Reeling them in Jim Greeks

Spinning A Line: New Zealand Writing About Fishing
ed Owen Marshall
Vintage, $29.95,
ISBN 1869414675

In the kaleidoscope of influences and events that has made me whatever I am today, fishing has a lot to answer for. Without doubt, it has been a major defining influence in my life. For decades, I recognised and happily accepted that by normal standards, I lived to fish. I felt vaguely sorry for anybody for whom angling was a secondary activity, to be “fitted in” between allegedly more worthy pursuits such as finding a universal cure for excess nasal hair, creating literary, artistic or musical masterpieces or making squillions of dollars – unless for the purchase of more fishing gear.

The let-down, when it came last December, was devastating. I had been fishing the mouth of the Clutha River for the first time. The day had quickly degenerated into a test of fortitude so typical of this summer past: a frigid southerly wind and driving rain. I had endured it for several hours, growing progressively wetter and colder, motivated initially by hope as good-sized fish regularly followed my offerings in the colouring water, alas, without taking; and subsequently by a total inability to make myself turn about into the storm for the trudge carwards. Eventually, the unthinkable occurred and a misguided young brown trout inhaled my Rapala, unfortunately too deeply to be released alive. Wet, hypothermic, with a splitting headache, I made my long way back to the crib we were renting at Taieri Mouth.

The next day I did not venture out, too dispirited to do anything but thaw broodingly in front of a fire, unseasonal but welcome. As the mist swirled thickly without, Henry David Thoreau came to mind: “Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” Which brings me to Spinning a Line: New Zealand Writing About Fishing, edited by Owen Marshall.

I have long been a fan of Marshall’s writing, an avid buyer of his volumes of short stories, without ever having been aware of his interest in angling. Normally, I would have risen to the bait of his latest offering joyously, without hesitation. In this case, however, the anguish of recent events and the doubts they had sown about my real motivation for fishing had left me in something of a post-mid-life angling crisis, and I approached the book with an enthusiasm more domesticated than wild.

Spinning a Line is an anthology of 38 pieces by 28 authors, predominantly prose but with some poetry too. There is an introduction by Marshall, who includes a new short story of his own, and a brief résumé of each of the contributors. Most of the stories were written specifically for this book, so the well-read but canny purchaser with an eye to value for money is not at risk of being short-changed here: this is not a mass regurgitation of previously published angling yarns.

The rationale for the anthology – as if there were ever a need to justify a book on fishing – is admirably expressed in the introduction:

I wanted to cast the net as widely as possible: to include prose and poetry, fact and fiction, the serious and the light-hearted, new work and a pick of that already published. I wanted to include men and women, Maori and Pakeha .… This book is not designed to produce the complete fisher, but to remind readers of their own outdoor experience, entertain and inform them, perhaps enlarge their understanding of the nature of fishing through the eyes of others.

 

And to remove any possibility of confusion about its focus, Marshall underlines that in this collection his emphasis is not scientific information, equipment, records, historical trends, predictions or ecological issues, “but the sense of personal experience which is surely the core of fishing’s fascination.”

So what do we end up with? For a start, we get a cast of established New Zealand authors – including James K Baxter, Patricia Grace, Brian Turner, Keri Hulme, Anne French, Roger Hall, and Kevin Ireland – whose collective literary voice is attuned to the cadences of our own antipodean environment. Their frame of reference is ours, based on the rivers, the shores, the very culture we share in common. Their language is our language, and they speak with us at a visceral level, beyond any need for interpretation or rational analysis. They are us. But they are also the sum of their own individual experiences, and the unique perspective each contributor brings to bear encourages reflection, enhances our own capacity for self-understanding by taking something familiar and allowing us to see it in a different light.

We also get, obviously, fish: whitebait, compliments of Keri Hulme; trout in all their various guises and circumstances of pursuit, triumph and disaster; flounders, oceanic meatballs and even a kingfish that nearly disrupts a wedding. There is a rich smorgasbord of anecdote, reminiscence, a coming of age on the Westport bar, an extremely enigmatic interlude with Nancy on the Mataura, miscellaneous angling cricketers and golfers, and a suitor who seems destined to be thrown back. While the collection may lack that perennial trout fishing icon, the angry bull, it comes within a snip of it with a cantankerous Waitaki steer.

And eels. While the story offered contains all the traditional elements, there is a twist in the tale. In a broader context, is there another country that has eels of a size and profusion to match our own anguillidae? Living often in the most unlikely places, by their very nature unseen and unsuspected down the years, until a chance sighting, usually by an overly impressionable youngster, starts the rumours. In no time, the talk is of a great six-footer, thick as an All Black prop’s thigh, with a disposition to match, allegedly a prodigious consumer of ducklings and a threat to any dog swimming in its domain. Immediately, it becomes the objective of every decent-thinking Kiwi bloke to capture it and parade the corpse.

In that respect, eel fishermen – with apologies for the gender stereotyping, but I have never heard of a woman for whom the nocturnal pursuit of large eels held the slightest attraction – and mountain climbers seem to have much in common: both exhibit obsessive/compulsive behaviour to capture the object of their fixation, for no better reason than it’s there. With eel fishermen, and maybe also for women who do not fish for eels, I suspect there may be a deeper, Freudian significance, but that is territory better left unexplored here. What I can say, without reservation, is that Marshall and the eclectic array of contributors he has so successfully assembled all deserve warmest congratulations for the outcome of their collective endeavours.

Spinning a Line fully meets its editor’s stated objectives. It is – with the single non-local example of an illuminating review of the life of Viscount Grey, author of Fly Fishing and worthy of inclusion in any angling volume on that count alone – a splendid collection of New Zealand fishing-related yarns and poetry. It is by turn entertaining, amusing, thought-provoking, at times poignant, and offers as broad a range of Kiwi angling perspectives as you could ever hope to find between the covers of a single book. The stories and settings are of us and ours; there is an affinity, a sense of connection, and the end result is to the mind what oxtail stew with mashed potatoes is to the body on a cold winter’s night: a warm and satisfying sense of completeness.

While I may have started the book doubting the validity of fishing as the focus for a life, Spinning a Line confirmed for me that angling, in all its richness of diversity, is something to be celebrated in its own right, whenever and wherever, without apology.

 

Jim Greeks is a fervent angler and Director of Internal Audit for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

 

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