Unpublished draft preface to The Python Project, 1968
Some books come easily, most come hard, so hard sometimes that you feel like chucking the manuscript through the window and going fishing. I did do a little fishing, but on the whole, happily, The Python Project gave me no trouble.
Queen's Pawn, page 2
He turned into St. James’s Street and moved, unhurried, towards Pall Mall. At home the river would be high and coloured with recent rains. No use for a fly. He wanted some more Mepps and a few small Tobies for spinning. Hardy’s was just round the corner. Just spinners, he told himself. No wandering around the place letting his eye be taken by some expensive rod or reel. A man should keep his mania within bounds. The big sea trout were in the river. A good run this year. A six pounder leapt and line went whipping off the multiplier with a thin, heart-stopping whine. …
He went happily into Hardy’s. The assistant who usually served him was whipping a backing on to a line. He gave Raikes a grin. He wandered the length of the shop. A soft amber light came off the racked rods. He ran a finger down a length of Palakona split bamboo, took down a small brook fly rod, handled it, felt it, moved it, sensing the play from butt to rod tip. The assistant looked across at him and nodded. From under a low arch of alders he flicked a pheasant tail upstream to the edge of an eddy, and tightened smoothly to the hungry take of a Taw trout. Always hungry, but not always foolish … the brown torrent like pale beer, and upstream a dipper flirting his white waistcoat on a moss-covered boulder.
Queen's Pawn, page 8
Two months later—mid-November and the fishing season over—he came back late in the evening from a walk by the river. It was the river where his father had taught him at eight to tie on a fly, to cast, to switchcast and to Spey roll and had hammered home the lesson that impatience had never unravelled any line tangle.
Queen's Pawn, page 25
He opened the present from Sarling. It was a copy of Dame Juliana Berner’s Treatise of Fishing with the Angle—the first book on fishing in the English language, and also the first book on fly fishing. This was a facsimile of the 1496 edition, published in 1880.
Queen's Pawn, page 59
She was the first big fish he had to land. The thought made him smile … and memory flooded in of one of his earliest lessons of the patience, thought and stubborn will needed to land the wanted fish. It had been on the Haddeo river that ran down into the Exe near Dulverton, a river not fished much, narrow, overgrown, and the trout running small, three or four to the pound. It had been August with the water low and gin-clear. Himself at fourteen, with his father, and he had been grumbling at the poor fishing, anything of size seeing him a mile away, even along belly-crawl to the bank giving no results. The old man had said that there were big trout, two-pounders, to be had if you knew, if you had I the patience, if you were a fisherman worth calling that. Bad conditions make good fishermen. How often had he heard him say that? With the dusk coming, the old man much lower down the river, he had stood solitary for an hour behind an oak, watching a pool and then seen on the far side, deep down, the I brief old gold flash of turning flank and belly. He was angry with ambition to land a big one. To prove he could do it against all the odds. Just as some men, because they were there, had to climb the big ones, so he wanted to land the big one. The fish rose once to something but he was slow to see what it was, and there was no hatch, no fly on the water, that he could imitate. The water told him nothing. The fish told him nothing. He knew that one cast, switched from around the tree, and one rejection by the trout would put the fish down. Give the bugger something big to rouse him, make the bugger think he’s only got one chance at a rare mouthful. He’d been a great one for swear words in those days. Hadn’t Hamilton tanned his arse for it more than once? He put on a White Moth, tied by his father with wings from a white barn owl, a large cream hackle, and the body white ostrich herl … a real mouthful.
It all came back to him. The gentle work out of line and then the only tactic he sensed would succeed. He’d smacked the fly down with a bang, two feet upstream of the trout, and with a jerking of the wrist had made it work, struggle on the surface, kicking like a real moth trying to escape the drag of the water film. The trout had come for it like all hell let loose, in a great rush, body arching over it, mouth drowning it and taking it down while he, still behind the tree, suddenly void of excitement or nerves, had said God Save the King slowly and then tightened, felt the hook move home, felt the trout’s power and shock pulse through the out-streaming line. Ten minutes later it was on the bank. Two pounds and a quarter. When his father had walked up, he had said to him, “There. I told you so.” No more. But he had known the pride in the old man. And he had known the pride in himself. And he had learnt his lesson. If you want something from people then you must learn what it is that they want badly, wait for your moment and then give it to them, hook them in the moment of their desire and land them, often never knowing that what they had been offered was only a coloured imitation of their real want. With Belle, since he needed her so much, the offer had to be of himself. All that remained was the question of timing.
Queen's Pawn, page 221
He dropped back into the way of life which long ago he had known and which, soon, would become permanent with him. He fished the Taw, the Torridge and the Tamar. On the Torridge one cold and dry day, with the water in perfect condition, he took three salmon, the largest sixteen pounds, all of them with sea-lice still on them. Spring was rushing in. The blue-tit belled in the bank growths. Kingfishers, bright-coloured meteors against the young green bud-burst, flashed up the waters and the courting dippers bobbed and curtsied in haste to one another on the river boulders. Standing still in a Tamar pool one evening he had a mink swim by within two feet of him, a sleek, miniature seal. Coming home in the fading light later a dog otter crossed the gravel drive ahead of him, stopped, sniffed the air towards him, and leisurely moved away through the rhododendrons.
The Great Affair, page 45
As we crossed the lake bridge the water below was ringed by my brother’s trout rising to a hatch of flies and for a moment I had a memory of my father at his bench tying flies, remembering the miracle of his big, normally ungainly hands manipulating feather and ribbing, silk and wool with a delicacy and precision granted seldom to women.
Firecrest, page 10
Clamped to the corner of the table was a fly-tying vice and on the table was a box with a clutter of materials, silk threads, hackles and feathers, varnishes and a scattering of different sized hooks. In the vice was a half-tied fly. Fishing meant nothing to Coppelstone but he picked up a cape of feathers and stroked it with one finger.
Firecrest, page 37
He slipped into gumboots and put up his rod, a small brook rod which would arch to in limit a he got into a big sea trout. From the few flies he carried in his wallet he chose a March Brown which he had tied himself, dressed with a brown quill body and a partridge hackle with a touch of silver twist showing in the body. He went down the steep, treed slope of the bluff, over rocks at the bottom to the edge of a shallow suckle which he waded easily to the other bank. The river was low but was clear of the waist-high mist which lay over the far fields. He had fished this stretch of water many times and know it well at all heights. Without much hope for better than a trout or a few small peal, he began to fish down the Cliff Pool from the shallow neck. The feel of a rod in his hand, the sweet curl of the line going out brought back to him, as it always did when he had not fished for long, the memory of Ireland and the Blackwater where he had always been taken once a year by his mother during his school holidays, staying at a hotel in Fermoy and out early and late with a ghillie—all provided, as he soon realized, by his undeclared father, willing to make a man of all parts of him but afraid or ashamed because of his position and family to do it with open acknowledgement …
Harrison was a better fisherman, better shot and better horseman than he, and—as with everything he did—Harrison was ruthless, leaving laws for those who were stupid enough to be law-abiding. In fishing he recognized no close seasons, no wet or dry fly prohibitions, would spin, prawn, worm and gag and foul hook according to fancy, hunting without quarter because to hunt was the only really fierce joy he knew.
In the tail of the pool he hit two fish. The first ran fast downstream, then turned and came upstream quicker than he could hand the line in, jumped, and shook the hook free. The second, a few minutes later, did the same, but this time he ran back along the shallows as it came upstream, got his line in fast and kept contact, and then fought it around the pool and finally beached it. It was a nice sea trout that he judged would go about two and a half pounds.
Firecrest, page 66
Harrison halted his steps, looking out over the flood of water sweeping under the arches of the town bridge. For a moment his face was bland with nostalgia. “Remember that first time I came to the Blackwater with you? The water was just dropping after a spate and that ghillie chap showed to how to upstream worm. I got a twenty pounder—my first fish—and you nearly lost him for me because you were so ham-fisted with the gaff? You’re still ham-fisted in some ways. How’s your mother these days?”
Firecrest, page 140
As he came back to the river a heron that had been fishing the head of the pool rose and slid with slow wing beats away across the water and into the meadow mist, greyness closing on greyness. He went down into the water where the heron had been, moved in quietly, felt the coldness move through the rubber of his waders, and then he stood there quietly and watched the river smoothing into the top of the pool, spreading and coiling and slackening in its run. On the far side under the great oaks the granite rocks were hung with fern and moss that distilled the morning mist in slow drops. Beneath, in the cool depths he knew there were fish. Taking the battered tin box from his pocket he selected a fly and tied it to his cast. It was a small silver-bodied Dusty Miller that he had made himself. The rising morning breeze had strengthened and there was a faint ripple on the pool’s surface. He knew the pool in flood and he knew it in drought. As he fished it was not the dark, disturbed surface that he saw, but the bottom of the pool, each gravelled scoop, each ribbed outrun of strataed rock, each boulder and rise and fall of the rough bottom. He fished and the feeling of fishing gave him a little inner life, a slow enjoyment touching his coldness as he cast and watched the slow curl of the line. As the fly sank he nursed it, and held it as it came round below him into the shallow water where more often than not the take came. He watched the pool, he watched his line, and he watched the place where he knew his fly was working. At once he was aware of everything around him and also of the smallest detail. It was as though his body were full of eyes, his fingers on red and line slowly waking with almost electric sensation.
Firecrest, page 142
Grimster retrieved his line, swept it back and cast. As the line went out and fell he jerked his wrist and arm instinctively and put an upstream bend in it so that the fly would work smoothly and naturally downstream and across without being dragged by the, pull of the current on the line.
“So you’ve come to kill me.”
Harrison would give him no more than that, he knew. But little as it was, it was something to work on.
He said calmly, “You’d better get on with it.” He was wondering whether Harrison had the instinct and will in his right hand to do it. They were brothers of a kind and brother could kill brother, but—and for a certainty this obtained between them—there had to be an excusing, expiatory ritual. It came.
Harrison said, “I’m happy for you to fish that cast out. Only when one thing ends should another begin.”
On the water Grimster saw the upstream bow of his line slowly pull straight in the flow and then check slightly. No sudden knock, no hard pull. He dropped his rod point, giving more line and saw now me downstream bow begin to shape and he knew that out there, three or four feet down, a salmon held his fly gently in its mouth. He gave more line, increasing the downstream bow, waiting for the drag of the pool’s current on the line to pull the fly down to the scissors of the fish’s jaw. In a few seconds he would swing the rod sideways and drive the hook home deep, if the fish had no already hooked itself. Behind him he knew that Harrison would have seen the line check, would be watching the growing downstream bend in the line. To confirm it Harrison said from his left, a momentary movement seen in the comer of his eye, “You’re into one, Johnny. As a farewell gift I’ll let you take it. I owe you more but it’s all I can afford.”
Grimster moved his rod firmly, deliberately and at an angle, and he felt at once the weight and the resistance. The feel of the line through his fingers as he took all slackness out of it told him that the hook was well home. For a few moments the fish made no movement at all.
Behind him Harrison said, “Land him, Johnny. My farewell gift. The Fates are in a dramatic mood this morning.”
The salmon moved suddenly, a fast hard ran straight up the pool, taking loose line over his fingers and through the rod rings, making the silk sing and the top of the rod bow from the easy, nursing pressure he put on by gently braking the line. At the top of the pool the fish jumped. A sudden silver explosion, dazzling against the dark shadowed rocks and bracken below the trees. The fish smacked back to the water on its side, spray and foam spouting, trying to shake the hook. Grimster kept contact with it and moved back and out of the water, pulling in the slackening line fast with his left hand as the salmon turned and ran down the pool, jumped twice, and then went deep, boring towards the runout.
Standing now on me little beach below the low grassy bank, Grimster held the fish and then moved down to get below it, holding firm so that the salmon could not make the fast, broken water of the runout and race away downstream to break him.
Harrison now was upstream and a little behind him and, as the growing side strain of the line made me fish swing across the current and then move into a short run up the pool, Harrison said, “A clean fish. Fifteen pounds maybe. Don’t spin it out, Johnny. Kill him fast. I’ve a busy day ahead.”
Upstream the fish jumped again and then bored deep and the tug and thrust of its anger at the hook in its mouth moved through Grimster’s arms and shoulders like a fast blood pulse. For a moment he was tempted to work the fish easily, to give it freedom to run downstream, down and out of the pool, with him following it in the fast water. Harrison had made his promise, his farewell gift, and would be honourable. He had only to follow out into the wide torrent, let the rod go, and then swim and scramble for the far bank. There was a fifty-fifty chance he might make it. But he moved upstream, keeping the pressure of the arched rod on the fish, walking it up, until he was standing on the head of the little beach again.
The fish suddenly turned and moved towards him fast, gaining the freedom of fast slackening line and then, before he could gather it and make new contact, the salmon turned and raced hard obliquely across the pool. The slack whipped out and fresh line screeched from off the reel. Under the far rocks it jumped high and Grimster slightly dipped the rod-tip to avoid a break. A few seconds later he knew that it had been the last real fury in the fish. He gained line, mastering the salmon now, and saw it come to the surface far out and roll twice on its side before it went under.
Close to him, Harrison said, “Tiring. But don’t trust him. He’s a big boy.”
Grimster worked the fish. It made two or three more short runs but he knew now that if the hook held he was the master, and the knowledge was all warmth in him. He was alive and he knew his powers and he was sorry for Harrison and the only uncertainty in him was whether he should kill Harrison or let him go. He had killed often before, under orders, and there was now no feeling in it. But now the warmth in him craved for real killing and he knew he would have to wait and see whether the cold mandate given to him last night ran to Harrison who would have already. shot him by now if the fish out there had not turned, lazily, bored, and mouthed the wet shape of the Dusty Miller, taking it out of the dim memory of the way, as a salmon parr in this same stream, maybe this same pool, it had taken the rising nymphs and the caddis grubs in their stony cases on the stream’s bed.
Twelve feet from him the fish surfaced and rolled, tired, exhaustion claiming it. Grimster stepped into the water and swung the fish above him, bringing the rod across. He let the salmon hang in a foot of water, watched it, broad back black stippled, silver flanked, seeing the fly lodged tight in the scissors of in jaws, seeing the long hooked under jaw of the cock fish. He drew it into the shallow water at the beach edge and it struggled once or twice so that, with the pressure of the rod’s strain, it almost beached itself.
Above him, Harrison said, “Well done, Johnny. What better way could you want to go out?”
Holding the rod away from him, slack line in his left hand, looped, ready to slip free if the fish found the strength to turn from the beach and make a run, Grimster stepped outside it and with the tip of his right foot jerked the salmon clear on to the dry shingle of the beach. Having no net or gaff he reached down and grabbed it around the thick wrist of its tail, lifting it, the heavy body of the fish arching and twisting, but firmly held. He raised it for Harrison to see; Harrison standing a yard from him and two feet above him on the bank, the fishing hut behind him, an empty whisky bottle standing on the lid of the store box at its side, the fishing hut itself made from an old Great Western railway carriage … every detail of Harrison and the world around him was etched sharply in his mind. For the first time he made real conversation with the man, ignoring the gun that was levelled at him, and said, “You’re wrong. About twelve pounds. Not long in the river, but no sea-lice. Remember your first salmon in the Blackwater, and the fight we had?”
Harrison nodded and his right hand moved down half an inch and sideways three so that the fish Grimster held gave no cover to his body, and Grimster knew that Harrison would fire within the next five seconds, fire without the grace of another word, and knowing this and knowing the certainty in him of not dying … not on this day … he suddenly unflexed the right-angled bend of his arm by which he was taking the main of the salmon’s weight and slung the fish sideways at Harrison’s bulk, dropping the rod and slack line from his left hand as he did so.
Harrison fired as the fish seemed to hang in the now sun-dappled air between them. Grimster felt the fast clip of air against his check as the bullet passed him, later to know at it had gone right through the salmon’s thick body, angled deep down below the dorsal fin, striking the backbone and emerging on an inch’s deflection which was enough to make it miss him. The salmon hit Harrison breast high as he fired again, the shot going skywards as his bulky body staggered backwards.
Grimster jumped the low bank and kicked the gun from Harrison’s hand as the man went backwards to the ground. As Harrison rolled to his side to come up, he kicked again, hard and deep into the flabby stomach. On the wet grass the salmon suddenly moved, quivered and bowed its great body, jerked, and then was still except for a fine trembling of the great tail fin.
Firecrest, page 212
For over a week now each day had been studded with heavy rain showers. It would have kept the river high. Without any self-pity, without any real concern, he thought that he might never fish again, never use the Royal Sovereign in this country or another, never again handle a rod and feel and hear the runout of fast line as a fish went downstream … never mark the point of a setter and see the quick flush of a partridge covey … Well, if it went that way it went that way.
Firecrest, page 216
[Sir John] was on vacation, pleasure came first, the morning fishing ritual; business followed after he had taken his late breakfast. He saw him working the Cliff Pool. It wouldn’t be clear enough for a fly. He was a bad fisherman; hasty, impatient, horsing his fish to the bank without finesse, but in the odd way of bad fishermen he caught more than his fair share.
Grimster said, “Did you have a good morning, Sir John?”
“Eight pounder. River’s very high. Fairly fresh fish. More fish in the river than last year. Chap from the Fox and Hounds got a twenty pounder yesterday in their Nursery Pool. Beautiful fish. Like a great length of silver. Know the Nursery Pool?”
“I fished it a couple of times. No luck.”
Sir John nodded sympathetically and said, “No luck now either, Johnny.”
Birdcage, page 34
“Not come to pester dear Johnny with legal or money matters, I hope? God, no—he’s in a mood. Four days on the Wye and not a fish.”
“Nothing like that, my dear Dolly.”
“Good. Go right through. He’s expecting you.” She gave him a friendly push with a heavily ringed hand to start him across the hall towards the study.
Branton was sitting at his untidy desk hunched over a multiplying fishing reel patiently unravelling a bad tangle of the line. He stood up as Geddy came in and tossed the reel on to a couch untidy with fishing gear.
“Bloody bird’s nest. Take me hours to get it out. Well, enough of my troubles. That’s only a small one.
Birdcage, page 182
Beautiful day outside. Rain earlier in the week. The river should be just right. He’d like to take Bellmaster along and shove him in with a weight round his neck. Wonder if this Farley man fished? Probably did. He’d take him over for a day. That’s how you got to know people. Big fish on, heavy river, and one look at the way he handled it would tell you more in a few moments than a thousand personality tests.
Birdcage, page 187
They drove to the Wye and had a day’s fishing in perfect conditions. Before lunch they had taken a salmon each, both fish hens—Branton’s a ten-pounder and Farley s a twelve-pounder. Branton recognized at once—with a great deal of pleasure—that Farley was a very good fisherman. He threw a good line, knew how to mend and work it and all the while the fly was in the water there was no let up in his concentration. He played his fish without fuss and with authority and he tailed it by hand, confidently and without hurry. After lunch the Colonel lost a big fish and Farley took another twelve-pounder.
The Satan Sampler, Chapter 8
He sat now on a large drift log close to the edge of the river, his salmon rod propped against its end and lying on the grass a fresh run springer around the twenty-pound mark. Not that he had deserved the fish, he thought. Today he deserved nothing because he knew that he was letting his mood master him as long ago it had used to do until with manhood he had learnt to meet and check it soon after birth. He had fished without finesse or wisdom, not caring whether he was covering a known lie or not, just slinging the yellow-bellied Devon out and then working it back without regard to current or river depth. … The fish had run like a young colt and, instead of playing it, he had just held on to it. He should have had a line break and lost it in the first few seconds. Instead he had manhandled it to the bank, tailed it by hand, since he had brought neither gaff nor tailer, and killed it with two smart raps of a stone.
The Boy on Platform One, page 36
His grandfather Patrick had taken him fishing once on a lough where he had been as sick as a dog and then got a hook in his finger and the local doctor had had to cut it out and give him injections … just to stop you foamin’ at the mouth and runnin’ round biting people, though the good Lord knows there’s a many in this place could do with it to liven them up …
The Boy on Platform One, page 38
After lunch he wandered away up the river to find a place to do a jimmy-riddle. On the way he passed a man fishing and, suddenly daring because he really was enjoying himself, he said after a little thought, “Bonjour, monsieur. Avez-vous . . . uh … uh … caught quelquechose?”
The man turned, gave him a grin and said, “No, I bloody haven’t, son. And by the look of things I don’t bloody well expect to. Where you from?”
“So am I. Belsize Park. Wish I was back there, but the wife’s gone all continental and French cathedrals. Never marry a woman what goes for culture and self-bloody-improvement, lad. They can never keep it to themselves.”
The Boy on Platform One, page40
Two things, however, he did like. One was to walk to the river which was not far from the hotel and watch the rows of men and boys fishing. The only fishing he had ever done was in Ireland, and he thought it was something he could get to like given a proper chance. He was amused, though, to see that no one ever threw back a fish, no matter how small it was. His father told him that the French wasted nothing. Everything went into the pot.
The Boy on Platform One, pages 109,110
She pulled him down and they began to crawl through the heather until they got to the lip of a high rock face that overlooked the pool. Judy said, “There now. Look down there towards the end of the pool where the water’s all quiet and clear.”
Peter looked down. The top end of the pool was foamy and disturbed where the river came over a small narrow fall into the pool. Lower down the pool the flow eased and the water was clear so that he could look right to the bottom.
“No, I can’t,” said Peter.
“You must be blind. They’re a good dozen of the beauties.” She picked up a small stone and, as Peter watched, she flicked it into the lower end of the pool. At once Peter saw movement and then, as his eyes became used to looking into the water, he saw them. They were hanging there almost motionless in the eased current of the pool, grey-greeny shapes. Now and again one would turn away from its lie and move lower down the pool and there would be the sharp silver gleam of flanks and the sweep of a broad tail. They lay, he thought, for the most part so incredibly still that they were of the water itself, deceiving the eyes until they made the smallest movement … the slow gaping of jaws to give a glimpse of white mouth or the strong, sudden sweep of a great tail.
He said almost to himself, “They’re lovely …”
“Aye,” said Judy. “But there be some buggers that don’t care for that. Price of salmon today and that lot down there are worth getting on for three hundred pounds. And there are more in the other pools like ’em. Two or three good poachers with their nets could clear this pool in half an hour. My father ever talk about poachers to you, don’t you ever make any joke about it. Its no laughing thing for him. Now —” her tone changed and she reached for a large stone, “— disappearing trick.” She tossed the stone into the pool and when the water settled there was no sign of a fish.
“They’ve all gone! Where?”
She stood up laughing. “They’re still there. But you won’t see them back for a while. They’ve all got their hiding places.”
Vanishing Point, page 135
Sir Andrew Starr, sitting on a fence a little downstream from Warboys, and well clear of his back cast, the two dogs at his feet, watched his friend and past colleague put his fly over a rising fish under the far bank. Time and time again the trout ignored the offering and—perhaps out of contempt—refused to be put down.
Sir Andrew said, “What fly are you using?”
Without turning Warboys said, “A Black Gnat.”
“Useless—fish here won’t touch ’em.”
“They should today. If only to indulge my whim.”
“What’s so special about today that the trout should know?”
“It’s St John’s Day. Midsummer.”
“I’m still not with you.”
Warboys laughed and reeled in his cast. He came back and sat on the fence. “Bibio johannis—that’s what the real fly is called. And if you want to be really critical go on and tell me that the real fly is not black but a dark brown. Fishing is not an exact science. It is—as Doctor Johnson once said of marriage—the triumph of hope over experience.”
“Well, well … then there’s an end to it. And now would you like to bet me that I can’t catch that trout within four casts?”
“A fiver. And you can change your fly.”
Warboys walked up the bank a little, changed the fly on his cast, and began to fish. At the third cast the trout took and was quickly netted.
Sir Andrew pulled out his wallet and handed over a five-pound note, saying, “What fly did you put on?”
Warboys grinned. “Who said anything about a fly? I said I would catch the trout. I put on a maggot—always carry a few to avoid disappointment on a bad day. What the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t grieve over. Nice fish. I shall call on old Quint on the way back and present it to him. He’ll probably fancy it up into truite aux amandes for one of his lady friends.”
Birds of a Feather, Chapter 1
There had been a time, thought Ruth Winslade, when she had imagined herself having a son … had seen him in imagination fishing in the brook … first with long-handled net for bullheads, stickleback and minnows, and later after trout with short rod and a dry fly … a March Brown, a bit clumsily tied no doubt under her initial tuition. Her father, after his devotion to God and the Christian faith, loved next the solitude of small stream trout fishing and could quote the tying patterns of any trout fly with the same ease as he could his Bible … making each sound like some litany. Driffield Dun. Tail—pale ginger cock fibres. Body—pale blue fur, ribbed yellow tying silk. Wings—forward, pale starling. Hackle—pale ginger cock.