Lord Byron was no fan of fishing. Mad, bad and dangerous to know he may have been, but the Romantic poet sided with the fish: “The art of angling [is] the cruelest, the coldest, and the stupidest of all pretend sports…No angler can be a good man.” In a stinging couplet written about Izaak Walton, the author of The Compleat Angler, Byron envisages giving Walton a dose of his own medicine: “The quaint, old, cruel coxcomb, in his gullet / Should have a hook, and a small trout to pull it.”
The Compleat Angler, reprinted in a new edition edited by Marjorie Swann (OUP, £14.99), does contain some fairly gruesome passages — how best to skewer live bait, including frogs and de-limbed grasshoppers; how to farm maggots in the corpse of a fly-blown cat — but this 350-year-old book, ostensibly a fishing manual, is also a paean to the English riverside. Hazlitt called it “the best pastoral in the language”; Wordsworth, “fairer than life itself”.
The majority of the book is comprised of a dialogue between Piscator, the fisherman, and Venator, the hunter, in which the former attempts to persuade the latter of the practical and spiritual merits of angling. Piscator reminds Venator that Saints Peter, Paul and John “were all Fishers” before quoting verses from other keen anglers: Montaigne, George Herbert and John Donne. The conversation takes place over several days on a fishing trip in the Lea Valley, during which they journey from Tottenham to Ware in Hertfordshire.
Last year a few friends and I did this walk. Three hundred and fifty years later the River Lea is still an active waterway, but bucolic it is not. A study in 2011 found that the river in the lower Lea Valley has such a low oxygen content that most aquatic life shouldn’t survive. Effluence from Deephams Sewage Treatment Works in Edmonton flows into the river, as does a good deal of East London’s wastewater, and pollutants are often washed into this tributary of the Thames from the roads that adjoin it — in July 2012 road run-off consisting of heavy metals, washed oils, dirt and dust saw thousands of dead fish wash up on the Lea’s banks.
When Piscator reaches Tottenham Cross he exclaims at its beauty: “And pray let us now rest ourselves in this sweet shady arbour, which Nature herself has woven with her own fine fingers; it is such a contexture of woodbines, sweet-briars, jessamine, and myrtle.” The High Cross monument that Walton would have known is still extant, but the trees have gone, replaced by betting shops, Turkish cafés and a car park. Two hundred yards away is Tottenham Hale retail park, site of the first night of looting in the 2011 London riots.
The fishermen spend the night at Bleak Hall, “an honest ale-house, where might be found a cleanly room, lavender in the windows, and…a hostess both cleanly, and handsome, and civil.” Bleak Hall survived into the 19th century, but in its place now stands the titanic Edmonton Solid Waste Incineration Plant.
North of Edmonton is an edgelands of nearly-countryside: the hum of pylons follows the river; semi-feral horses roam the boggy expanses of green opposite go-kart tracks, travellers’ camps and pumping stations. But once you cross Enfield Lock and pass under the M25 you reach something like Walton country. On our walk we spotted sparrowhawks, herons, a pair of muntjac deer and, finally, some anglers. Not quite the “Hony-suckle-Hedg’d” utopia that Piscator deems “too pleasant to be look’d on, but only on Holy-days”, but rewardingly pleasant.
The Compleat Angler‘s enduring popularity — it is the second most frequently reprinted book in the English language, after the Bible — stems from its celebration of nature, indeed almost its divination. Charles Lamb wrote that “it would sweeten a man’s temper at any time to read it”. Except Byron’s, that is.