Fisherboy

I 'published' the following narrative poem in separate sections here on my blog. Now I'm submitting the whole thing in fully edited form ...

These are, as I remember, the opening lines of a hymn (song? anthem?) that was sung in Abingdon (Roysses’s) School chapel, Sunday Evensong …

When to the days of our childhood returning,
Backwards our footsteps will wander afar;
Strong be our love and long be our yearning,
When we remember the days that are gone

Fisherboy

1. Catching the bug

Not long ago, fast-driven round north
London, south of Epping Forest
old trees fresh green-gowned,
I remembered that enchanted day
as sharp and clean and clear
as the pebble bottomed stream
that must still be somewhere there,
just as in nineteen thirty nine
for father and my five year old self
(Mother, sisters Shirley and Tina,
too, certainly, although them -
as hard as I might right now try -  
I can’t recall on that enchanted day.)

But I remember the finger-feel
of warm black earth, uprooted turf
that we hand-dug in search of bait
from the soft bank, wriggly worms,
for whom I felt that sadness:
and still I feel the sleepy weight
of summer through sun-shaft foliage
overhead; green, golden, shifting,
and still the moving water glistens,
hear the ruckle of its slow running,
swirling, cold to my bare feet,
and the insect drone of tiny wings
amidst the waxy drowse of that forest.

Most of all I remember my father
and the thrill of watching him
setting up to try to catch a fish:
to cast a line and catch a fish!
with tackle from his canvas bag -
the smell: the warm, sweet, rotten,
rusty, cat gut, dead fish smell of it.
I remembered as I was driven by
leafy Epping Forest, though that
was three whole fourths of a century
ago, although they say I’m old,
therefore my story’s almost told,
I see the red and yellow quill
trip-dancing the current, father and I,
waiting for the sudden tip and dip
that never came on that enchanted day,
catching nothing but having much,
my father and I, (not ‘me’, he’d say),
of embrionic fishing love, and such.



2. A small pond in Lancashire

‘Come in now and listen, son,’
mother and father tell me, that day
in September nineteen thirty nine:
War! Our guns versus theirs, of
course before we trounce The Hun,
whosoever they might be, all so
exciting to a five year old boy;
(not as much as fishing, but still …)

We drove north, my father and I
in his Morgan sports to Lancashire
new ‘job’ far from Chigwell bombs,
mother, sisters following by train
I so well recall that journey and
in Walton-le-Dale what children do -
but this is fishing, nineteen forty two.
Lancashire pond, shiveringly deep
rush fringed, overhanging willows,
dark skies, menace, mirror calm,
whatever monster swims down there?
My father is handing me his rod,
shiny soft feel of its cork handle
tiny bobble float red and white,
with quill upright out in the middle.
‘Watch it, now, pay attention’,
he instructed, (as if I needed it),
and yet I miss the strike when, dis-
believing, I no more see a float,
just plop within those circle ripples,
gone. ‘Too late, Bryan’, father says,
and I feel his disappointment
in me in spite of all my good intent,
me in myself for passion spent.

I reel in line and empty hook,
trembling hands transfix a worm
fingers tight on hopeless writhing -
painful death to make another
(worms can feel no pain, he says)
and anyway such a thrill to try to
catch and kill a fish deep down
however small, perhaps how great
now biting hard on my living bait
and this time I feel the line tighten,
the bounce of the greenheart rod
(green? heart of what I wonder)
in my clenched fists, heart thudding
father issuing unheard instructions
until with a heave, airborne was
that first so well remembered fish
five inches of  silver red-fin landing,
gasping at my feet, looking - yes,
looking at me: ‘pick him up, son,’
my father says, ‘Bryan, well done.’
So lovely my fish, I could have cried.
Yes, I smell today his fresh-sour scent
know now the first time catcher’s pride
and joy; same for man as little boy.


3. The Estuary

Wales: there’s a place called Laugharne
(say it like barn like the boathouse
where here lived Dylan Thomas), where
I was sent on holiday in forty four
to stay at my auntie’s and uncle John’s.
I recall getting water from the pump
and standing by the muddy shore
of that estuarine river, mother sea
feeling a small boy’s first affinity
with what is vasty wild, untamed.
I run home to steal a fishing hook
(one of uncle’s brightest sea-trout flies)
a ball of twine from the garden shed
and with jam jar of worms run
back again to bait, stone-weight my line,
throw it out into the tide, far as I could:
awaiting what good luck might bring,
waiting in slow rain with bated breath,
imagining, yes, imagining
a catch, this game of life and death
And so it was, first fishing time alone.
I feel that twitch, drag, steady pull
enough to move my weight, then
tight line cutting water to and fro,
I would not let my caught fish go.

What kind of flat fish, this, my prize?
mud-brown on the side of its eyes,
dirty white below, fan tail flipping,
edge fins waving, gills pulsating;
beautiful, though, in a special way
I can feel its thrilling, slimy cold,
near too slippery for me to hold
solid fish of tea plate type and size
and with a look of mild surprise.
I smell that same sour fishy scent as,
fast as I could, back home I went.
‘What’s that?’ my auntie unimpressed.
‘It stinks, what kind of fish is that?'
‘A flounder,’ uncle said, ‘Well done’.
But only, ‘Close the door,’ she said,
‘Oh well, should be good for the cat.’
And pride’s now flatter than that flat.


4. Rockpool Magic

So many changes, year of forty five
world war ending, mother gone away
with somebody else, so they say
Walter somebody? Me, a boy alone
crying in secret on ‘holiday’ exile;
‘Get Bryan out the way,’ she says,
blonde stranger to father that day,
‘Send ‘im to your ma and pa, Ted,  
on Hastings front, he loves his fishing
then soon he’ll stop bloody wishing
for mummy dear to come back ‘ere;
 she can’t make up for leaving ‘im
- nor you for that sod, Eddy, dear.’
And thus the small boy learns to fear,
that grown up thing without a name,
oh this unruly life and hate, the state
of soon to be - except his magic sea;
unchanging; salty sea, its mystery,
and fishy life that swims so free.
By his window the boy just watches,
in his dreams, the fish he catches.

‘Why don’t you go to the beach, boy?’
asks grandfather, ‘Catch some prawns?
‘It’s low tide now so take this drop-net.’
He ruffles my hair, shows how it’s set:
‘Prise limpets off the rocks for bait
skewer them in the mesh, lower it
into a deep rock pool out of sight,
leave good time for them to get in
then hook it out quick with this stick;
quick! 'fore they flick over the rim!’
Grandfather! I do remember him,
and more, those juicy fat beauties
transparent, black pin eyed, jumping,
flip-flopping, trapped in the net
other kids gathering round me to see
how and what my secret might be,
but, scrambling ashore as the tide rose,
falling, knee bleeding over my clothes
and grandma says it’s all right, see,
we’ll have prawns for a special tea.’
Cooked, pink, plated, I catch their scent,
proud and content, my energies spent.


5. The Wierpool

Old Abingdon School, now my home,
prefects and masters and neat, bare dorm
unbending rules, grey granite stone;
If clever you sit in front of the form,
or a back seat for a dreamer like me
dreaming of birds eggs, fishing the sea
or that wierpool, a Thames tributary
with shiny new reel and split cane rod
twelfth birthday present as if from God;
‘Islip, attention!’ The master speaks;
but small interest, I, in Latin or Greek.

Where the pools are bright and deep
Where the grey trout lies asleep
Up the river and over the lea
That’s the way for Billy and me
 (James Hogg, 1770-1835: A Boy’s Song)

Where the pool lies, bubbling clear
where green weed grows down the weir
Along the Thames and over the lea
that’s the way for Harris and me.
Only surnames at Abingdon School -
did Harris have a forename I wonder
no matter and no need to ponder, for
we had our secret wierpool yonder.
In our free time we take our tackle
free at last from the schoolroom shackle
snag with bare hook some whispy weed
(with tiny mites on which fishes feed)
crouching behind the fringing reed
we hold our breath, await the bite:
yes! the chub would plunge and fight
and once a two pound redfin roach
I caught; I see those fins cerise and
flanks silver bright as a sixpenny piece.
As on green grass she lay that day
so strong that hunter-gatherer’s joy, and
one golden moment for a motherless boy.

‘To be or not to be, then’, jokes Harris
‘You can have it stuffed, Islip, you know
or perhaps you might think to let him go.’
I kissed her, my lips to her slippery nose,
and through the mists of a long gone May
I catch the scent of the wild and free,
as I watch my lovely swim slowly away.


6. On Hastings Pier

My sister and I were away at school
in that post war Spring of forty seven
when father and (brand new) mother,
moved down to Newmarket town
but when home on holidays alone
I would walk along the racecourse
each morning, watching racehorses
strutting like haughty kings and queens
or ridden by on thundering gallops
(and that girl at the swimming pool,
the churning, choking, wishing for
things more thrilling even than fishing).
Back in Hastings that summer with
cousin Jenny, the games we played
in Bottle Alley down by the beach,
and in grandfather’s house (especially),
and watching the pier end fishermen
casting lead weights and bait far out
into the white-streaked, green-grey ocean.

Then grandfather gave me the keys
to his locker in the Sea Angling Club.
(Keys to my Kingdom I thought,) and
sixpence for lug worms, wrapped up
in last week’s guts-yellowed paper,
but what a tasty sea fish snack,
long, fat, slow moving, wet jet black!
That locker was my Pandora’s Box
wooden reel, brass bound, a greased
flax line and etcetera, now mine,
heavy old rod to lift a great cod
from the seas rose and fell and were
surging around the legs of the pier.
My great cod dream was unrealised
and blank days came as no surprise,
or little whiting or flip-flop plaice
- one such as these no way a disgrace,
walking them home down the prom,
grandpa’s repeated tale of the sea
towed in a dinghy for miles, no wonder,
when into a forty or fifty pound conger!
I believed him then, and still I do,
‘though that was in nineteen twenty two!

That gruff old angler had no time for my
over-run casting, tangles and troubles:
‘Bugger off, that’s my place,’ he says
‘though he’d no right to his own base.
But you are neither heard nor seen,
when men are men and you thirteen
on Hastings pier; I learned the broader
truths about the fisher’s pecking order


7. Mighty Pike

At fourteen years and nine long months,
I said goodbye with perhaps a sigh,
to Abingdon School, gown and town,
father unwilling to expend any more
on his angst-tied dreamer of an only son
and I can’t blame him for that, or
for a shy head filled with fishing lore
in spite of some surprisingly (for some)
excellent School Leaving Certificates
- a certainty for Oxford, said the Head,
too late. By then I had been shed.

I remember not much of what came next
(‘til Boots then the air force in fifty one),
but one frosty morning out on my bike
rod to the crossbar, tackle bag bumping
my back, cycling the flatland lanes
over miles of fens to try for a pike,
double-treble hooks, live dace for bait …
Float steady mid-canal I wait and I wait
yet still am surprised by the run, so
I snatch the strike, back up the bank,
for what on earth could be on my line,
dangerously matching its power to mine?
I’m shocked by what I haul from the water
- a true lethal weapon of pisces slaughter -
dappled green, lean, with underslung jaw
bait half gorged deep down the pink maw
white rows of raked-back razor teeth;
steeling myself, my knife I unsheathe.

I hang him, dead, from my handlebars,
for twenty odd miles cycle him home
and once I fell and saw the stars
spade tail in my front wheel spokes
and my bloody elbows were no joke
but why oh why was I the only one
who thought my catch a thing of beauty,
so little moved were they that day;
‘Take it away. I'm not cooking that
bloody great monster,’ she exclaims,
Bryan, why did you bring the thing home?
‘I’d really of thought you ‘ad more brains.’

Bryan Islip
May / June 2014

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became a man, I gave up childish things.    (1 Corinthians 13:11) 

Except fishing (Bryan Islip)

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