Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for. (The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway)
I do not fish. I have fished, I have been fishing, but I am not a fisherman, though I’d like to be. I’ve caught fish, several times. I’ve caught mackerel from a pier and trout at a farm. I once caught piranha in the Amazon jungle, baiting hooks with steak and lowering them into the water, then flishing them out, quick-smart, as soon as there was activity below. The piranha, eager for blood, leapt out of the water after the steak and I hit them hard with a makeshift cosh. We ate some and used the rest as bait for catfish. We caught a couple of those too, enormous and tasty over an open fire.
But I am not a fisherman. As a child, I used to pity the poor men (they were always men) sat by Beare Green pond, lines limping into the water, barely making an impression. What could they possibly have been catching? Pike? These days, I’m less quick to judge. I think I know what they were after, just as I know why the fisherman I see on the Regent’s Canal go out and sit, their cans and boots not much different from the cans and boots that the water offers up to their lines. I could almost be one of them, but I’m not a fisherman.
Fishing, it seems to me, is rather more about not catching fish than it is about catching them, just as it’s rather more about boredom than it is about activity or fun. But the boredom of fishing is not the kind of boredom that teenagers whiningly lament. No, it’s boredom as an art-form, boredom as a hobby, boredom as a goal. It’s difficult to be bored, these days. But the more fish you don’t catch, the easier it gets.
Of course, I know what to do with the fuckers. Give me a fish, and I’ll eat for a day – give me a fishing rod, and I probably won’t catch anything. Dead fish make forgiving dinners. Mackerel, I grill; squid, fry or barbecue; trout, bake in foil with herbs; salmon, ignore; cod, just cook; pollock, fish finger; pike, poach; perch, do as little as possible; sardine, barbecue; monkfish, anything; rockfish, stew; octopus, stew then grill; dab, grill; plaice, grill; sole, Dover and lemon, grill or fry with brown butter; gurnard, stew; prawns, grill; mullet, grey and red, bake; bream, grill or bake. Never fillet unless you have to. Always keep the heads for stock or soup (unless we’re talking oily fish, in which case you might as well chuck them). Eat the eyes.
I know that I’m not a fisherman because I don’t know when I would fish if I were. You need to take time for it. The world won’t stop just because you stop. A fisherman must be a Cartesian, but one who, as he knows himself by virtue of his thoughts, also doubts others because he doesn’t know theirs. In short, a fisherman must be selfish to the exclusion of the world: self-important enough to withdraw temporarily from existence without worrying about the impact on others, but humble enough to know that he won’t be sorely missed.
Fishing is a sport, or that’s the theory. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a better way to define the notion of a leisure activity than co-opting something essential to survival (the catching, killing and eating of fish) into a purely pleasurable pursuit (catching and throwing back). It’s wanton, like skinning a pig for the hell of it.
The hook goes into the water, perhaps with a fly (not usually an actual fly), perhaps with a worm or a maggot, or some bread or meat or fish or other bait. Then wait. Then wait. Um, then wait. Then, crunch. For the fisherman, that crunch is a tug, an exciting undertow. It’s comfortable and comforting, bearing the promise of a catch, of consummation. For the fish though, it’s what? It’s a bite, a metal spike through the top of the mouth. It’s blood, it’s weakness, it’s the potential to be prey. More than that, it’s a fitting foreshadowing; if fish could think, they might muse on the irony of eating that spike, masticating their own death. They might too, on being returned to the water, re-evaluate their fishy lives – undertake to become a better fish in what time they have left and think carefully about the harsh forgiveness of the universe. That line from King Lear rings truer for fish than for man (and truer still for flies): ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport.’
Thankfully for the fisherman, fish don’t think, at least not like we do. They might feel pain, but they couldn’t tell us it was pain that they were feeling, any more than they can articulate how they know which way to swim. A hook straight through a fish’s palate is just another thing that happens to a fish as it’s going along being a fish in the world, no more significant (though a good deal more distressing) than swimming, fish-like, into a rock.
It happens to people too, but at the level of metaphor. Fishermen empathise with fish, because they know what it’s like. That search for something in the water, the yearning for the juiciest-looking morsel – that stuff is what fishing is about. A fisherman becomes hooked, but fish are cruel masters. For most, there is no unhooking, no throwing back to a life without fishing. At best, there may be some respite in which a fisherman can dabble, unmolested, in the shallows of normal life. Whole years might pass: time spent, not time taken. But it pulls people back, reels them in again. And so those men, sat by the pond, sit there again. Fishing is ambition.
It is also solitude. And because it’s solitude, sometimes it might be solitude’s bastard cousin, loneliness. Rilke has ‘Being apart and lonely is like rain’, which sounds about right for the fisherman, wet through in the nearing dark of an autumn afternoon. Of course, fishing can be social, a moment to shoot the breeze with like-minded souls, or an opportunity to pass on knowledge to a child, a chance to bond. It can be social, but it isn’t at heart. There are ways of being alone, just as there are ways of being afraid, and the fisherman’s is a particularly hard way of being. Sitting on a stool or a chair, sandwiches in tin foil, waiting, reading, maybe thinking. There’s a worry about what happens in that time. People are, generally speaking, no good at being alone – minds clutter up with thought too quickly for it to be healthy in the long term. Who are these men? They are mostly men. And what do they do when they’re not fishing?
I have in my house a rare book. It’s a hand-bound, Spanish-language, Cuban market edition of El viejo y el mar. It feels of soft, old leather, and should be expensive, though I can’t imagine the person who bought it for me in Havana paid much for it. I can barely read it, but sit, armed with a dictionary, once in a while, to tackle another page or two. It’s not a long book, but it is a true one. Santiago is the kind of fisherman who only lives in books: stalwart, brave and most importantly, aware of the metaphorical force of what he does. His fishing is no hobby; it is not like that of the men at Beare Green, but it is kindred with theirs. In his struggle with the marlin, Santiago is enacting, perhaps, a key impulse that underlies the desire to fish. It’s about mastery, not so much of another being or a stretch of water (though those are important) but of the fisherman; self-mastery, then. We can prove to ourselves that we are in control.
I was not born for fishing. If I was born for anything, it might have been for reading. And in my most indulgent moments, I can even kid myself that it was for writing. Those are kinds of discipline too. And writing is lonely before it is anything else. Maybe the mastery comes in the failure. Because there are always bigger fish to catch and better stretches of water to explore. The problem and the beauty of it is that we can never know where we are. Is this the best it’s going to get, this chub in this river at this hour on this day? Heaven forbid. We’ll only find out when we’ve finished, and we can’t finish because we’re hooked.