Fishing for Ted Hughes

‘Owned by everyone’: the phrase has inspired two Cambridge conferences, on the Atlantic salmon in 2019 and, in March 2023, on chalk streams. It comes from Ted Hughes: the great poet, fisherman and champion of wild fish and wild waters. Here Mark Wormald introduces the latest response to the man and his work: a new book, The Catch, published by Bloomsbury on 28 April.

Ten springs ago, I spent a week of glorious Devon sunshine in a cottage above the river Tamar. I’ve always loved rivers. For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried, and often failed, to catch fish in them. And since August 1983, when I was seventeen, and a course my father sent me on at the Arundell Arms hotel ten miles north of Rose Cottage, on the Tamar and its tributaries,  I’ve at least known how to cast a fly. But on this trip I deliberately didn’t bring my tackle with me. I needed to keep my hands dry and my head above water. I was here to read and then to write an essay about a collection of poetry published the month after that course, almost forty years now: River, by Ted Hughes. 

My day job is as a teacher and researcher of English literature. It so happens that the Cambridge College where I work was where the poet studied in the early 1950s. But such chance coincidences don’t usually feature in literary critical essays. So even though, by the time I opened River and started reading, I knew that Ted Hughes had started keeping fishing diaries six years before he published this collection, and even though, in the manuscripts room of the British Library, I’d recently had a first startling encounter with this essentially personal and even private record of his fishing, I thought I knew what I was about: a fun but containable exercise, an essay, nothing more. I’d demonstrate how those handwritten diaries fed the printed pages of poems, open before me as the sun drew me out onto the terrace, and beginning to stir and flap in the warm breeze.  

Reading River at Rose Cottage (picture: Mark Wormald)
Visitation? Footprints and catkins on Tamar river-sand (picture: Mark Wormald)

That week and the adventures that followed changed my life. 

Not immediately. I wrote and published that essay as ‘Fishing for Ted’, a gentle variant on a fine essay, ‘Fishing with Ted’, which the novelist Graham Swift had written as soon as he’d learned the shocking news of Hughes’s death in 1998. They’d got to know each other on the banks of a river they both loved, the Torridge, which twisted through a secret shared Paradise of a subtly different landscape, an hour or so northeast of where I read River that week.  I envied Graham those direct memories, which he soon shared with me in person, in my Cambridge study: for hours he stared, rapt, through me into experiences and recollections as vivid as any as I’d heard a stranger tell.

I never met Ted Hughes.  But soon, meeting Ted’s fishing friends, in place, theirs and his – and he had different friends for different species of fish in different countries – convinced me of two things. 

Stump Pool on the Torridge in May (picture: Mark Wormald)

First, that fishing, for Ted Hughes, was more than the hobby or pastime or even source of analogy that those non-fishing friends and admirers of his work thought it to be. It [‘went] deep’, as he put it in one of his wonderfully intense radio broadcasts of the nineteen sixties. As a boy, fishing had helped him learn to think; always it provided deep and sure contact with aspects of his true self – even, I began to sense, with different aspects of that self, according to the species of fish he was hunting.

A Torridge sea-trout (picture: Mark Wormald)
Irish pike: Castle Lake, County Clare (picture: Mark Wormald)

Fishing sustained him, helped heal him, among the many personal tragedies and losses he suffered. Some of those tragedies were unspeakable. But so, literally, was fishing, at least for the hours after he’d been alone beside or in the river, with the fish, the flies, the birds, the creatures of those hidden places of essential flow.

Lose words

Cease

Be assumed into glistening of lymph

As if creation were a wound

As if this flow were all plasm healing

Ted Hughes, from ‘Go fishing’ in River (1983)

As I joined those friends on those same waters, I heard them speak of their unconditional love for the man, even if not all of them quite understood his poetry, and I came to realise something else. To fathom these poems myself, as I’d begun to beside the Tamar, and the depth of what they stirred in me, opened for me, I would need to do more than sit back, more than keep to my desk and chair and keyboard. I would need actually and actively to fish for him myself.  As truly as possible: as faithfully, to the place and pool and date and time of day, as I could manage.

Midnight moonlight on the Tamar in June (picture: Mark Wormald)

Much more often than not, it worked. Doors and gates swung open, ‘opened inwards’, as Ted liked to say. I forged friendships of my own, learned much about these waters and the secrets they still held. 

The West Dart, Saturday 14 June (picture: Mark Wormald)

But I learned what they’d lost, too.   The health and flow of the rivers Ted Hughes loved have changed, over thirty, forty years. Shrunk, along with their populations of fish, their fly life, their fauna. We have missed opportunities to respond to his own passionate care and advocacy on their behalf, a care that itself underwent a profound change, from that of predator – a mutual friend described him to Graham Swift just before the novelist’s first meeting with the poet as ‘A great killer of fish’ – to protector. The Torridge, he came to realise, after an hour of shockingly successful plunder from his favourite pool, already under assault from intensive farming, abstraction and pollution, was ‘a river that needed its fish more than I did.’

Okement Junction on the Torridge (picture: Mark Wormald)

I’ve come, myself, to find the enduring truth of those words, fishing in Ted Hughes’s footsteps this past decade. More, I think I’ve found myself, fishing. I’m 56 now. His writing, in and beyond River, his way of being, fishing, with his son Nicholas, to whom he dedicated that book, has helped heal me, as a son, a brother, a father, from habits I suspect I share with many other British men, of my generation and his: assumptions and failures to look at and below the surface of things as honestly and closely as his writing did, and still does. 

Nick, Gwen and Mark Wormald: fishing in Assent, 1968 (picture: Nigel Wormald)

I’d urge anyone who cares about wild fish, wild rivers, and the wild somewhere in themselves to read River. And if you want a guide,  The Catch: Fishing for Ted Hughes, is published by Bloomsbury on 28 April.

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