On the southern edge of Kensal Green cemetery, beneath the wall that separates the graves from the Grand Union Canal, is a memorial inscription that would stop a Duns Scotus in his tracks. At the top of the heart-shaped marble there is a fading photograph of a man in his middle years, and then beneath some touching messages of love and regret, a single, enigmatic line of inscrutable theological subtlety ‘FROM ODDS ON TO ODDS AGAINST.’
It is hard to know what to make of that — ‘From certainty to doubt?’ ‘From scant rewards to a last, triumphant pay-out?’ — but for any self-respecting angler still on the other side of that wall this is the very definition of Heaven. There are clearly millions happy to spend their Sundays beside one of Britain’s ‘commercially stocked stew-ponds’, but for Luke Jennings it is the sheer impossibility of the odds stacked against the angler that is the whole point of fishing.
‘Nor would you want it any different’, he writes, of the unseen, un-navigable challenges that lie beneath the stygian blackness of London’s canals, because in an over-illuminated world, a world whose dark corners are in constant retreat from the remorseless, banal march of progress, this not knowing is a thing to be valued and enjoyed. It may be that your hooks are caught in the rusting spokes of a bicycle wheel, that your bait has already been stripped from the hook by Chinese mitten-crabs, but this is the nature of fishing. The odds are almost overwhelmingly against you and this is how you like it.
And if it is not a submerged fridge or low-flying branches, it’s the deep nettles that menaced the Sussex ponds of his childhood, if it’s not the overgrown banks of the Rother or the vodka-clear waters of a Hampshire chalk stream, it’s the historic guardians of fly-fishing’s soul. ‘The fish were finicky and difficult,’ he describes one long, motionless July day on the Avon that brings the equation of difficulty and satisfaction into perfect balance,
and in obedience to the Piscatorial Society rules, which state that you may cast only to a rising fish, we had spent most of the day watching and waiting . . . Ten yards upstream of where we were standing, a mature willow overhung the river, its outer branches dipping in the water. The trout … was lying amongst these … I crept backwards and forwards, peering into the darkening river, trying to get a sightline on the place where the fish had risen. But from every angle, it seemed, part of the tree was in the way. That the position was near-impregnable made me even more certain that the fish was a good one.
If Millais’s Ophelia, dress billowing, hair trailing, had at that moment floated past under the willow it could not have been more difficult, and that was even before the creature itself is taken into account. A long, fish-less apprenticeship as a boy gave Jennings the perfect insight into the trials that lay ahead, but nothing in his early experience with ‘convent girl’ roach or her flashier rudd cousin — the Premier League WAG of England’s ponds — could really prepare him for the challenges of a dry-fly, a chalk stream and a ‘canny, educated trout’ who has seen it all before.
But if the odds against are here at their most intimidating, the rewards are commensurate. ‘Fishing has its disappointments,’ he concludes, as he quietly slips a two foot, five and a half pound, ‘shining black-spotted’ wild trout back into the shallows, and watches it
glide majestically away. And then there are the times when it all comes right. When the theory falls away, and you and the place are one. The rules we impose on ourselves are everything — especially in the face of nature, which, for all its outward poetry, is a slaughterhouse. It’s not a question of wilfully making things harder, but of a purity of approach without which success has no meaning.
This was a lesson the 13-year-old Jennings learned from Robert Nairac, a ‘gap-year’ prep-school master just down from Ampleforth, and Nairac’s medieval absolutism and fate loom over a narrative that is as much a memoir of childhood and adolescence as it is about fishing. There may be readers who will find something slightly queasy in the portrait, but it is plainly a debt of gratitude and affection that 30 years has done nothing to lessen. And, if Blood Knots is anything to go by, it is a debt that needed paying. Nairac taught Jennings to fish, and fishing trained him to use his eyes, and the result here is an evocation of a landscape, preserved in hidden woodland ponds or Arcadian streams, that seems in many ways as remote as the ‘Airfix’ model spitfires and pre-Vatican Council Catholicism of Jen- nings’s childhood.
Part autobiography, part elegy and part obsession, it is all beautifully done. There is an inevitable temptation with a memoir of this kind to dip into the ‘Cardus purple’, but while there is an occasional Keatsian richness about the prose it is kept under tight control. Jennnings is very good on the ‘urban pastoral’ of King’s Cross, on the rumbling traffic of the Euston Road and the sodium glare of Goods Way, and better still on a numinous English countryside that is haunted by the ghost of Eliot. ‘Time present and time past,’ Jennings quotes, ‘are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past.’ You don’t have to be an angler to feel that — no one who has fielded at third-man or played in goal as a child would need telling — but it clearly helps.