The word ‘essay’ reminds me of school, homework and exams, and induces a mild shudder of dislike. Dr Johnson defined the essay as an irregular, undigested piece, which is probably what my early compositions were, and Ben Jonson thought essayists produced ‘a few loose sentences, and that’s all’. Yet, as Hazlitt and Lamb proved, essays have been popular when skilfully written, and they still exist in the form of magazine and newspaper articles.
Arthur Ransome was a great admirer of Hazlitt and hankered after producing a series of essays himself. He would probably have considered that his journalism got in the way of that ambition, but in Rod & Line he realized it. The book comprises fifty essays distilled from articles he wrote for the Manchester Guardian after having complained to the editor that the newspaper ‘was not doing what it might for fishermen’. That might put off those readers who are not among the four million anglers in Britain. It shouldn’t. Ransome was not a narrow-minded devotee of fly, float and lure but a man of wide interests and experience.
The book was published in 1929 when he was in his early forties. By that time he had had a varied career in publishing and journalism. He had reported from Russia and Egypt, mingled with the Bolsheviks, been divorced and remarried, to Trotsky’s secretary. Consequently these pieces are the musings of a mature writer who views angling and other matters with a self-deprecating irony, a detachment infused with humour, and a good dose of wisdom. The pressure of writing a weekly article probably led Ransome to range more widely than others might have done. Inevitably there is some reference to technicalities, but if an essay on ‘Wet Flies for Down-stream Fishing’ has no appeal, turn to ‘Bulls and Kindred Phenomena’, the effect of an eclipse, or a piece on fishing inns.
Virginia Woolf believed that a good essay drew a curtain round the reader, keeping one
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