I have no interest in fishing. If I’m perfectly honest, I consider anglers a little odd – the endless sitting and staring, it’s unsettling. You could see the appeal of fishing on a sunny day, but as an excuse to sit by a secluded river with a cool-box of beer. God forbid you should catch something.
No, I prefer my fish like Henry VIII preferred his wives – headless.
Despite this, a couple of chapters into The Old Man and the Sand Eel by Will Millard, I found myself googling fishing licenses and wondering if the canal near my North London flat holds any fish or only abandoned shopping trolleys and dismembered gangsters.
It takes a special skill to draw people into a strange, neurotic, world and make them care about it and Millard, a British travel writer and television presenter, has this skill. His auto-biographical work shows the personal appeal of fishing while delving beneath the surface of the angling world, exploring its petty jealousies and the obsessions of its practitioners. At the same time it’s a work of journalistic intent, discussing the impact of fishing on UK wildlife and wider ethical questions.
Superficially the book is structured around the author’s desire to hook a record fish. So each chapter covers a different species and his attempt to capture a whopper; eels, perch, pike, salmon, all are fair game and Millard takes us around the UK countryside in pursuit. It’s a pleasant journey, the writer has a rare talent to evoke the comforting yet intricate beauty of nature and the precision and love that goes into fishing successfully.
Yet, of course, its lure goes deeper than this. Ultimately, the book is an attempt by Millard to reconnect with his upbringing and in particular memorialise his late grandfather, the man who taught his how to fish. As with works by writers like Stuart Heritage (Don’t be a dick, Pete) and John Grindrod (Outskirts) it’s an exploration of memory disguised as a quest. This gives the book a depth and vulnerability that is very touching. Millard, anticipating fatherhood and regretting the drifting away of his past, shares his fears and need to transmute his relationship with water into something defining.
Even readers with no interest in fishing or the countryside should get something out of The Old Man and the Sand Eel, whether that’s a chance to reflect on their own hobbies or some insight into their history.
Now….where’s that reel?
The Old Man and the Sand Eel is published by Viking and available here.
Will Millard grew up on the Cambridgeshire Fens, reading John Wilson’s Fishing Encyclopaedia and fishing with his grandfather. Since then he has become a British writer, explorer and BBC presenter.
Will spent his twenties criss-crossing the forests and remotest West Papua in search of ancient tribal trade routes, before his solo descent of a West African river, which became an acclaimed series for BBC Radio 4. In 2015 he lived alongside Aboriginal whale harpooners and subsistence-hunting sea-nomads as part of his maiden television series ‘Hunters of the South Seas’ for BBC 2. He regularly writes for Geographical, Outdoor Fitness, the Daily Telegraph and Vicemagazine.
When at home, Will continues to fish, seeking out the forgotten wild waterways around Britain.
The Old Man and the Sand Eel is his first book.
Reviewed by Joseph Surtees
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