‘How big?’ ‘That big’

Andrew Motion

‘Do you want to ...’ and sometimes ‘Would you like to ...’ my mother sang, never sure which was right. ‘Do you want to swing on a star? Carry moonbeams home in a jar?’ I was six but I thought I knew what she meant.

I had these friends, the Routledge twins: Andrew and Peter. My own two Christian names, as it happened, but divided up like that I didn’t recognise them as mine. Andrew was quiet and cautious, Peter quick and reckless. They lived on a mucky farm nearby; you turned out of the village along a concrete track which ran flat for a bit under a splintering ash canopy, then plunged downhill between giant clapboard barns and helter-skelter on, slithery with cowshit and wet mud, past the farmhouse, over a little brick bridge and – woah! – ended in a gate overlooking a field with a bull in it.

The day I’m thinking about, Peter led us from the house to the bridge, and Andrew and I dropped after him onto the riverbank. Peter was carrying a jamjar with a string round the neck. They were wearing blue boiler-suits, walking ahead of me in Indian file, all of us as quiet as we could be, but our gumboots squeaking on the shiny grass.

We reached a place where the bank dipped in a clump of alder trees. Last year’s seed cones were still there, and when we lay down flat they pressed hard into us. The world was at eye level: enormous ants going about whatever business we had disturbed; a spider legging it from blade to blade. When had I last taken a breath? Not since the bridge, not a proper one, and I wasn’t going to start now. Peter was working forward on his elbows like a commando, hanging his head over the lip of the bank. Andrew and I followed. A crumbling yellow cliff, thin alder roots poking out, Peter’s right hand already in the water, and the blood thundering in our brains.

It wasn’t a river, really, it was a stream: three feet across, with a sandy bottom which made the water look brown even though it was clear. Too narrow for anything, I thought, too small – except that right there below me, wobbling in the current, was a fish as big as my forearm. ‘Chub,’ mouthed Andrew, his lips making a little pop. The way the sunlight was falling, I couldn’t see Peter’s hand in the water any more, but I knew it must be sliding up behind the fish, perhaps even touching him now, stroking him so he thought there was no danger.

Then came the thrashing lift and the fish clutched in mid-air – just for a second – the yellow eye glaring, the greeny-blue body curved inside its halo of water-drops. Then another second as it straightened and started to fall. Then another as it slapped into the stream and melted.

We sat up under the trees and inspected the slime on Peter’s hand. His fingers were thin, red, and curved down as he spread his palm. The slime was invisible, but I could feel it when I dabbled my finger in it.

In a while, Peter caught some sticklebacks under the bridge, and a miller’s thumb. Because I had just seen the chub like that – so beautiful and by-itself in mid-air – I didn’t expect them to look like much. They were wonderful. The sticklebacks (three spines not ten) with their medieval spikes and scarlet belly-smudge. The armour-plated miller’s thumb. Peter filled his jam-jar, slid them inside, and gave them to me to take home. Moonbeams home in a jar. No, not moonbeams when I thought about it. More like bits of the moon itself, but dark.

Aksakov doesn’t mention sticklebacks or miller’s thumb in his Notes on Fishing. But he does have a page and a half about minnows: ‘Sometimes in the small whirlpool of a clear brook you suddenly notice that the uniformly light-coloured bottom is covered with something black; these are minnows, which school in several ranks, one on top of the other, usually with the larger ones above and the smallest below.’ This is typical. Absolutely precise and sensible, but with a child’s intensity and close-up.

Aksakov (1791-1859) published his book in 1847, then produced a ‘considerably enlarged’ version in 1854. It was his earliest venture into print (he had started to go blind and had retired early from government service), and was followed by a couple of other sporting volumes. They were all successful at home, but this translation of the Notes by Thomas Hodge is the first into English. We can see on every page why Aksakov’s contemporaries took his book to heart. Turgenev, for instance, said: ‘This is real Russian speech: general and direct, supple and deft. There is nothing strained and nothing sluggish.’

In his own Notes of a Hunter (1852) Turgenev is bravely liberal. Aksakov’s politics are narrower; he got into trouble with the censor for a dedicatory poem to the Notes which refers to ‘nature’s world,/The world of serenity and freedom’, but what he meant by ‘freedom’ didn’t have much to do with reform. He wrote as a member of an old gentry family ‘of modest means’ – a Slavophile who wanted to preserve longstanding orders and securities. None of this is spelt out in the Notes, but it accounts for the nostalgic mood and the elegiac note. What was native gives his writing its foundation and frame: the steppe country at the confluence of the rivers Belaia and Dema, a thousand miles east of Moscow. Even when he moved to St Petersburg, then to Moscow itself in the 1820s, and began fishing in the countryside around the cities with more skill and science, Aksakov’s early experience still cascaded over everything he did. ‘I remember the torrid midday, the bank set about with tall, fragrant grasses and flowers, the alder’s shadow trembling on the water, the river’s deep whirlpool, and the young fisherman – clinging to a tree stump that leaned over the water, his hair hanging down – who motionlessly strained his enchanted eyes into the clear, dark blue deep.’

My father and his family – they were the real anglers. But my mother, too, enjoyed fishing and was good at it. When I was ten or so, we went after a salmon together for the first time. We were staying in a gloomy lodge in the Cairngorms, and walking down to the river in the early morning, we passed a stable where dead stags were hung up by their heels. The door stood half-open. Metal buckets shone under their heads, catching the blood-drips.

My mother’s dog had come along: a secondhand collie called Beauty. Beauty spurted ahead then sidled back grinning as we tramped through a belt of spruce to the riverbank. My mother had forgotten the leash but it didn’t matter. We weren’t going to catch anything.

She was five foot nine, and thin, and often ill, and easily tired. But none of that mattered either. It was all in the timing. Normally you’d be in the river wading, but to start with, the bank is fine. She paid out her line into the water, letting the current take the fly round 45 degrees, then began lifting her rod, slowly at first but accelerating quickly, stopping when it was just about vertical so the line flew out behind in an enormous dripping skirl, then propelling it forward dead straight, light as a cobweb on the dark river, the almost-invisible leader settling and the fly just short of the far bank, already ferrying through the current.

‘You’ll soon get the hang of it.’ But I didn’t, not that day. After twenty minutes of picking my fly out of the trees behind me, out of the grass, stooping over the reel with its spaghetti-fall of tangled line, she took over again.

It’s years ago, thirty-five years, and I’ve forgotten how the fish took, how soon. I can still see it, though, as it began to flag and my mother drew it towards her: one minute just clear brown racing water, then a spangle of light fragments like big fish-scales, then the thing itself – a silver ingot, rigid and heavy, its lower jaw stuck out.

When it found me and the dog looming over the bank, all its energy came back in a thunderbolt, the silver etherising at once, the water empty, my mother cursing. Which meant another eternity of waiting – but back at the edge of the trees this time, hanging onto the dog by its collar, my mother pulling so heavily on the rod, groaning sometimes with the effort, she might have been hauling a boulder off the riverbed.

There were supposed to be golden eagles nesting nearby, and I thought if I concentrated on looking for them, it would soon be over. I searched the sky minutely, the sun coming clear of cloud then slipping away, and eventually breaking into streaks and trickles and blotches. The gorgeous taut fish was assembling itself from the pieces of the world – gravel, water, wind, sun. It was fixing its bony mind on death, and rising towards me steadily.

No sticklebacks in Aksakov – and no salmon either; he never gets close enough to the sea. And anyway, it’s the skill of baiting, line-weaving, float-making that entertains him most. He told Gogol, soon after he’d begun writing the Notes, that he was concentrating on the ‘technical side’ of things rather than ‘natural beauty’ – meaning he wanted to produce a generally useful book, not one which seemed rarefied or privileged. Even when he’s after brown trout he doesn’t mention fly fishing. Instead it’s spear fishing (‘repugnant’), bottom-fishing with dung-worms, muzzle-trap fishing, or tickling (‘widely practised near Moscow’).

Everything about the book is practical. After a short discussion of basic matters (‘The Rod’, ‘The Line’, ‘The Float’ etc) there’s a longer bit ‘On Fish in General’, then 23 separate sections on particular fish. These range from a couple of pages (dace, rudd) to seven (pike) and are all lit with the poetry of pure watchfulness: ‘When you stand above the blue depths of a whirlpool in a river or a lake and the sun illuminates the water’s surface from behind, then without fail you’ll see at a fairly considerable depth the flashing of bluish-silver bands piercing the water in various directions like curving rays; these fish are bleak.’

On the other hand, there can be hours of nothing and these are perfect too.

John and I were in our twenties. We had parked in the lee of a barn, already not talking, pulled on our waders in the moonlight, and stomped off through the churned-up gateway as though we could see exactly where we were going.

The Torridge is a beautiful river, running off Exmoor into the sea by Bideford. It was clear enough when we got there – the moon skidding through ragged cloud, a herd of half-visible Friesians frisking at a distance and breathing mightily.

John climbed in first, and when he had fished downriver for a while I slid in behind him. The extraordinary feeling that you’re about to get soaked – your skin prickling and lungs empty – but only the waders tightening against you! Thigh-deep here, no more, and the bottom hard when I left the mud-slumps under the bank. But narrow. And alders plaited together overhead, so casting was difficult.

After a few yards and no problems, the universe began to expand and settle. Black water pressing evenly against the back of my legs. Those Friesians forgetting us and shuffling into a huddle. Bats doing their wall of death round a tall ash. Moonlight flickering on the river, on John’s shoulders ahead of me, on my line sizzling backwards as it drew its dripping signature then stiffened forward and lay itself down silently.

It took half an hour to fish the beat through – more since we were dawdling – and after the first few minutes I already knew there was nothing. Don’t ask me how. My friend knew it too. In a few minutes we would find a way along the bank upriver and climb in somewhere else. But while we were there, why didn’t we fish it through once more? Just to be sure.

This time I go first. There are the bats again, peeping on their radar. And that sloppy cascade, that must be the cows. But everything is the river now, its surface streaked with mother-of-pearl, its immense slow weight bearing down on me. That’s not why I am crouching forward, though. Its not even because at this angle I can see my fly slipping in under the low bushes and round the difficult boulders. I am bending close to the water because I think if I keep going like this I might have my vision. I might see all the fish in the river swivelling towards me, all on a collision course but all missing me, like it is when you’re driving into snow, and your headlights put you at the exact centre of the universe and every individual flake comes straight for you out of the darkness, then goes, comes straight for you, then goes.

Aksakov is an astoundingly productive fisherman. In his records for spring/summer 1843 he tells us that he landed 375 perch, 733 carp, five pike, 13 gudgeon, 53 roach, 55 dace, seven ide, one chub, 48 bleak and 11 tench. That’s 1301 fish in four months. Occasionally he lets on that things were better still in the old days – which is part of the book’s nostalgia, but also has to do with dwindling stocks.

Pollution. Over-fishing. Netting. Greedy water barons preserving the reputation of their own beats without making any plans for rivers as a whole. Modern anglers can spend days so unrewarding that their expertise seems entirely redundant.

The odd thing is, Aksakov doesn’t sound greedy. He loves what he kills and kills what he loves: the paradoxes are not a problem. But he is especially excited by fish which are themselves greedy. Pike, for instance. There’s an Appendix to the Notes – an essay on ‘Spear-Fishing’ (1854) – a brilliant piece about hunting one ancient millmonster by night.

Aksakov is floating in a rowing boat about the dark flood-pools, a fire stoked in the small grate amidships, yellow flame-light pouring off the oarsmen and the spearsman. He is, he says, ‘in some sort of half-conscious state, combined (I must admit) with a certain amount of fear’. Elsewhere he says he’s ‘certain that hunters were the first to begin creating the world of myth’. He doesn’t just mean that fishing lends itself to storytelling. (‘How big?’ ‘That big.’) He means what happens to your head during the hours alone, with the water making and unmaking itself, with your line going ahead and back, with the ripples and little waves opening and closing, giving their glimpse of what you half-see, half-imagine. He means the mood when the air around you is full of soft swish and shimmer. When the mind is intent but easy. When words form out of nowhere. Alder cones and nettle flowers flipping onto the water. Glittering shock-rings. The heart ripening in its excitement, entranced, believing the whole of its past has come within reach and is catchable.

Not long ago, my father and I went for a week on the River Dee. We shared a rod, which meant that when I was in the water he waited on the bank – on the close-cropped grass, with the pine-woods breathing behind him. I was fishing a wide elbow, and when I’d been through the bend, and looked back at him, he was closer than before, though I felt I’d been moving away from him. He was off in his head somewhere, dreaming, not watching me, lounging under a green oak tree, the smoke from his cigarette wibbling straight up to heaven. I thought how like him I will look – his hair grey, the skin of his face loose, but still slim and fit. It was a crisp day, and we were doing what we wanted, but he looked hollow with sadness. He was thinking about my mother, dead for twenty years and unfading, today wearing her waders and that ridiculous tweed hat with its whiskery band of flies.

I turned back to the river, crouching forward, and the dazzle began streaming at me again. This time it was faces. The miniature faces of the dead. Some undulating through the white air, some skimming among the mayflies, some within the water, fighting the current so their hair streamed out behind them, their mouths opened, and their lips were pressed thin and white. I cast into them again and again, bringing up nothing. Nothing until a salmon half-rose in front of me. The whole dark circle of its pool shuddered and went still. Another moment of nothing. Another. But all that time the salmon was quietly gathering itself, sensing something, swinging out wide away from me under the bank, so wide it brushed a fall of bramble, then jinked towards me again just as my fly landed on the spot it had left. When it drew level with me, exactly level, it leaped clean out of the water, shoulder-high.

For a long second I had it fixed in mid-air, free and separate from everything else in the world, but belonging to me and no one else: the burnished silver back, the strenuous tail spreadeagled, the shocking pale belly and the warrior head. I was a child again, staring into the expressionless hard eye. I was as old as my father dreaming in the shade. Then the second ended and the fish was beyond me, slapping down through the surface and disappearing. Charging on towards the mountains and the stony headwaters.