Book Review: Once a Flyfisher

Although Laurence Catlow’s obsession with fishing literature takes its toll on his own prose, his latest book,Once a Flyfisher, makes for a touching read.

Reading Laurence Catlow’s diaryOnce a Flyfisher, is a fascinating experience , though not perhaps for reasons the author intended. The explanation he gives for having written this book – to unravel the mystery and the endless fascination of fishing – is not immediately obvious.

Arcane, and in need of unravelling, flyfishing clearly is – and so, at times, is the book. When, for instance, Mr Catlow writes ‘I propose to fish the Wharfe and the Eden with Goddard’s Super Grizzly Emerger’, I doubt that any but the initiated will understand him.

Once a Flyfisher turns out, in fact, to be a book about writing and a commentary on the flyfishing memoirs of others , as much as it is about Mr Catlow’s own fishing experiences. At one point he ridicules the pretentiousness of an American Professor of Literature, who – when writing his own book on that zen-like art – comes up with sentences like ‘the parabolic arc of the line is almost the praxis of the soul’.

Yet, if ever the tale of a season’s flyfishing could be accused of being ‘postmodern‘, even accidentally so, then this – rather than the lamentable book of the American don – would be it.

Catlow’s habit of whisking his reader though top ten lists of the best flyfishing books is daunting. Whether sitting by the side of a river, or on a train to London, he incessantly revises in his mind the triumphs and the failures of this rather specialised field. His obsession with fishing literature takes its toll on his own prose style.

So much so, that the physical act of fishing in these diaries comes to be completely subsumed within the sort of misty-eyed approach to rural England that Stella Gibbons mocks mercilessly in Cold Comfort Farm. ‘The growing grass matters, the waving sheen of it, and the yellow celandines with their petals spread wide.’ writes Catlow.

He is not only intent on revisiting, but also on reliving the semi-mythical time when his favourite works were written: a time when England was a green and pleasant land , rather than the series of dark satanic out-of-town retail centres that most would recognise as 21st century Britain.

It would be too easy to dismiss Mr Catlow’s prose, veering as it does from purple sentimentality to sub-Hemingway quirkiness – but it would be very churlish to do so. He has an extraordinarily infectious love of the countryside, and the absence of irony in Once a Flyfisher makes for some surprisingly moving descriptions of Cumbria. He muses on what it means to be a fisherman, as his sporting heroes did in days gone by.

It’s actually touching that he comes across as being their stylistic contemporary. If you like flyfishing, and you are not fazed by inadvertent French philosophy , then this could well be the book for you.