[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



John Waller Hills (1921)

Allan and Co, London, 1921; republished by Freshet Press, New York, 1971; quarter bound in green leather, gold embossed with covered cloth boards; facsimile of original edition.

Then you see your fly too.  Nothing is hid.  When the fly comes over him, you see him prepare to take it – or treat it with stolid indifference.  You see him rise and take.  The whole drama is played out before your eyes.

The followers of some past-times can be a real pain – wine buffs, film buffs, public schoolboys who never leave school, followers of Wagner’s Ring – the very princes of pains in the arse – and bowlers at the RSL are examples.  Golfers are notorious for leaving their wives or evading their husbands.  In this country, shooters are either too low or too high on the social scale.  Cricket has become irredeemably vulgar and tennis is as mentionable as a grunt over dinner.

When it comes to fishing, a curious dichotomy has spawned itself in this part of the colonies.  Salt-water fishing – bait fishing, Old Boy – tends to be seen as the go for the common sort of people who follow Rugby League – western suburbs Micks, blue-collared, black trackies and tats.  Fly fishing is seen as the go for the better sought of people who follow Rugger – people from School.  This image is the kind of bullshit that you have to put up with in a country whose communal neurosis compels it to continue to import its Head of State from the Old Country.  As I tried to learn about fly fishing, I had the benefit of being a member of a country fly fishing club that contains as decent a bunch of bastards as you might want to meet – including, if it matters, women – and is as serenely bereft of class as it is possible to get in this duckpond.  They were also devoted conservationists.

But, there is no doubt that fly fishing has an air about it – a mystique.  This is partly because it combines physical skill and grace in dealing with nature – or, as we might prefer to say, the bush – perhaps in a way not entirely different to what happens in wine-making or cheese-making.  The other reason is that people know that the art or craft of fly fishing is a very subtle one that has a long and distinguished history – longer than that of other sports except horse-racing, hunting, and possibly royal tennis.  Fly fishing has been served by men of letters, keepers of the flame, at least as well as cricket and golf, and it continues to hold a place in the public imagination even though it is not subject to mass coverage – perhaps because it is not subject to mass coverage.  And it is not at risk of seeing its technique cheapened or degraded by technology – which is now frighteningly the case with golf.

The mystique of the art of fly fishing is nowhere better shown than in this beautiful little gem of a book by John Waller Hills.  I do not know if the author is the man of the same name who served as a Major in the Great War and became a Conservative MP – this book is most gracefully written, perhaps partly as a result of the influence of Eton and Balliol.

The thesis of the book – if that is the term – is that there was not much difference in fly fishing between the time that America was discovered and the Great war – although dry fly fishing – keeping the fly afloat – did not arrive until the nineteenth century.  The author surveys the beginnings of sporting literature – all French – and his survey of the fly literature begins with ‘Treatise of Fishing with an Angle’ by Dame Julyan Barnes in 1496, and Izaak Walton’s ‘The Compleat Angler’ in 1653.  No facet of the sport or its literature is omitted.  This book is at once a work of scholarship and enthusiasm and grace, from gear, to stalking, to upstream or downstream, to the tying and casting of flies.

Here is Mr Hills’ advice for the March Brown: ‘I rather like Chetham’s pattern, for black sheep’s wool is brown when held up to the light, and if spun on red silk might give the reddish brown of the body which is so hard to copy.  And then a partridge quill feather is good.  The perfect fly is still to come, but meantime it is worth noticing how little it has changed in what is nearly two centuries and a half.’  Here he is on the Iron Blue: ‘Chetham is the first to mention this also, and he made it ‘of the Down of a Mouse for body and head, dubbed with sad Ash-coloured Silk, wings of the sad coloured feather of a Shepstare quill.’’  If you have ever tied a fly, you will see how apt and engaging these words are.

But the book is really alive when talking about other books, or engaging with nature through the sport.

The casting too has its fascination.  On your day – and such days come to all of us, to make up for the many when we are either maddened or drugged and stupefied by our incurable ineptitude – how delicately and how surely you could throw.  You mean your fly to fall four inches above the fish, and sure enough it does, not an inch more or less.  Nothing is too difficult; drag has no terrors; head wind is a friend not an enemy, for does it not enable you to put a curve on your gut which brings your fly over the fish first?  You know exactly what to do, and you do it.  Wherever the fish may be rising, your fly sails over him, hardly touching the water, wings up, floating like a cork, following every crinkle of the slow current.  You gain an extraordinary sense of power.  Your rod and line, right down to the fly, are part of yourself, moved by your nerves and answering to your brain.

Well, I am yet to know that feeling with a fly rod or a rifle or a sand-wedge, but, transposing continents and seasons, I know how the author felt the following (possibly about the valley of the Test River).

As April runs into May, the valley changes greatly.  It becomes green everywhere; so of course do other landscapes, but its special character is that it shows so many different shades of green, and shows them all together.  The yellow green of the young willows, the bright green of the reeds, the blue green of the iris, the vivid green of some water weeds – these are seen simultaneously.  But perhaps the chief cause of the valley’s beauty is reflected light.  Light is reflected at all angles off the glancing water, and gives the leaves an airy and translucent appearance, which you do not get elsewhere.  May, too, is the month of the hawthorn, and thorn trees flourish particularly well on the chalk.  Then also the birds come, and sedge and reed warblers make the banks musical.  Opinions will differ as to whether May or June is the better month.  May has the charm of novelty not yet worn off, but June has that of perfect fulfilment.  And to the chalk-stream fisherman June is the best month of all, for who would not if he could choose a windless day in June?  It is the month of the meadow flowers, and though the different shades of green are less marked and are merging into their summer sameness, the yellow iris makes the banks a garden, the wild rose stars the hedges, and the guilder rose hangs its cream-coloured lamps over the carriers.

Few people can write so well.  Nevill Cardus could about cricket or a concert; Kenneth Clark could write about light; Whitney Bailliett could write about jazz – but there are not many.  And what these passages bring home is that these fishermen – for some reason few women stick with it – are passionate about the natural world around them.  They are real conservationists, and they go quietly, and not like militant, didactic martinets in the big smoke who look like they would never get their feet wet.

Perhaps one reason why more women do not take up fly fishing – where there are no social or physical barriers to their entry – is the reason that they do not hunt – they are not hard-wired as hunter–gatherers.  Who knows?  There is another myth about the two sports of fly fishing and hunting with rifle or shot-gun.  They are all forms of hunting aimed at killing animal life (including birds and fish) for food or trophy, although very many fly fishers do not now detain their catch, but put it back.  Hunting in Australia is seen as down market –precisely the reverse is so in Europe.  It is also seen as more cruel than fishing.  It is hard to see why.  Pain and animals are an emotive mix, but what would you rather be – a bunny knocked stone dead by a .22 bullet, or a rainbow trout drifting along its path in God’s domain until some devious bastard contrives to drop an anchor down your gob and then haul you out and either toss you back or deliver the coup de grace and eat you up?

Well, nearly a hundred years ago, Mr Hills, for better or for worse, was not confronted by any metaphysical doubts in his quest for peace in nature.  He did however leave this enduring testament to our enjoyment of our natural world, and he deserves to be read and remembered and thanked for doing so.

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