Inspired by a list of guests at London’s venerable Flyfishers’ Club during the past 135 years, David Profumo imagines who might attend his own dream angling dinner party
In his sprightly, compendious and intriguing new history of London’s august Flyfishers’ Club – the volume weighs as much as a decent grilse – Dr Andrew Herd covers everything, from the mystery of the broken vice to the scandal of the hatless member. In a diverting appendix, he imagines a club dinner of guests drawn from the past 135 years. This set me thinking: which angling luminaries would I invite to such a winter feast?
I would exclude the living and those deceased I’d known (so, no Buller, Falkus or Melly); the club table seats 13, so here is my dozen Fantasy League Piscatorial Dinner Guests, ordered by dates of death.
For conviviality, I’d begin with Charles Cotton (died 1687) – devoted protegé of Izaak Walton, an insolent, drinkative, subversive poet and cash-strapped Royalist who wrote the second part of The Compleat Angler, but was also a keen gambler, gardener and billiards player.
I think he would get on well with Victorian author William Scrope (d. 1852), a painter and Classical scholar whose Days and Nights of Salmon Fishing in the Tweed is suffused with joie de vivre and a sense of the subversive (a pin-up of mine).
Versatile, witty and an observer of quotidien bankside experiences, H. T. Sheringham (d. 1930) was a member of that endangered species, the ‘all-rounder’: a liberal-spirited sportsman (although politically a socialist), he was an exemplary essayist and lyrical eulogist of coarse fishing and uncharacteristically modest on the page, for an angling author (Can this be right? Ed).
Negley Farson (d. 1960) was a two-fisted American travel writer, an heroic toper and novelist of distinction whose 1942 Going Fishing remains his claim to fame; my bar tab might grow steeply, but this swashbuckling stylist was a chronicler nonpareil. I might sit him next to the venerable Arthur Ransome (d. 1967); celebrated as a children’s author (although not especially fond of children), he’d previously enjoyed a life of espionage, Russian travel (he eloped with Trotsky’s secretary) and wide angling experience.
He claimed the achievement he was most proud of was the invention of the Elver fly, inspired by watching GIs chewing gum.
Another American guest would be Van Campen Heilner (d. 1970), the sybaritic heir to a mining fortune, bear hunter, tuna chaser, aficionado of Cuban fishing (he married a Havana girl), who was an elegant, engaging writer and lively character. Once, hungover, he vomited over a radio mike, but the interviewer improvised an answer about barracuda fishing.
Sussex-born Roderick Haig-Brown (d. 1976) made his life in Canada, where he’s so revered as an author and environmentalist that there’s a mountain named in his honour. Logger, guide, explorer and pioneering conservationist, his many books are filled with quiet wisdom: ‘I still don’t know why I fish or why other men fish, except that we like it and it makes us think and feel.’
I so admire the work of novelist Henry Williamson (d. 1977) that I have a picture of him on my desk. An intuitive, passionate man with a thirsty, complicated private life, his reputation was tainted by his association with the Nazis, but as a graceful, nuanced Nature writer he showed genius – A Clear-water Stream is my favourite.
American Ed Zern (d. 1994) was a talented Madman, humourist and cartoonist with a penchant for the absurd, who wrote To Hell with Fishing, as well as that notorious review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover that concluded, ‘this book can not take the place of JR Miller’s Practical Game-keeping’ (a title he’d invented).
His passion for flamenco might keep us on our toes, as might fellow diner Fidel Castro (d. 2016), so long the Teflon Dictator spared us his filibustering speeches. Mad keen on flats fishing, Fidel won the 1960 inaugural Hemingway Marlin Cup, being presented with the trophy by Papa himself, despite rumours (surely not?) of the tournament being rigged.
The disputes among all these chaps will not unduly preoccupy me, as I will be seated between two of history’s most beguiling anglers – Cleopatra (d. 30bc) and Coco Chanel (d. 1971). That should keep me entranced until the arrival of the petits fours.
‘The Flyfishers’ by Andrew Herd is out now (Medlar Press, £60)
David Profumo has a ball on the Tweed.
David Profumo rejoices in the wild landscapes of the Outer Hebrides
David Profumo explores the link between religion and fish.
Rivers in Norway have legendary salmon fishing. David Profumo pays a visit.
David Profumo is hooked by a discursive, lively account of landing wild salmon all over the world.