How to Catch a Fish
Awa Press, $24.99,
How to Drink a Glass of Wine
Awa Press, $24.99,
Discussing Aldous Huxley’s On the Margin in his 2002 biography of that now untrendy writer, Nicholas Murray lamented, “it is impossible to read these essays without a sense of regret that the essay form is now virtually defunct. A young writer today has only the brief and tightly edited book review, or an ephemeral newspaper column, as an alternative to those freer, more talkative forms.”
Well, that young writer (pause here to clack my dentures at such ageism) could always come to New Zild. Lloyd Jones’s Four Winds Press gave the essay several gigavolt bursts a couple of years back. Now Wellington’s Awa Press has the form up and cantering. Its series of How To successes come with clean print, stylish, spacious lay-out, and Scott Kennedy’s sunny artwork. They’re very tactile small books. Of the ones I’ve read, Richard Hall’s How to Gaze [bad verb] at the Southern Stars was succinct and practical, while Nick Bollinger’s How to Listen to Pop Music seems set to become as iconic as its author. Now there are these two, with the narratives/anecdotes, connections, extensions and elegant elucidations that you hope for from essays.
Renaissance chap Kevin Ireland chats his affable, informative way through the business of piscatorial – an adjective I had to use – pursuits. This guy has written wall-fulls of prose and verse, and from the first syllable you know that you’re reading a fully paid-up author. The fish/fishing that interests him most is trout, especially the brown and rainbow varieties. The latter are more accurately classified along with salmon, as you already knew.
There’s an illuminating section on Maori fishing, with its traps, one kilometre-long nets and much-debated calendar. An astringent section on water pollution, which ensures you’ll never look upon monasteries with a benign eye again. An enjoyably obscure section on the etymology of “angle”, and the aptness of “hover” as a collective noun for trout. A stolid few sections on gear – I don’t know that I’ve ever read a writer who can make sports equipment sound enthralling, though I was intrigued to find that “Some anglers remove their flies every time they catch a fish.” Such vileness. Two of the most effective bits come when Ireland forgets to be amiable and gets angry, at drift-nets and at “the increasingly assertive, and sometimes aggressive, entrepreneurs who live off angling-tourists.”
He quotes the usual suspects: Izaak Walton and the gloriously named Wynkyn de Worde, plus the unusual ones: Freud and A High Wind in Jamaica. He’s deft and disarming: “The first thing you need to be told, if you ever suffer from an itch to catch a fish, is: don’t do it.” He understands the intrinsic silliness of any obsession, especially when it involves “spending hours or days or weeks trying to outwit a creature with a brain often smaller than a pea.” He’s sometimes so urbane that he murmurs his way clean off the topic, but okay, “No fisherman ever keeps to the point.”
Bite-sized narratives of fishing on the Waitemata or Lough Corrib in Ireland-the-place are bracketed with anglers’ yarns. I loved the professor and the trout-tickling. I commend the author’s admission of boyhood greed, and his dismissal of any waffling about mystical communion with water-breathers. I understand that he couldn’t omit the time he got two trout with one cast, and I winced at Brother George and the unfortunate episode with the harpoon.
Essays are a form in which the writer is not merely allowed but positively expected to show off a bit. Kevin Ireland obliges, and anyone who can link the mythical O’Flahertys, the Septuagint and a protein diet within 600 words certainly has plenty of legerdemain. He gets lyrical about landscape and waterscape, with a dazzling evocation of sunrise over Rangitoto. He turns a nifty generalisation. A few times he gets casual; anyone who refers to things happening “around a fireside” is in power-down mode.
Predictably and neatly, he punctuates his prose with poems, their lines as crafted as always: “With fish, you never defied/the way things ought to be done –/the sea was no place for free thought,/break the code and you’re dead.” And I have to note that Ireland puts back a lot of the fish he catches. Now there’s a real essayist.
I knew of John Saker as a good basketballer who had written a good book on the Zen of hoops. Now he’s an equally effective oenophile, which is another word I had to use. How to Drink a Glass of Wine comes with a commendation from one Jacques Lardière, Maison Louis Jadot, Burgundy, and that must show … something.
Saker has picked grapes in Provence, with his working world obscured by Marie-Therese’s backside. He’s trampled around in the vat that later became the 1999 Dry River Pinot Noir. True to his title, he tells you lucidly how to hold, look, swirl, smell, drink and think. He also tells you how to swallow a 1540 Steinwein.
There’s a rehoboam of other details. I learned that French troops in WWI stretched their canteens with beans (sic) to get more red wine into them. That their civilian contemporaries often downed six litres of rough red per day. That oak barrels or oak chips still rule, the liver transfers alcohol into a fuel source which goes charging straight into the bloodstream, and the closed tulip shape of the XL5 was designed specifically to give the world a standard tasting glass. Were you aware that New Zealand’s high sunlight level means a high alcohol content in our wines? Or that Margaux Hemingway was named after the bottle polished off by her parents just before her conception, and that there’s a difference between “aroma” and “bouquet”?
The people intrigue Saker: Jacques the proud Catalan (ouch); American taster Robert Parker, who has tried 10,000 wines a year for the last three decades, and who insured his nose for a million dollars; anyone bold enough to invest in a vineyard. He acknowledges that his style will instantly be under inspection, and it’s true that after real estate agents, wine writers are guilty of some of the most swollen mistreatments of the language. Saker quotes other people’s images judiciously, including the wonderful line from Galileo that wine is “sunshine held together by water”.
His own vocab is careful, sensible, intermittently and appropriately metaphorical: “a rough-and-ready blend of the workhorse grape varieties”; “fresh bright intense fruit tastes”. Do wine writers ever settle for a single adjective? There’s also “an extraordinarily vibrant core of sweet fruit, which seemed to shine softly like a pearl”, but that was a pretty special bottle.
The text strains sometimes to fill its 107 pages. It goes in for inflated (in the typographical sense) quotations from Genesis, Goethe, The Babylonian Talmud and Basil Fawlty. There’s more than enough historical trivia, though you have to like the Athenian Eubulus, who said the first bowl was pleasure, while the tenth was “madness and the hurling of furniture”. Production and consumption figures trot past briskly and forgettably. Vintage details are nicely restrained. A couple of clichés clunk; a soupçon of similes stumble; Saker gets a touch tangled in tannins, then produces a splendidly dreadful Mr Bean pun. He’s pleased with the success of our sauvignon blanc and looks forward whimsically to a bouquet of manuka.
You end these two engaging, undemanding essays with the conviction that both authors enjoy their …. pastime, enjoy writing about it, and want readers to share in those pleasures. Good God, is this really what books have come to?
David Hill’s Running Hot is a finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults 2006.