Fly-fishing books of the period between the two world wars have long maintained a deep individual fascination. They are my personal hinterland, granting me the space to think; to take time out and evaluate what’s genuinely important. In the age of immediacy, selfishness and social media, these texts bring a slowness of pace and an idyllic reflection of times past. They also remind me that there is more to fishing than simply catching fish. Whether intentional or not, these books reveal a human story. And allow me a backward glance towards that half concealed world of an angling past.
Romilly Fedden’s Golden Days From The Fishing Log Of A Painter In Brittany offers a perfect illustration of how a long forgotten angling book can pull you backwards through a century of tumultuous change. This wonderfully evocative book composed during the horrors of trench life during the First World War. Serves as an unspoiled pastoral counterpoint to the horrors Fedden undoubtably witnessed.
The book’s unnerving prologue opens with Fedden’s jubilant recollective scene of a day’s fishing in France, before a darkening tone pervades with the rising drone of a bi-plane overhead. The day’s tranquillity to be shattered by a salvo of artillery shells and shrapnel. In only a half a sentence, Fedden takes us from the tranquility of water-meadows to the annihilation of the front line.
Spring Fishing and Random Memories
In his opening chapter entitle Spring Fishing, Fedden at once transports us away from the trenches to an earlier time fishing the Celtic moorlands of Brittany. Like the rest of his book, this chapter captures the joys of fishing in an unsentimental and yet human tone. Within a few simple sentences he firmly puts his finger on the often neglected subtle pleasure of angling.
“Of course, being human, we all like to catch fish: and yet, is it not the desire to catch rather than the catching which is more than half the fun?”
In a later chapter titled Random Memories, Fedden again touches on the enjoyments of angling, this time in the imagined company of Izaak Walton. Quoting Walton’s perfectly condensed three lines on the art of casting.
“You have length enough; stand a little further-off, let me entreat you, and do but fish the stream like an artist, and peradventure, a good fish may fall to your share.”
But immediately confirming that the genuine pleasures in angling are not to be found in tackle and technique.
“Who with such a fascinating mentor at his side could venture to discourse on rods and lines and tackles, or attempt the exact precepts of the angler’s lore? No: our only hope is to be frankly irrelevant, just to talk of the days and the pleasures we have loved, so perchance we may stir kindred memories, and others may be able to slip into a corner of our mood and share with us some of the delight of happy moments.
Oh, if this were only easy! But the nature of a fisherman’s joy is a subtle quality. It cannot be adequately expressed in written characters, nor is it occasioned by the mere catching of fish. Birds come into it, and flowers and the spring sunshine, and there is nature-magic, too, which even winged words would fail to touch.”
An Autumn Fishing
The circumstances of its writing give Golden Days an unnerving quality. Like the thoughts of many combatants in the forward trenches, it switches at a heartbeat from images of piscatorial tranquillity to moments of rage against the politics and materialism which placed them there. In his chapter An Autumn Fishing, Fedden takes us from the “blatant reek of war” to salmon fishing scenes in Brittany via the flower markets of Picardy. A Juxtaposition that is as absurd as the realities of war and trench life. The chapter details his experience of salmon fishing in Brittany before the onset of war. Accompanied by his ever-present friend Jean Pierre, Fedden not only catches a couple of salmon, including a fresh-run fish of 19 lb. But he creates a narrative that is the very essence of the struggle between man and fish. Drawing the chapter to a close with the convivial scene of conversations with local hunters in a Bretton village inn.
“They, like their weapons, are old and out of date. They live with nature under open skies; they still see visions and at times are “fey,” so meet, despite their poverty, some joy upon the road.
We found many friends around the open hearth, not least among them being the tired dogs, who lay with sleepy heads on splattered, steaming paws, before the glow; too weary to be roused, they gave us salutation by kindly flaps of tails upon the hearthstone.”
Like all great angling books, Golden Days is not simply about fishing. It is about something more meaningful and intimate: this book is about man’s need for escapement through angling’s tranquil soothing balm. Amidst the horror of the trenches, he paints a skilful memory of peaceful earlier days. Colouring an artistic narrative with a half-guilty, nostalgic pleasure, during some of history’s darkest days.
Brittany with its wild and beautiful countryside permeates through every page of Fedden’s book. Through his words, the region’s wild trout streams convert into the very syllables of the page. Though the book contains stark and harrowing thoughts and images of war, these do not make up the very essence of the book. It is Fedden’s deep love of Brittany, with its landscape and people that bubble up from the text. His love of angling enthuses the book – but his love of Brittany permeates every page.
Upon its publication in 1919 the mathematician Selig Brodetsky, reviewed the book with these most poignant words.
Here is a book full of quiet charm and humour, written by one who is evidently not only an artist and a sportsman, but also a true lover and observer of Nature and her ways. The angler will be fascinated by the vivid descriptions of trout-and salmon-fishing in Brittany. There are no improbable fisherman’s yarns to invite his scepticism, but their place is taken by some delightful stories of saints and miracles drawn from the Breton folk-lore, so that the book appeals quite as much to the general reader as to the piscatorial fraternity. It is a pleasant narrative, well suited to while away a winter evening at the fireside and to conjure up visions of sunlit meadows, fragrant pinewoods, and murmuring streams, though tinged, alas! by that vein of sadness which must colour the day-dreams of all of us at the present time, and especially of those who, like the author, have witnessed at close quarters the tragedy of the last few years.
Arthur Romilly Fedden (1875-1939)
Born into a prosperous Gloucestershire family in 1875, Arthur Romilly Fedden was an English artist and watercolourist who studied under Hubert von Herkomer at Bushey, before later moving on to study at the Académie Julian in Paris. Developing a deep love for Brittany and its trout streams, he set down his early recollections of the golden era fishing rivers before the outbreak of the First World War.
Though in his early forties at the outbreak of war, Fedden volunteered and served as a captain with the British Expeditionary Forces on the frontline, with his book Golden Days From The Fishing Log Of A Painter In Brittany being published in 1919 and later republished in 1949.
He married the American writer Katharine Waldo Douglas and illustrated her book on the Basque Country. However, in 1939 tragedy struck the couple when they both died of injuries sustained in the famous crash of the Sud Express in March 1939. Their bodies being interned in the small graveyard overlooking the sea at St. Jean De Luz, France, in April 1939.
My own copy of Fedden’s Golden Days From The Fishing Log Of A Painter In Brittany, has itself a hint of poignancy being inscribed with a letter from Harfield Edmonds author of Brook and River Trouting. The second paragraph of which points the Edmonds’ own personal relationship with the tragedy of war, through the death of his son Peter, a Spitfire pilot in 1941.