves! Yes, we’ve moved to Surrey. As a Cricklewood girl, leaving Zone 2 breaks my heart but moving to Surrey has meant I’m near to work and we have more than one bedroom and a fair chunk of garden. We bought the only house that wasn’t beige but that means it's a bit of a wreck- it’s full of potential though. Indeed it’s nothing but potential. Our minty green bathroom is downstairs and is bigger than our nicotine yellow kitchen. Nothing is insulated and our ceilings are weak. When we moved in every possible surface was covered in excrement both human and animal and everything else was covered in grime. Nature surrounds and invades us. We are still blessed frequently by the presence of false widow spiders but the two snails eating the dried piss behind the bidet were bid a crunchy farewell. It’s now clean but we have years of work ahead.Apart from its absence of beige, I love this silly terraced cottage because it’s near the river. It strikes me that I’ve often settled for living in places where the river defines the town. In York, the Ouse dominated the city; it was a wild river. My evening walks were punctuated by the sounds of pike gobbling things, its dark waters barely tamed.

I now own a bicycle and the bright evenings and mornings mean I now cycle to work along the river towpath to Hampton Court Palace where I work. I’m very spoiled. I’m not speedy; the shower situation in my Tudor office is a bit dire; so I strive to achieve nothing more than a lady’s glow rather than a horse’s sweat. It’s a pleasant enough four and half miles of river. The Thames is not a beautiful river. It lacks the stunning elegance of chalk streams. Chalk streams are the lazy Hollywood starlets of English rivers. The Thames by contrast is a working river, the actress’s cabbie.

For millennia the Thames has been carrying things, precious cargo, royal princes to their palaces and a heck of a lot of sewage. Even here, in Surrey, warehouses and factories protrude from the banks. The weirs and locks scream of industry, the river’s flow made even more workmanlike by steel and concrete interventions.

Reservoirs tower over my commuter stretch of river, they are both threatening and comforting. One day, when my garden is filled with poppies and salvia it will need water and if there is ever an earthquake, I will probably drown.

The sounds of splashing oars, rowlocks, sliding seats, officious coxes and grunting humans greet me daily when I cycle to work along the Thames to Hampton Court. My stretch of the Thames is littered with boat-houses. I’m filled with happy memories of pimms, champagne, the Bodleian and boys in  lycra. 

It’s an idyllic commute and I’m enjoying the achy stiffening of my chubby legs, they will get stronger and hopefully a little leaner. I’m enjoying seeing blossom and wilting daffodils and streaky patches of young bluebells. What I’m not enjoying is cycling through clouds of itchy midges. I keep swallowing them as I trundle along the towpath. This is rather horrid, and as I spit out the small and pathetic corpses of dead dipterae I am reminded that on other rivers there are flies hatching and trout rising and I`m not there.