Fishing with Ted Hughes
A new memoir finds the poet in a world of rivers, rods, and reels
The Catch is not a book for the angling-averse. If you have an allergy to fishing’s luxuriant cant of rods, reels, flies and spinners, then I fear you’re likely to pass Mark Wormald’s non-fiction debut by. But that would be a shame: it’s a beautiful book — as quick and deep and strange as its subject.
Its premise is appealing. Wormald, a lecturer in poetry at Cambridge, sets out to tell the story of Ted Hughes through his letters, fishing diaries, and his extraordinary poetry collection River. Hughes was perhaps a keener laureate of angling than he was of verse — “it was his longest love affair” — and by casting in his footsteps, Wormald hopes to approach his hero, whose life and work he has shadowed with uncanny intimacy.
The men share more than a love of literature and fishing. Wormald’s office in Pembroke college was Hughes’s as an undergraduate. It was in this room that Hughes dreamt of a burning fox-man who placed a bleeding paw on his effortful academic writing and directed him instead towards poetry — an encounter which was alchemised into his poem “The Thought Fox”. “Forty years apart, Ted and I shared a room,” Wormald writes. Hughes’s presence lingers, he argues, on bankside or at a desk, where his thinking was keenest, his love deepest. “[Fishing] sustained him,” Wormald writes. “It took him into the natural world and reminded him of who he was, who he had been. He needed to fish.”
Plath is a shadowy presence in The Catch — we hear about her, but rarely from her
There are darker parallels between the men, too. Both are all-too-aware of their failings: as fathers, sons, lovers. Hughes’s, of course, have been most exhaustively excavated. His memorial stone — at Belstone on Dartmoor, close to the headwaters of the River Taw where he fished for decades — is a low, sunken thing. Hard to spot, it crouches diffidently in long grass. After all, the disciples of his first wife, the poet Slyvia Plath, have long memories — and they are not easily appeased. Wormald observes: “He wasn’t just a poet who fished. He had been, is still, for many readers, Her Husband. With reason.”
Plath gassed herself in 1963, after her depression and Hughes’s infidelity, and alleged abuse, grew too much to bear — and left behind two children, Freida and Nicholas. In a wrenching twist, the woman who Hughes cheated on Plath with, Assia Wevill, killed herself the same way six years later. This time, she took her daughter with her.
Wormald forgives his subject this grim chapter. Plath is a shadowy presence in The Catch — we hear about her, but rarely from her. And yet, in perhaps the way of grieving that came easiest to him, Hughes transmuted her years later in his writing. She becomes one of the vast Irish pikes he pursued — “Lough na Cashel’s great queen” which was, he wrote in his diary, “the most beautifully shaped pike I’ve ever seen”.
Yet, when the fish are rising, Wormald is perhaps too quick to swish both women behind a curtain. “We fished all day,” is all Hughes writes of the day he found out about Assia’s death. Cold-hearted? Maybe. But Wormald is excellent at prising apart Hughes the myth from Hughes the man. Indeed, there is a bodily correspondence between them: the book begins with Wormald eagerly leafing through Hughe’s fishing diary in the British Library, until he notices “an inky fingerprint” on the page where he has “licked my finger, flipped the page”, reflecting that “the last time the ink was wet when it flowed from his nib”. And it’s worth recalling how young Hughes was when Assia and their daughter died — not yet forty, the single father of two children, a man of uncertain income and unsteady prospects. “Fishing is my way of breathing,” he once confessed. What else could he do but return to the water after her death? Perhaps it is only in retrospect that he looms, ogre-like, over these tragedies.
Despite its subject, the book is far from a macho read
Alongside this biography, Wormald casts into his own difficult childhood. These chapters are among the book’s strongest — and most elusive. Wormald’s father, a somewhat absent figure, recognised his son’s love of fishing and encouraged it, but never stood beside him on the bank. This stands in contrast to Hughes’s son, Nick, who was a frequent companion on his father’s angling adventures, which grew in glamour and exoticism alongside his fame.
Both Wormald and Nick lost their mothers young. With beautiful lightness of touch, Wormald describes how, aged 14, his mother died — an act of vanishing which was never fully accounted for, nor properly grieved — to be replaced, in one of those silent, seismic ruptures in which families specialise, with a stepmother only a few months later. These conspicuously absent mothers arc across generations; in turn, Wormald tells us, his relationship with his adopted sons is distant and troubled. Indeed, it is only by fishing the same pool he explored as a boy before his mother’s death that he can begin, as his father fades in hospital, to examine the long-scarred-over void left by her passing.
Inevitably, then, The Catch is a book of little lost boys — and the men they try to be. But it is far from a macho read. In fact, it is most convincing as an account of care, love even: for fish, but most significantly for the rivers they swim through. You can’t shake the feeling that the most central relationship Hughes had was with his two beloved home rivers, the Taw and the Torridge, in Devon. Knowing how quickly rivers sicken, he became vocally involved in their protection. When he visited the River Don, which he had fished as a Yorkshire lad, he found it: “A river of such concentrated, steaming poisons, that an accidental ducking was said to be fatal”. These ailing rivers are echoed in ageing men: Wormald, like Hughes, is intensely alert to fishing as a calendar of time’s helter-skelter rush.
What, then, did fishing mean to Ted Hughes? It was an escape, certainly: from duties, cares, well-wishers and success. “Anything to be free of friends for a while,” he grumbled in his fishing diary. But, of course, it was more — a way out, a refuge, somewhere to recover when “he had lost the thread of earnest dealing with himself”. It’s a wonderful metaphor — and a lovely thought. And it brings to mind a further image: Ted and Wormald on a bank, rods in hand, sunk in its “spotless spot of time”. Casting for something bigger, but, in the end, finding only each other, themselves.
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