The Times Literary Supplement, 7 March 2000


The Times Literary Supplement 7 March 2000


Archangel with fins

Robert Adamson

Robert Hughes
A JERK ON ONE END Reflections of a mediocre fisherman
109pp. Harvill. £12 1 86046 703 2

Thomas McGuane
THE LONGEST SILENCE A life in fishing
280pp. New York: Knopf. $25. 0 679 45485 3

Ernest Hemingway, in The Old Man and the Sea, offered a good idea of what it would be like to be a professional fisherman catching marlin by hand line. Hemingway, though, was not able to project what it was like for a marlin to be slowly killed by a human. Robert Hughes, with his version of negative capability, does imagine what it is like for a fish to die this way. Hughes, in prose akin to poetry, and with a vivisector’s eye, deconstructs the image of the rough beast at play.

Izaac Walton provided a blueprint for “angling” (what is now known as sport fishing). Thomas McGuane writes in The Longest Silence: “From the Restoration until now, The Compleat Angler has been renewed by turmoil, none more conspicuous than the Industrial Revolution, which produced an explosion in the popularity of angling and an idealisation of pastoral life.” In a present in which “eternity has been replaced by the abyss”, McGuane believes that The Compleat Angler, unreliable as a fishing manual, is a book not about how to fish but about how to be. Similarly, A Jerk on One End and The Longest Silence are as much about the possibility of God as they are about fish.

Both examine the problems which occur when fishing for sport and fishing for food merge. Hughes, adopting the same sort of impassioned sweep of history as in The Fatal Shore, links the particularities of morality with necessity. He notes that, in the ancient world and the early Christian era, practically no one seems to have fished for pleasure. In England the poor did not hunt or fish; they “poached” and were hanged or transported for it. He quotes from The Compleat Angler that “the angler does not sell his fish; he eats them with friends, or gives them away to passing milkmaids, who sing songs for him in exchange for their supper”. He then reminds us that, in 1643, as Cromwell began to get the upper hand, Walton, the loyal monarchist, fled London, and his appreciation of the pastoral beauties of the river bank and the milkmaid’s sweet songs was no doubt sharpened by the fact that he was “sticking hooks into worms rather than having his own head displayed on the end of a New Model Army pike”.

Hughes uses personal experience to examine the paradox of making art from killing. He writes about the first game fish he caught as a boy, from a local jetty near his school in Sydney Harbour. It was a bonito caught on a hand line, which cut his fingers, leaving scars still visible today. “Sucking my cuts, admiring the dying fish as its colours faded on the dock, surrounded by a ring of awed kids my own age, I felt the first surge of triumph in my life.” Hughes was skinny and unmotivated, he disliked team games, and his idea of a contact sport was chess. Catching the iridescent bonito gave him a new confidence which has never left him since.

Neither Hughes nor McGuane shies away from the paradox that they love the fish that they kill. McGuane, alone in the last wilderness, catches fish after fish only to set them free. He travels to distant rivers, from New Zealand to Iceland, from “nervous water” at the Florida Keys, to the Ponoi River in Russia, where he catches salmon on the trampled banks surrounded by empty vodka bottles and pieces of roasted reindeer tongue, with arctic gyrfalcons wheeling above.

The Longest Silence is for those who love both angling and conservation. There is something mesmerizing about a man who travels the world in pursuit of a fish called a permit with a carbon fibre rod and a fly that imitates a crab. Most “permit men” only catch one or two on fly in their lives, after a graduation which entails catching thousands of trout, salmon, tarpon, bonefish, sailfish, swordfish and marlin. These elite fisherman actively concern themselves with the ecology; in fact, according to McGuane, they do more in the war against commercial fishing than Greenpeace. McGuane’s attitude is more spiritual than that of Hughes.

Here is Hughes at the age of thirteen after catching his first trout:

Fifteen minutes later I had him on the bank, a deep-bodied rainbow. I made a fire of snow gum twigs and when it had burned down, roasted him in the embers for lunch. The charred skin and scales came clean away, and his flesh was deep pink from his diet of crayfish. I ate every scrap of him. I had never tasted anything as delicious.

And here is McGuane with his son, both hooking a permit at the same time:

This was unbelievable, a double-header on a fly-caught permit. I was stunned. We had to have a picture. But I had forgotten the camera, and when Thomas saw my disappointment he grabbed my shoulders. He was grinning at me, as if I was crazy in an amusing sort of way. “Dad, he said, “it's a classic. Don’t you get it?” He watched for it to sink in. “It’s better without a picture.” The permit swam away like they’d known all along that we weren’t going to keep them.

Both authors argue for conservation, although it is already too late to save some fisheries, the great cod-fishery has gone and many others are on the verge of extinction.

Hughes describes how live fish are caught for restaurant tanks; divers penetrate coral reefs in order to inject liquid cyanide from plastic squirt bottles (supplied by the fish-market middlemen) into crevices. The fish are dazed, and roughly a quarter of them, the ones which don’t die, are transferred to holding pens and flown to Hong Kong, Taiwan or Singapore where they eventually do die of cyanide poisoning, if they aren’t eaten first. “It is something to think about the next time you are in a Chinese restaurant with its aquarium tank full of fish”, writes Hughes. In an extraordinary passage, he turns the paradox at the core of both books (that we can torture ourselves as well as the fish for mere sport) and transforms it into poetry:

Marlin are the most beautiful creatures in the world, even when they are dead and their colours have gone. But live, in all their power and iridescence, light and water flowing from their bodies, silver and lavender . . . it’s like trying to describe an archangel with fins, not wings. When they walk on their tails across the water, or start a plunging run to the horizon, blazing silver amid the white foam, the line trailing behind in a long catenary, you feel awe at the sight and privilege at being one of the (relatively) few people to see such a thing.

And yet, he continues, “what is this talk of ‘privilege’ when the fish is going to die, after hours of torment, with a razor-barbed #12/0 hook embedded in its gullet or gills? The bigger the fish, the less likely it is to survive the ordeal, and the rarer these creatures get, the hollower the desire to catch them becomes.”