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The Accidental Angler by Charles Rangeley-Wilson

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Reviewed by Theo Pike

You can never quite tell what you're going to get from a Book of the TV Series.  

Having sent off for my review copy of "The Accidental Angler", I wouldn't have been remotely surprised to see the postman staggering back up the path with something heavy, glossy, coffee-table-shaped and generally geared to giving R Valentine Atkinson a damn good run for his reputation.  

After all, TV is a visual medium, right?  

And didn't Charles Rangeley-Wilson, the author with the artist's eye, take that elegantly haunting shot of the River Earn that appeared on the Wild Trout Trust's charity Christmas card last year?

In fact, what dropped almost immediately through my letter-box was much smaller, but to my mind much weightier too.  A neat little chunk of proper British fishing literature - and not so much the Book of the TV Series as a nicely-controlled turnover that makes the BBC's role in this whole multimedia presentation, high-profile as it is, start looking more and more like the TV Series of the Book…

"Meet Charles Rangeley-Wilson", says the blurb.  "He's one of Britain's best-kept secrets - angler, conservationist, traveller.  He's also one of our finest fishing writers.  Now join him on a trip of a lifetime, on a journey that will make the familiar new, and the strange familiar".

He tends to be self-effacing about it, but in the mid-1990s he was also one of the founders of the Wild Trout Trust

Of course, by the time you're reading this, you may already have met him - if not in "The Field", from which several chapters of "The Accidental Angler" spring, then over the Sunday-night airwaves of BBC2, where his four-part series of the same name is showing until 3 December.  He tends to be self-effacing about it, but in the mid-1990s he was also one of the founders of the Wild Trout Trust. And his previous literary record includes "Somewhere Else", a similar series of juicy travelogues, as well as his rich anthology "Chalkstream: in Praise of the Ultimate River".

Here in "The Accidental Angler", at the confluence of the writer's craft and the film-maker's art, it's gripping to discover so many details that the camera didn't catch - the ones that only the author saw.

In chapter 4, "The Curse of Shiva", he blesses us with a much-expanded account of the crew's brain-boiling, bum-numbing circumventions of the mahseer on the Kaveri River in India.  

"Breakfast in Bhutan" corresponds to the second screened episode, following the author up into the monastic heights of this mostly-vertical Himalayan kingdom whose farsighted, fishing-mad rulers planted their rivers with brown trout of the ancient Loch Leven strain, and then kept and cared for them, as only Buddhists could, while all the rest of the world have been losing theirs and blaming it on cormorants.  

Chapter 10, "Letters Home from a Brazilian TV Adventure" introduces a literary-notebook flavour to our hero's pursuit of peacock bass through hundreds of square miles of flooded Amazonian rainforest - and an unexpected carnival.  

Last of all, with "Breath of a River", the series brings us home to London, "like a leech on the landscape", and CR-W's quixotic defiance-of-history-and-shopping-trolleys quest to catch a wild trout inside the circle of the M25.  (He succeeds, by the way, just not where he'd hoped in my own little home-water Wandle).

Naturally, the full 13 chapters of the book can take us to many places where the TV series never goes - from the Wash to the Bahamas, with every shade of fishing technique between.  It's good that these also provide the opportunity - perhaps more easily than forced soliloquies to camera - for CR-W to exercise his surreal-schoolboy sense of fun. One of my fishing pals thinks "The Accidental Angler" reads less laddishly than "Somewhere Else", and maybe that's true, but it doesn't stop lines like "I've never had a great problem with salmon purism: I'll catch the feckers how I can" sharing sea-room with humorous lateral logicality:

"It is more surprising than it should be to imagine our landscape before houses and to picture the wilderness that was there for so much longer.  I sometimes get gripped by the mad idea that the old Thames is out there as an image travelling at the speed of light through all but the very closest parts of space.  If so, the degraded Thames is a tiny and very recent part of that column of light that goes on for ever.  I like to imagine it this way, because I like to imagine that things are getting better…"

Then there's the introspective loneliness of the long-distance writer, stuck in a strange love-hate relationship with those who almost certainly read his work but still don't want to see him on the same helicopter to the Kola Peninsula:

"I could go over and talk to them, but for some reason I don't.  I hate small talk.  And I don't suppose they'll like the fact that I'm a writer - a hack.  Salmon anglers at expensive camps seem to resent it the most.  I sit on my own reading Brighton Rock."

And suddenly "The fishing in France is rubbish" he deadpans, chasing shadows of ghostly grayling along arid August parkways in Fontaine de Vaucluse, ducking the inevitable scorn of the Gallic guide and fat, rock-throwing local kids "dropping like overripe pears from the tree over the pool".

"Finally, a woman in a bikini appears and starts walking around in front of me - right through the pods of fish - trailing her hands in the water and looking all wistful like she's lost a Cadbury's Flake or something.  I reel in, and walk back to find Vicky fast asleep, two pages in.  She wakes and squints up at me.  'Catch anything?'"  

If you've ever cast a fly anywhere near a French town, by chance, intent, or coincidental mistake, you'll recognise this immediately. Halfway through the chapter, I'd already chewed my knuckles to the bone: it's the purest comic distillation of summer-fishing-holiday hell.  "La peche est un sport extreme". You can't argue with that - but you can wonder how he ever went back.

In the end, what I've enjoyed most about "The Accidental Angler" - book and TV series both - is CR-W's composite portrait of the way we fish now, at the start of the 21st century.  

Lurching at shocked warpspeed between timezones and dreamscapes and semi-sordid re-entries into the world we really inhabit, we while away disproportionate hours devising far-flung destination "adventures", occasionally indulging in them, much more often sating ourselves with a furtive dabble in a muddy East Coast sea-ditch, or in a neon-lit, concrete-lined tide-pool that could just be the oldest salmon-netting structure in the western world.

Yet all of these are places our rods have taken us - and that means none of them are objectively better, or worse, or more or less deserving of our time, than any of the others.  

I suspect that's what the Accidental Angler himself really wants to tell us.  It's certainly what I heard.  Listen too, and see what you think.

The Accidental Angler is published in the UK by Yellow Jersey Press.  Hardback 220 pages plus 24 colour plates.

Theo Pike is a freelance advertising writer first and a small-stream fly-fisherman second - though it's sometimes less clear-cut than that might suggest.  

When he's not writing or fishing, he can be found tackling pollution and abstraction on South London's River Wandle, as a Trustee of the Wandle Trust and Senior Vice President of the Wandle Piscators.  He can be contacted via his website at www.blackrussian.cc. You might also like to visit the Wandle Trust website at www.wandletrust.org

A special offer for Fish & Fly visitors...

In association with Yellow Jersey Press, Fish & Fly visitors have the opportunity to buy Charles' The Accidental Angler (RRP £15.99)  for the special price of £11 including free postage and packing within the UK. To order your copy please call 01206 255 800 and quote the reference 'London trout'

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