Time's Wingless Chariot
Part of the pleasure of fishing, for me, is to be aware remotely, with an atavistic feeling
for events millennia before man, of how it was long, long ago… while my favoured river,
still nameless, flowed, waiting for me as it now waits for others.
(John Inglis Hall)
In 2018, a fisher friend from the 1950s accompanied me to one of our surviving lily-capped Wirral ponds. Like Tom, the ‘Water Baby’, with lucent eyes I looked deeply into its miniature water forest and recalled poignant tales from my childhood in the lanes and fields of my Landican home.
During the early spring of 1960, John Inglis Hall published How to Fish a Highland Stream, soon to be much celebrated. I was in my eleventh year, and two seasons into my brief association with a rod in country waters and ponds, I could not know that fly fishing would become an absorbing interest in my later life. How to Fish a Highland Stream remained unknown to me for years to come.
Hall claims the Truim had been waiting for him; and just as he had foretold, the shimmering stream in the Scottish Highlands waited for me and others. The Truim was to follow on much later after I had graduated from the farmland carp fishing of my pre-adolescence. These early waters held my eyes close to a quill float, cast among the lilies, many years before my hands were graced with a fly rod.
I visited Hall at his Sussex home in 1987, the year of his second edition; it has always been hard to realise the passing of many slow-winged years since that meeting. For Hall, his seasons on the Truim (1953-1961) were magical and replete with many pleasures for him as a lone Highland fisherman.
The passage of time variously runs through his pages in the upstream journey of a dry-fly specialist. Hall’s adroit writing is also deeply reflective. Many of us reflect daily and often constantly, a pleasant indulgence that has accompanied my entire life. I have sometimes spent almost as much of my time in the past as in the present.
When I first visited the Truim in 1978, my reflexivity proved especially sensitive to the time associations of Hall. Whatever were to be my own Truim experiences, I followed him, re-trod his pebbled footsteps, and through his eyes absorbed the changeless scene.
Hall’s backward vision commences near the Truim’s confluence with the Spey. His ritual yearly passing of a window-clattering ruin on the right bank has engaged us in giving the structure some sight of life, where people once lived and loved. There is now a new cottage that has replaced it, bringing life again to this lonely part of the stream. Further upstream beyond Glen Truim Bridge, Hall identifies the remnants of a vegetable garden belonging to a vanished house, where both he and I have dined on the early summer raspberries. A deep pool a little further on finds him musing on smooth, yellow metamorphic rocks, ‘as old as time’. I have similarly paused at the glacial erratics, the enormous boulders which often dominate the Truim, and wonder when and what caused them to move and roll.
The Caledonian Orogeny is a gigantic volcanic reflection as he takes readers back to Dalwhinnie and the Cairngorms’ Himalayan peaks of the late Silurian and Devonian periods, and tells us how the Truim will hardly change at all in a thousand years. Like Hall, I look back across time in this wilderness.
The old Crubenmore bridge under which Hall passes quickly because it was falling, is still falling down but at a very slow rate. The incumbent of the bridge cottage had no recollection of Hall’s visits since he was too young, though he welcomed mine. Throughout the upstream journey, apart from one or two shortcuts the river has taken on its bends, it otherwise flows as faithfully now as it did nearly seventy years ago. Most railway cottages and two signal boxes have disappeared.
It is satisfying that particular rocks and contours remain as Hall knew them including the umbrella-topped chimneys of the Dalwhinnie Distillery. And many years on, it probably would be possible for him to recognise an artefact or two beneath the surface of the old village rubbish dump nearby.
Hall laments the sudden departure – in a single season - of many guests who became his friends at the Loch Ericht Hotel, especially the ‘pink-faced old gentleman who recited Burns and Wordsworth’. At the same hotel, he recalls the visit made by Queen Victoria and Consort Albert in 1861. Sleeping in the very room, he re-engages with their visit, teasingly telling us that ‘their ghosts did not walk’.
For the young boy who watched his quill float on a pond and the mature man who watches his floating fly, there is no difference. Time is held in suspension, as anticipation becomes the uninterrupted focus. Save for when I fall, or narrowly escape injury on the Truim, this concentration renders me completely unaware of my mortality.
Like the lips we long to kiss, or a child who hurriedly opens a Christmas present, stirred by the prospect of whatever may be there, the fisher’s waiting for that vivid slash of yellow in a royal doublet when a trout rings the surface, is an experience insulated out of time. Anticipation is the prime motivator for the fly fisher.
Readers will remember J. R. Hartley, the most famous fly fisher of all in fiction (and that’s another story!), and many will remember J. I. Hall. My new book takes Hall out of the past to become one with my own for a future in perpetuity. New readers will ensure this.