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Luke Jennings, Blood Knots, Christian Tyler, SF Issue 78

Hooked on Fish

Because they live on an island laced with rivers, ponds and streams, the British are obsessive anglers. Fishermen – and most of them are men – make up a large but secretive society cut off from the rest of us by strange language, obscure controversies and complex motives.

Most books about angling are written for specialists: coarse fishers, fly-fishers, sea-fishers. But in Blood Knots (2010) Luke Jennings has broken with convention and employed his great gift for words to explain to baffled outsiders what angling is really about. This is a memoir written for everyone.

The first few pages are a sublime description of a murky night fishing for pike on the Regent’s Canal behind King’s Cross railway station in London. It is a dark and dangerous place. You can almost hear the dripping walls and the rustle of rats and see, below the black oily surface of the water, tangles of twisted metal – and worse.

From an early age Jennings was dazzled by the beauty of fish: from the humble perch, the silvery roach, the brassy rudd, to the powerful carp and primitive pike with his wicked teeth, up to the aristocratic trout and salmon. He was obsessed by fishing tackle too: the strangely named floats and hooks, lines and lures, plugs, spinners, spoons and traces, swivels and booms, and the exotic flies – Tups, Duns, Olives, Adams, Humpy, John Storey and Cul de Canard.

I am no fisherman. But as a boy on holiday in Scotland, spinning for the monster pike rumoured to lurk in the ‘bottomless’ Loch Ussie or vainly flogging the River Conon for salmon, I learned enough to understand Jennings’s passion and appreciate his philosophy. Much later in life I watched a fly-fisherman below Doune Castle unfurling his line in great aerial arabesques over the River Teith in Perthshire and felt pangs of admiration and envy.

A ‘blood knot’ is the commonest method of attaching one line to another. Here a fishing term stands also for the ties of family and friendship. For Jennings’s book is not only a lyrical history of his angling life; it is also a wonderfully humorous account of his schooldays and a tribute to the memory of two extraordinary heroes. One is his father Michael Jennings, a cavalry commander in the Second World War who was badly burned trying to rescue a comrade from their blazing tank and was awarded the Military Cross. The other is his fishing mentor, Robert Nairac, a soldier murdered by the IRA while working undercover for the SAS during the Troubles and awarded the George Cross.

Surviving his war, Michael Jennings became headmaster of Avisford, the Catholic preparatory school started by his own father in West Sussex. It was there as a 12-year-old pupil that Luke met Nairac, who had just left Ampleforth College (the ‘Catholic Eton’ which Michael and Luke Jennings both attended) and was putting in a year as a temporary teacher before going up to Oxford.

As it happens, I was also a pupil at both schools. My first sight of Michael Jennings’s scarred face and permanently clenched hands was alarming; but we children soon got used to his injuries. He was a kind, intelligent man, generous and fatherly. Luke was born in 1953 during my first term at Avisford, the eldest of eleven children, and I think we were given a day off in celebration.

Avisford was a fine white mansion, once the home of G. A. Henty, the Victorian writer of derring-do historical fiction. It boasted a first-floor ballroom (which had become a dormitory) suspended from concealed chains, a big south-facing lawn, a bamboo ‘jungle’ and fine specimen trees. Luke recalls how his father allowed pupils to climb the trees once they reached the age of 11, including the fearsome 100-foot deodar from whose crow’s nest of a crown – once you found the courage to make the ascent – you could see for miles, to Ford aerodrome and the sea.

Far below it were the cricket nets. It was there one day while we were practising our leg sweeps that we were shocked by a big explosion. We looked up. Two aeroplanes had collided in mid-air and we saw one of the pilots come floating down under his parachute. He was later found dead, hanging from a tree in the wood across the road. The more intrepid pupils went out illegally to hunt for souvenirs of the crash, scraps of metal which were vigorously traded.

Jennings is strangely reluctant to declare that Avisford was both his home and his school. He describes the standard punishment for serious rule-breaking: a single whack behind the thigh with the back of a clothes-brush which left an impressive technicolour bruise. Though the waiting, I recall, was much worse than the beating, he omits to mention that it was his own father who administered it. Perhaps this dissociation was due to respect for his father’s memory. Or perhaps he felt – as do all children sent to boarding-school – that home and school are quite different worlds.

We first meet Robert Nairac when Jennings and two friends knock on his door. He is lying on his bed in shirtsleeves, smoking. He has just finished cleaning the 12-bore shotgun he has brought with him to help feed the sparrowhawk he has lodged in the school shed. Jennings immediately notices a large fishing bag on top of the chest of drawers.

With this charismatic character as his guide, the boy’s piscatorial career is about to take off. In spite of his strong Catholic upbringing, Jennings felt himself to be ‘a believer searching for a belief’. The Catholic Church seemed to him – as until very recently it was – oblivious to God’s creation, Nature. Now he had found a kindred spirit, a mentor who ‘preached the gospel of the dry fly’.

First there were casting lessons on the school lawn. At the end of the summer term Nairac invited Jennings to his home in the Cotswolds for some grown-up fishing. And when that autumn his pupil went up to Ampleforth, the former head boy and champion angler twice drove from Oxford to Yorkshire to check on his progress.

The author is in lighter vein when he describes his formal education. As he says, some teachers are inspiring, some eccentric, some are both. The tedious ones could be flattered into retailing their wartime exploits. One of my classics masters had been at the Siege of Kut in the First World War. Asked if he’d been forced to eat rats, he protested not: he’d survived by reading the lyric verse of The Greek Anthology.

There was a brilliant maths teacher at Avisford, Mr Vinycombe, who made differential calculus look as easy as π. At Ampleforth we both encountered M. Cossart, a little old French grammarian who had taught Jennings’s father in the 1930s; he rewarded his prize pupils with a cream tea in the village. Both of us had teachers – one a historian, the other a classicist – who would break, unprovoked, into long declamations from the tragedies of Corneille or Racine. And we both profited from the inspiring drama of Algy Haughton’s lessons in English literature.

Of course there were other masters who indulged in what Jennings deftly describes as ‘lower-slopes paedophilia’, like the music master at Avisford who composed four-part settings of the Mass for us to sing and was rumoured to have kissed a boy. There was also a popular gym teacher who sold us balsa-wood aircraft kits and taught us to swing Indian clubs, but before each lesson he would line us up and squeeze our thighs. One boy told his father, a senior army officer, who drove down and had the man sacked on the spot. Serious offenders were rare but Ampleforth’s own prep school, Gilling Castle, had a priest who was later jailed for indecent assault.

After school Luke Jennings trained as a dancer at the Rambert School, became dance critic of the Observer, worked as a freelance journalist and novelist. His Codename Villanelle trilogy about a female professional assassin pursued by a female secret agent was the basis of the hit BBC television series Killing Eve. But he never stopped fishing. From throwing bread or worms to pond fish in Sussex, he moved to fly-fishing for trout on the chalk streams of Hampshire and Wiltshire. His youthful urge to kill, show off, then eat his catch was displaced by an almost reverential concern for it: after taking a moment to judge its weight and admire its looks, he would return his fish to the water.

The sporting angler is like the sporting gun who prefers to go after woodcock or snipe because they are wild, elusive and beautiful, rather than mass-reared pheasant or partridge. But the shooter, of course, kills his prey. Like a game shooter, Jennings remembers every moment of his best hits and worst misses. He relishes that contrast between the long, meditative hours of waiting and the suspense and sudden excitement, even panic, of the moment when he must strike.

The true angler, he says, can feel the antiquity of the countryside through which he moves. It is a form of time travel, ‘a return of the dewy, spring morning of his life, when anything is possible’. And his observance of self-imposed rules of conduct, as explained by Robert Nairac, is a sacred duty. ‘It’s not a question of wilfully making things harder, but of a purity of approach without which success has no meaning . . . the fiercest joy is to be a spectator of your own conduct and find no cause for complaint.’

So if you win the battle of wits with your fish, you must be humble and put him back. For his life is totally entwined, like a blood knot, with yours.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 78 © Christian Tyler 2023
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 63: Blood Knots

About the contributor

Christian Tyler is writing a book about the first clash of cultures between Europe and China and thinks that we could all take a leaf out of this one. The vignettes that appear in this article and which illustrate our edition of Blood Knots are by Caroline Churchill.

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