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Book of the Week

Orange Otter by Christopher Knowles, is a fascinating, highly readable portrait of Welsh Border fishing and its main characters in the middle of the twentieth century. The book itself was compiled from sixty years of the Rev. Edward Powell's fascinating diaries . . .






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Diary, Dear Diary



Christopher Knowles







Fishing diaries are what Arthur Ransome called ‘single-minded’: they record only those days on which the diarist fished and they concentrate exclusively on one subject. Powell kept a fishing diary from the age of eleven (1899), which runs continuously from 1909 to 1964, spanning nearly sixty years. Until 1933 he used the columns of the ‘Angling Diary’ in old copies of Where To Fish. Thereafter his records are written in lined exercise books or a Lett’s Diary. This gave him the freedom to write at length or in brief, as occasion demanded, without the constraint of the set space allocated by the purpose-printed fishing log, against which Ransome reacted so strongly, claiming that ‘a diary in so strait a waistcoat is a diary born dead’. Powell’s are still very much alive and kicking! Mostly, the entries are written in blue or black ink, sometimes in pencil and sometimes roughed out in pencil and inked in later. Powell certainly re-read his diaries, often years later, and annotated them afresh in the margins. He was very keen on cross-referencing and at some stage underlined all the pattern names (his own) in red. Additionally, some pages now also bear son Michael’s annotations.
MFor Powell, diary-writing was an integral part of the fishing process, almost as important as tackle - the end-of-the-day debriefing in the privacy of its pages was as much a part of the ritual as the setting up of the rod at the beginning. Although we will never know whether he missed the odd outing, he had in abundance the quality which according to Ransome (who lacked it) was the most valuable in the writer of a fishing diary next to honesty: persistence. Those who determine to follow his example know precisely how difficult it can be at the end of a hard day’s fishing to overcome exhaustion, disappointment or even exhilaration, all of which drive us away from the writing desk to the bar stool or the armchair. But for Powell the activity was de rigueur. It was not just the writing of the diary that was important; the creation was almost subservient to the subsequent reading and re-creating of it, for it provided a medium for self-education - Powell was insistent on that score. Ransome again: ‘The writer of a fishing diary talks to himself. Nobody else’s fishing diary, however good, can be to a man what his own can be, however bad’. In re-reading his account, perhaps many years later, the fisherman has the opportunity of talking things over with his younger self, of seeing as blindingly obvious in the present aspects which were hidden from him in the past. ‘Silly old fool not to use Black Beetle!’ Thus he chided himself within its covers for forgetting on 3rd August, 1944 that a year earlier to the day identical conditions had prevailed on the Onny, when the fish had eyes for his Black Beetle only, with which he caught thirty-five trout in low, gin-clear water.
M‘Diary-keeping fishermen differ in the extent to which they systematically record data and draw conclusions for their future practice or simply jot down miscellaneous notes on incidents of the day.’ This time, Hancock in the Birmingham Post and later in Rod in Hand. Powell belonged fairly and squarely to the first category - no miscellaneous jotter, he! Most entries are succinct and to the point. Weather, water conditions, fish numbers, insects, autopsies, flies and materials used, tactics, comparisons with previous seasons and earlier observations, confirmation of theories, questions for the future, fishing companions, totals for the season, tables of the success rates of flies - this factual record forms the backbone of the diaries. Conspicuous by their almost total absence are personal feelings, national events, family matters, even fishermen’s tales. Everything is tightly focussed on fishing, each observation taken seriously and considered at length.
MAt the end of each year, Powell calculated the totals of the fish taken, usually comparing them to previous years, and wrote a digest of the year’s discoveries, drawing conclusions and often referring to specific red-letter days. Thus, at the end of 1934:

by far the best [season] I’ve ever had:
1) Dry fly more effective than wet, sometimes even in April
2) The value of my Black Beetle
3) Paragon deadly as early as May though presumably suggesting a sedge [he later changed his mind about what it represented at this time of year]
4) The great discovery of the dark olive
5) Greyling [sic] more fastidious than trout and therefore demanding. Exact imitation rather than suggestion when plenty of insect life
6) The value of silver hen breast hackle tips to represent pale watery wings
7) Dry Doctor as effective in Wales in August
8) Value of leaded flies for greyling in heavy water


A diary is a record of time within time, wherein experience is framed by the days and hours of the passing year. Powell’s calendar was no different from anyone else’s - he made no attempt to restore the mayfly, cruelly displaced by the adoption of the Gregorian calendar (1582), to the month which gave it its name
M-Mbut he did
have his own system. The day of the month was noted in the normal way, though the day of the week, unless it was a Sunday, was omitted. Rev. Francis Kilvert, in his tantalisingly short, but abundantly rich diary, added the days of the week, but supplemented them with the high days and holy days of the Church’s year: Septuagesima, Whitsun, Michaelmas, St Valentine’s Day (perhaps, in the case of this young amorous bachelor, for reasons which went beyond religious observance). Powell rarely referred to the great religious festivals except Easter, because others like Christmas and, indeed, Septuagesima (February), fell outside the normal fishing season. Lent came into the equation one year during the war when the need for food drove him to fish before Easter. HC, Holy Communion, deserved special mention only when he attended the service in Welsh in Tregaron. Otherwise, the year is marked out with events of family importance, some regular, some exceptional. His own birthday, Poppy’s, the anniversary of brother Dick’s death (once), son Michael’s ordination in Chester, Boo’s wedding, Celia going to be an au-pair in Holland and Budapest. As to the passing of clock time, Powell was scrupulous in noting whether the hour was according to BST (British Summer Time) or DST (Double Summer Time), as each system had a bearing on the number of daylight hours available for fishing. And it was vital to note the time system, because important temporal changes took place within his lifetime. It is sobering to find that the adoption of summer time, whereby clocks are advanced by one hour over Greenwich Mean Time during the spring and the summer, dates only from 1916, significantly during the First World War. During the Second World War, Double Summer Time, two hours ahead of GMT, was introduced during the same months as BST and the winter time kept one hour ahead. ‘Normal’ summer time returned from 1948 to 1967.
MBut clock time and calendar time are different from lived time. When a fisherman re-reads his diary, he reads between the lines; the merest detail is enough to bring an entire day back to life. Like Proust’s madeleine, the diary has the power to transport him back to the riverbank and unlock a treasure chest of long-forgotten memories. It becomes a means of making up lost time and of extending fishing to the armchair in winter. The difficulty facing the third-party reader is that he is presented only with the bones. Romilly Fedden expressed this power of re-capturing the moment in Golden Days - From the Fishing Log of a Painter in Brittany, written when he was serving with the British Expeditionary Force in France. He had lived, fished and painted in Brittany, but had left five years earlier when the storm clouds of the Great War were already gathering and beginning to cast their shadow across even that remote region. Here on a further page, there is this entry:

‘Weather too hot for fishing; in the evening took three and a half brace - red palmer as usual’. That is all; and yet I call to mind that morning and blue-bloused haymakers mowing down the dewy grass. Swathe upon swathe it falls athwart the swishing scythes; laughing girls toss and shake out the hay; their voices float across the river.


And so on for the next three pages! The writer’s imagination, sparked off by that single unpromising entry, wanders far away from the riverbank. Such are the magical powers of transportation of the fishing diary.
MEqually, the diary may precipitate a sobering return to reality - against past days becoming too golden! Hancock wrote, tongue-in-cheek, that a fisherman’s exaggerations and embellishments could turn a diary into a liary and claimed that the self-deluding diarist was worse than an old lady cheating herself at Patience! Ransome took an almost diametrically different view, arguing that a diary guarded against ‘the elasticity of fish’, that tendency for fish to grow with the years unless there is hard fact to keep them in proportion. On the other hand, he also thought that an obsession with numbers alone could turn a man into a ‘slab fisherman’, the angler who has to beat his own and everyone’s else’s totals and is not happy until he does. Powell took an impish delight in being better than the next man, but he never played the numbers game in quite this fashion and, besides, was scrupulously accurate - there is never any suspicion that his numbers are exaggerated or trumped up. In fact, he displayed his prize catches for all to see in his study. The walls of the nerve centre of rectory life were the repository for outlines of notable fish, made out of newspaper and inscribed with the weight, date and place of capture. A visitor observed that, contrary to expectation, the biggest fish were often caught in August. When Powell finally consented to have the blackened study re-decorated, Daisy’s brother Eric was charged with painting round the fish!