The Catch: Fishing for Ted Hughes, by Mark Wormald, Bloomsbury Circus, 327 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1526644244
Ted Hughes once told the painter Barrie Cooke’s daughter Aoine that “[f]ishing is my way of breathing”. This remark was set in the context of the poet’s long friendship with Cooke, which included many fishing trips to favoured waters all over Ireland. Far from being just a hobby, fishing in its many forms was an enduring obsession with Hughes, especially following his move to Devon in 1961 with Sylvia Plath, close to rivers made famous by Henry Williamson’s book Tarka the Otter: a Yorkshireman by birth, Hughes had cherished this book as a boy until he knew it by heart.
Mark Wormald is both a Hughes scholar and a skilled and experienced angler, who was drawn, at an early stage on this trail of research, to the 1983 collection River, originally published in a large format with photographs by Peter Keen. This fascination was transformed ten years ago into a marvellous forensic quest with Wormald’s discovery, in the British Library, of a large cache of fishing journals, amounting to about a thousand pages in all; these journal entries abound in details of days spent on his local Devon rivers, especially the Torridge, as well as in Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, and Alaska. One leather-bound ledger devoted to Devon, which another scholar had dismissed as “a curiosity, nothing more”, was crammed with observations on rivers, fish and angling days, a treasure trove for anyone following Hughes on his beloved rivers. The concentration involved in hunting fish for many hours, often on consecutive days, induced a condition of “wordlessness”, which the journal writing was designed to break. And this silent concentration was also, for the poet in his quest for self-knowledge, a way of connecting with his inner self. Once you have concentrated fully on the pursuit, “you enter one of the orders of bliss”, Hughes once told a radio audience.
The Catch is structured as a quest to piece together the background to the poems in River, and to build a full account of the friendships, relationships, landscapes and incidents of that journey. The piece-by-piece notation style of Hughes’s journals spills over into Wormald’s own account of his researches through manuscripts and books, meeting people who knew Hughes the angler, and exploring, with his own rod, the waters where the poet fished. Along the way, Wormald explores aspects of his own family history, especially on holiday adventures that mostly involved fishing and other aquatic pursuits. This unusual switching of channels, between biography, memoir, and scholarly detective work demands unusual attention from the reader and will richly reward anyone who goes on this journey, including, it is to be hoped, those who are indifferent to fishing, the central pursuit.
The most primal, dramatic, and ultimately most moving strand in this whole story concerns the pursuit of big pike, mostly in Irish lakes from Sligo to Limerick. Ted’s interest in pike went back to his childhood in Yorkshire, and a fascination with the pike in Crookhill pond, made famous by the poem “Pike” in the 1960 collection Lupercal. It was this poem that caught Moira Doolan’s eye at the BBC and led to a lucrative series of commissions for radio, which helped to establish him as a writer following his move to Devon with Sylvia Plath in 1961. By autumn the following year, with their marriage failing, Ted had left Sylvia in the company of Richard Murphy at Cleggan to look up Barrie Cooke in Co Clare. This would confirm a friendship that lasted until Ted’s death, with the poet returning to Ireland many times to hunt for salmon, sea trout and pike, at first in Cooke’s company, later with his son Nicholas.
The pursuit of pike especially was conducted with extraordinary concentration and vigour, at times in very rough conditions, starting at Castle Lake in Co Clare in 1977. For the next five years, father and son would catch some immense pike on lakes from Sligo to Limerick, during hectic school holidays. One of these fish, surging past his boat on Lough Meelagh, Co Roscommon, “[r]enewed very sensationally my feeling for the uncanny ferocity of intent + the machine-like power of pike”.
The pike hunt then switched to Lough Gur in Co Limerick, until, on their third visit, they came across an arms cache, hidden in the lake at the foot of a floating line; they wisely returned this IRA hoard to the depths of the lake and did not report their find: they had in any case been spotted by two suspicious local men, and did not need to be identified as informers. This episode in 1982 brought the “Great Irish Pike” hunt to an end, though not its artistic legacy: Ted’s late, only recently collected poem, “Some Pike for Nicholas”, plots these big, ferocious fish and their hunters as actors in a mythical drama: “Through the November, gale-torn, indigo dusk / You fought Lough Allen.” This intense sixteen-line poem, written for “My boy” is now almost unbearably sad to read, given that Nicholas cut short his own life in 2009, having lived in Alaska for many years, where he worked as a fisheries biologist.
Closer to his home, Ted fished for salmon and trout on Devon’s rivers, principally the Torridge and the Taw, and became deeply involved in river conservation later in his life in the face of growing threats from pollution and water extraction. These concerns are sometimes articulated in the poetry, as in the polemical piece “1984 on ‘The Tarka Trail”’: “The river’s floor is a fleece – / Tresses of some vile stuff / That disintegrates to a slime as you touch it / Leaving your fingers fouled with a stink of diesel.” The pollution of waters that had been home to the otter Tarka was felt by Ted as a grievous outrage.
Wormald follows the poet’s tracks along these riverbanks with a scholar’s humble tenacity, and with the same angler’s fascination as his subject. He is keen to return to the exact setting of the poems in River, such as “River Barrow”, which he finds close to “the still impressive edifice of Clohastia Castle” in Co Kilkenny. The poem is an unusually serene, picturesque portrait compared to the primal dramas of many of the others in the collection. It is set in July 1978, when Ted, Barrie and Nick camped by the river, fished and lay about, “All evil suspended”. The sky “lies perfect”; the water is “a syrupy strength, a down-roping of the living honey”; “A wood-pigeon is buffing the edges / Of the smoothing peace.” The poem describes an idyll, and seems content even with the “Midge bites itching and swelling”. Another poem with an Irish setting, “Visitation”, records the discovery by Hughes of otter prints on the bank of the Keel river, near Ballinrobe, Co Mayo; here “the water of life – // Sheds these pad-clusters on mud-margins / One dawn in a year, her eeriest flower.”
The Catch is a book that has been a long time in the making, owing to the demands of the author’s professional career and to the many crowded visits to Devon, Ireland and Scotland the research has required (he once managed a one-day return trip between Stansted and Shannon in order to wet a line in Lough Gur). The challenge Mark Wormald set himself, of fishing and investigating all the waters described in River – at least those in these islands – meant that The Catch would be a very different book in its procedures from the academic norm. Only in Ann Saddlemyer’s scholarship on Yeats’s automatic writing, in her biography of the poet’s wife, George, is there a comparable sense of an “obscure” pursuit informing so completely a literary style. As a feat of scholarship, angling, and creative empathy, this book is an extraordinary achievement.
Seán Lysaght is a poet and nature writer. His prose includes Eagle Country (2018) and Wild Nephin (2020). He has published several collections of poems and translations with Gallery Press, including The Mouth of a River (2007) Carnival Masks (2014) and New Leaf (2022)