Review of 'Rod and Line' (1929) by Arthur Ransome

Times Literary Supplement, 29th August 1929 (M.F. Headlam)

Although it is not unusual to reprint, exactly as written, newspaper articles in book form, the resulting book is often not entirely satisfactory. The art if the newspaper article is a special form of art, the art of miniature or cameo. Each article must begin in an arresting manner, tell its story or make its point, and end neatly within its thousand or so words. It is a self-contained unit, the better it is done the more self-sufficient; and to read forty of fifty articles on end, however good (and some of Mr. Ransome's are very good), is a feast of snippets like reading a volume of '"Elegant Extracts". It is as if, instead of the long, gracious vista of a great herbaceous border, one gazed at the same flowers arranged in a series of neat round beds.

But of course there is a market for elegant extracts, and these articles, says the publisher's notice, are reprinted at the request of numbers of Mr. Ransome's readers. No doubt, of these, each will turn to his favourite, and not read the book straight through, thus avoiding the feelings described above. And, being presumably North-country anglers, they will recognize some of the attractive streams described — which makes one's mouth water. Where, for instance, is the river of "A Day of Small Things"? Is it the same as that of "Fishing in Lilliput"? And, as North-country fishermen they will appreciate the slightly acid tone in which Mr. Ransome (like Major Marritt, another North countryman, in "Fishing Ways and Wiles") refers to the dry-fly man of the South; notably one who "describes aloofly, as one writing of sacrilege, the capture of a chalk-stream trout on a big sunk Palmer with two hooks." Perhaps the early dry-fly men were arrogant and superior, and though they are humble enough now, fumbling with nymphs and envying the art of the upstream wet-fly fisher, the feeling against them still lingers (though, we think, undeservedly) in the North. For though we of the South could perhaps teach them a thing or two — for instance, Mr. Ransome apparently ("Left-handed Winding") reels up, and does not pull in his line by hand when he hooks a heavy trout — how we envy, especially late in the season, the North-country fisherman. How we long for the brown rushing water, and the keen bright air of the fells, and all the delights which Mr. Ransome describes so well. Let us hope that, as he is a real fisherman, and an observer who can write, he will one day give us a real fishing book. He must have more experiences to tell, more good advice to give, which need not be neatly rounded off within the thousand-word limit. For he has evidently had varied chances, in this country and abroad. He makes tantalising references to fishing in Russia, and should be able to say much about that, which would be all new for most of us.

He tells us something new of Russian angling literature in the second part of this book, "Aksákov on Fishing", which is tacked on without much connexion to the newspaper articles. Aksákov as a fishing writer has hitherto been unknown to the average British angler, even to those who have a working knowledge of fishing literature. And Prince Mirsky, in his introduction to the Broadway translation of Aksákov's "Family Chronicle" calls his "Notes on Angling," from which some of Mr. Ransome's extracts are taken, "a technical book on sport without any literary pretensions." But Mr. Ransome has also given us here some of the descriptions of Russian fishing scenes from Aksákov's more famous books, those books of memoirs which have won such high praise from competent critics of Russian literature and which have made Aksákov, says Mr. Ransome, "one if the best beloved and most widely read of Russian classics. These descriptions, especially that of the long journey with his father and mother to his grandfather's estate across the broad treeless plain, the arrival at the river, and capture of the first fish, are extraordinarily vivid. But the extracts from the "Notes on Fishing" have the same quality of vividness — and truth. For it is true, strange as it may appear to the humanitarian. that "the fisherman watches every kind of fish with ecstasy and a joyful throbbing of the heart" And he goes on to describe the fisherman as "passionate". A passionate fisherman he evidently was himself, for he was that combination of the townsman and the countryman which, it a man has been entered young ("and no one," says Aksákov, "ever became a genuine angler in old age who was not one in youth") produces the keenest of fishermen and the best writers on fishing.

Mr. Ransome gives us some of Aksákov's advice on rods and lines and hooks and bait which is only historically interesting, and we agree that he is to be read not for his practical advice but "for the pleasure he took in fishing and in fish which glows in every page he wrote about them." It is clear enough from this column that the same pleasure glows (with a milder beam, perhaps, as is natural in a more sophisticated age and race than Aksákov's) in Mr. Ransome. What we should like from him is a long book telling of his experiences in Aksáov's country: of fights with som and orfe and zherich; whether he ever fished with a crayfish; whether the Russian grayling, said to be of enormous size, rise to the Tup or Red Ant; and — but let Mr. Ransome tell his own story, and not cut it into neat lenghts for hsi newspaper first.