Under the Surface

Lilla Edet was so quiet a town that the first summer I lived there I learnt to distinguish the smells of different trees. There were distinct scents of pine, of spruce, and of the birches whose pollen made tears run down my face.

When I cycled to the square in the centre of the town the creaking of the wheels was the loudest sound. Opposite the school buildings in which nothing seemed ever to happen there was a wide dusty verge between the asphalt road and a meadow where wild flowers grew on tall coarse stems. On this strip magpies hopped and hoodie crows shuffled among the dust and stone chips. I never saw what they ate nor heard a songbird.

In that dry and dusty time I seemed to be cycling everywhere, either to the library, or the lakes in the forests that surround the town. There is never enough water in my memories of southern Sweden. For three months of the year it was all frozen anyway. But even in summer, the thin soil always seemed dry; the brown pine needles that nestled in every crevice of the rocks were dry and sharp as weathered bones. So to look at the lakes, and to breathe their damp exhalations, was a kind of healing. I didn’t have to catch anything; and not always even to fish. What I needed was to gaze into the surface, and, by gazing, to pass into another world, and breathe.

In town, the library was always cool, and smelt of plastic and modernity. I borrowed books about chess, which were easy to read because they were written in clichés when not in algebraic notation; comic books about a cowboy, translated from the French, which taught me more varied and idiomatic Swedish; and most of all a copy of Brian Clarke’s Pursuit of Stillwater Trout, or På jakt efter Stillavattens Öring. I learnt it by heart. If you had said to me any sentence in that book, I could have come up with the preceding one as well as the successor. The promise of fly fishing was that the world I pressed against when I looked at a lake would be deeper and richer than anything I had yet imagined. I wanted to break through there. I loved the illustrations of water beasts that garnished his text. There were delicate line drawings of damselfly nymphs, which are, despite their name, incessantly voracious and shaped like rapiers with a long pointed tail and a short head like an el borate hilt. There were veiled sedge pupae swimming towards the surface, their legs and wings all bundled up in a transparent membrane; and dangly midge larvae, feathery at each end, twisting as they wait for trout to seize them. These fabulous monsters peopled my imagination. Some have remained fabulous to this day. I still have never seen a sedge pupa that looks remotely like anything in any book.

It is a rather dogmatic book, written loudly, as if to break through to an inattentive and self-confident audience. I read it as an exercise at first, and then again and again with increasing concentration as a kind of zen text, until the words clattered around inside my head like the blades of a helicopter that could lift me high above the valley. I had no fly rod then and there were no trout in the nearby lakes. But my course was set, even though I went on fishing for pike and perch with spinners of every shape I could afford.

The countryside round the town has been combed by glaciers from North to South. Parallel valleys ran through the granite; in the deepest and broadest of these, by the side of Lilla Edet, ran the huge Göta river which drains Lake Vänern, one of the largest in Europe; in the hills to the East, lay a chain of deep, clear lakes. They were clearer than they should have been, because of the acid rain. The furthest upstream was in fact completely dead: you could see thirty or forty feet into depths coated with white algal slime. Nothing else lived to cloud the water. But two lakes down the chain, by the bathing place for Lilla Edet, was a lake whose depths were still a deep humus colour, whose margins were full of water lilies and whose weedbeds were full of pike.

Last century, in Finland, farmers were so poor they ate roach. Bream were a popular, or common, food in rural Sweden; there are poems and songs about catching them in their spawning time — they cannot at any rate taste as bad as roach. Perch were and remain a delicacy, found in the best fish restaurants. But when I was poor and hungry, I ate pike.

The hardware shop in town sold red and white plastic floats for perch fishing: sturdy, buoyant devices which even the most determined perch found hard to pull under. But I hated worms, and switched to spinning as soon as I could. Three or four days a week, I would cycle up the vicious dusty hill that led into the woods just east of Lilla Edet. I had a solid fibreglass rod around five feet long, mineral green with white streaks in it, whose brass wire rod rings were lashed on with lumpy twine. With it came a closed face reel from which stiff coils of 20lb line sprang out. The outfit cost twelve pounds, which meant I could afford to change the line to something limper and less frightening.

Much of the lake was inaccessible. The Eastern shore fell out of the forest in a broken line of granite cliffs ten or twenty feet high and a mile long. It could only be approached by boat. At each end, it was cut off from the rest of the shore by the bogs and streamlets which linked the chain of lakes. But the accessible, Western side of the lake was rounded, and scalloped with bays between seamed granite promontories. Within the seams were drifts of crunchy pine needles, but most of the granite was barren except for lichen. On hot days the beautiful desolate scent of pine clung to my fingers. There were paths through the forest for part of the way round, but they ran some distance from the water. If I wanted to fish, I stood on granite. Often I was the only person there; perhaps the only human for a mile. If I caught one fish, it was supper for all of us. Fishing was the only way I could contribute anything to the economy of my girlfriend’s family. She was working in the paper mill; but I could not get a work permit. I could have left her to get on with her life. Instead I stayed, and went fishing.

It was almost always a waste of time to cast straight out. The water there was four or five metres deep. The fish were in the warm shallow margins, sheltered by the lily pads. Plugs were difficult to cast and expensive, so I used spoons: ABU made perhaps twenty different types of pike spoon in those days, in six or seven colourings and weights. It was enough to build a whole speculative universe around, like a fly box, except that spinning was more tactile. I could feel the different ways each lure moved in the water, and spent the hours when nothing bit working out patiently which speed seemed to bring the lure most to life. In the end, I settled on a fluttering, leaf-like motion, using an Atom spoon called "perch-coloured", with one side copper and the other green and black dots mingled in stripes like a test for colour-blindness; the larger sizes had a short red plastic tag at the rear which seemed to make a difference. Even through that terrible rod, I could feel the twittering of the lure, and could tell the difference between the knocks of a perch and the sudden irreversible haul of a pike.

Very few fish that bit at all escaped. I kept my hooks meticulously sharpened, with a hunter’s instinct, and these were simple pike. There are lakes in Sweden where no other species of fish is found, and the Hobbesian war of all against all is complete. Ours was not so savage, but the pike were still overcrowded and voracious. Every lily bed held some. Except on the hottest and stillest days, there was always at least one pike that could be teased or cajoled into striking. Most were not large: they could be coiled, decapitated, into the largest saucepan in the house. Really large ones were fried in fillets.

I cooked them with as much variety as I could, but the struggle was an uphill one. In rural Sweden, potatoes marked the culinary seasons. The gradations involved were subtle: at all times of year, potatoes were eaten with every meal; and they were always boiled in their skins. But in summer, you ate new potatoes peel and all; at some stage as the autumn wore in, you reverted to peeling them at the table before eating them. Mashed potatoes were available but only as a delicacy, from the hot dog stand. It took me some months to learn the knack of peeling a scalding potato on the end of a fork; my girlfriend’s father concluded from this that I was almost feeble-minded.

Some days, when Anita was working the early shift at the mill, I would rise with her rather than stay in the house and cycle at once to the lake in the hills. The last portion of the ride was downhill, through a meadow, and if I was early enough the mist would still be thick across it, so that, once, everything above my waist was gilded in the pale sunlight, and everything below choked and muffled in white. I freewheeled, as if I were flying through clouds above the surly bonds of earth. That day was bright and still, with the forest calm as a church. I caught nothing.

As the summer wore on, I fished and bicycled with a fierce devotion. As well as the bathing lake there were others on the Western bank of the river, further away, but holding the promise of novelty, but their banks were too densely forested and boggy to be fishable at all. I don’t want to overestimate the wildness of these woods: they were logged regularly and broken by frequent smallholdings. None the less, it would have been possible to travel from our end of Sweden to Lapland without ever leaving the forest except to cross roads; and, a couple of years later, a pack of six wolves was tracked from Russia, through Finland and Swedish Lapland, and then for a further thousand miles down the spine where Sweden and Norway are joined until one of them broke off, headed further South, and killed a sheep in a field just outside the town.

There were no such excitements in the pike summer. The whole world narrowed down to Lilla Edet. One day, Anita’s mother took us both for a drive around the coast, which was only ten miles away. There are granite islands crumbled into the sea all down the Swedish west coast. Years later I would have a mystical experience there fishing for sea trout, going weightless in the sunset. But that day’s drive, though much less dramatic, was just as overwhelming. The islands are joined by some of the longest road bridges in the world which make zooming catenary swoops across the sea. I felt drunk for a week until the new horizons faded.

From Lilla Edet, you could only look north and south to the next bends in the great river. The sides of the valley rose like forested walls, cutting off the horizon, though the Eastern side of the river was tamer, with a wider strip of fields. About five miles north of the town a broad and sluggish tributary joined the Göta river; and at its mouth I lost two spinners and had a tremendous tussle with a large fish which also escaped. This was playing for stakes too high. I returned to the smaller lakes in the enclosing hills.

Anita’s father had few friends in the town. He and his wife had been pillars of the local Pentecostal church and temperance society until she ran off with an alcoholic they were trying to reform. Only one family would still speak to either of them after the scandal, and these good Samaritans were foreigners, half-Danish. They lent us their rowing boat, and I would use it to explore the hidden, southern arm of the bathing lake. One blazing afternoon I rowed Anita round a headland we had never passed on foot, and entered a long channel. At the end was a broad, reedy bay, a place where pike were bound to flourish. Rounded granite like a whale’s flank slid into the water at the mouth of the bay, We drifted in a perfect silence until the bottom of boat crunched gently on the rock. Once we had climbed out, silence surrounded us again. We might have been on an island: the hissing of the line as I cast, the splash of the lure, and the gentle grinding of the reel’s gears as I retrieved were all sharp-edged, fram d by the silence.

"We could get married" I said. She rolled a cigarette of Norwegian tobacco and smoked it carefully. The silence held us like a mother. We returned that night with our sleeping bags and a bottle of sour Italian wine. We lit a fire of dead pine branches on the rock and ate grilled sausages for a treat. The subject was not mentioned again, but we slept deeply on the uneven rock.

Mornings by the lake the whole world felt enamelled in perfection. The water would be absolutely still, and the mist would trap the metallic smell of the water and the pungency of the reeds. Slowly the mist would curl away, like sheepskin being torn from a mirror, leaving nothing but clarity. It was very cold. All the stiffness of the night would rush onto me as I awoke and struggled out of the sleeping bag to make coffee. Every sound was distinct; even the noise the water made as it swirled into the coffee kettle when I pushed it under the lake. You might find the most delicate evidences of rebirth: the shucks of dragonflies and once, lying at the edge of our rock, where the forest began, the whitish translucent skin of an adder. I suppose what Adam and Eve missed most, after they had left the garden, was a world without other people in it.

We returned and ate lunch with her father: boiled pike with dill and new potatoes. About a fortnight later, as we were digging the vegetable patch, she said "You’re right. We could get married."

And for many years the silence was our friend, until it became our prison, and I started to feel as dried and empty as a snakeskin: by that time, we were living in our own small house in the woods, a little beyond where the wolves had been. When I went fishing later, I would drive for hours to find lakes where I could fish for trout. In fact I don’t think I have ever caught or eaten pike since, but even now, twenty years later, I still buy the grey, recycled products of the Edet paper mill, to the horror of my present wife.


I did not catch a trout on a fly for two years after I first read Brian Clarke’s book. But one September morning I crunched through the icy margins of a lake while the night was still thinning into a grey mist. By the time the bulging red sun had pulled itself above the pine forest across the water, I was balanced on a broad round boulder. The forest warmed and started to exhale distinct savours of spruce and pine: trout swirled outside a reed bed fifteen yards away.

It took about three hours to catch one, doing everything by the book. When I had landed it, I killed it with a rock and afterwards there was a puddle of cold dark blood on the lapel of my tweed jacket that I was never able to remove. I liked killing things a great deal, just as I liked walking through forests on my own and sheltering under trees when rainstorms caught me. These things made me part of the world I had escaped to. I was 24. I had a job, a wife, a child, and a car and these achievements mattered; but it seemed to me that they all derived from the man I became in the woods.

I did not fly fish any more that year. The lakes shut at the end of September; and as the month ended and the shortening of the days accelerated I would become oppressed by the idea that the earth was not spinning, but rolling like a gigantic ball, so that we on its shoulders were being rolled inexorably, day by day, towards the darkness and the frozen sludge and out of breathable air.

We had moved south from Lilla Edet to a purpose-built suburb of Göteborg: about two thousand flats arranged in low concrete blocks the colour of dog turds on a glacial plain by the river. Nödinge was a wretched kind of prosperity. Everything was solidly built and generously equipped. Though we lived in what would in England have been a council flat, we had a freezer and two different sorts of fridge built in to the kitchen. The walls of the flat were grey wallpaper on concrete: if you wanted to hang paintings or anything else to individualise them only special hooks would do. They were fixed to the wall by three thick needles set in a plastic disk, which had to be hammered in. When the time came to remove them, they had to be pulled off with pliers, leaving three neat puncture wounds that never bled at all.

Faced with all this sterile, silence my hair grew ragged and my beard grew melancholy; when I walked to the shops, some of the children would call after "Jesus". I thought more fiercely about fly fishing when I heard these voices, imagining cool water. In winter I lived still further in my imagination. The lakes would freeze over in mid-December, and seldom thawed before April. I studied magazine photographs with blinding yearning until they almost felt like real water. I read Brian Clarke again and again as if the words could helicopter me there.

Deep every winter when the cold really squeezed we would be pushed into a new world where everything outside became as lurid and frozen as the weather inside me. The change was announced by sudden metallic booms resounding through the house a little before midnight. This happened whenever the temperature fell to –30; and the concrete and girders of the flats shrank in loud convulsive shudders. It was like a sonic boom announcing that we had passed beyond earth’s atmosphere.

After those warnings, I would dress with special care, putting on long underpants, then jeans, and then a set of overalls when I dressed at 5.30. Immediately I had struggled into all these clothes the flat was hot and itchy, but as soon as I pushed shut the door with a scrape and a click and started down the outside staircase the air felt spiky to breathe, as if it were full of pine needles that caught in my throat and there was a numbness and tingling on the front of my thighs as I walked across the car park. Such nights were very still. The sky was black as oil: beneath it was the flare of sodium lights on snow. Noises all seemed as close as the hair on my legs . Below about –20 sump oil thickens suddenly and batteries grow weak. First the car must be unlocked: this meant heating the key with a lighter, and then squirting special oil into the lock. Everything was done in thick gloves. The key would fall, and have to be scooped carefully from the snow. Inside the car felt even colder and darker than the world outside and my steaming breath froze on everything. All the lights and the fan must be turned off to save precious electricity before trying to start. I learned to listen for every undertone in the hoarse thin scraping of the starter motor, and the convulsive heaving as the engine was turned over. After the engine started — if it started — I would have to wait about ten minutes while the car warmed so much that the outside of the windscreen had completely thawed. Otherwise I would be blinded as soon as I started to drive, as my breath froze opaquely all over the inside of a windscreen suddenly chilled by the onrushing air outside.

The memory of those mornings is the most painful and poignant of all I have from Sweden. I don’t know why. They did not make me miserable or even unhappy at the time. The cold just put up a new series of obstacles that must be overcome, and to make the chores take twice as long. But they seem to me now to have been a kind of grand theatre, as if the whole planet had been hurled into winter just to demonstrate what sadness in the bone is like. That solitary, still, inverted world where the sky was black and the ground a flaring yellow recurs to me like a nightmare; a world what would only react with endless slowness although I could still move at normal speed, so that everything had to be fumbled through time and time again and nothing I did seemed to make the shadow of a difference.

The deep chill would not long survive daylight. By half past nine the temperature would have risen to fifteen or twenty below. Such cold demanded cloudless skies and a pale deistic sun. The curious inversion of brightness persisted: the broad flat valley would fill with half-glimpsed sparkles in the snow so that the ground seemed brighter than the sky by day just as it had at night. Nor had the smells of the world entirely vanished. Close up the factory still smelt of sweet and acrid sawdust; of the pale machine oil of the nail guns and of gritty diesel from the fork lift trucks.

I call it a factory but it was only a large converted barn in which four or five of use made the pallets on which Volvo marine diesel motors were shipped around the world. There had been an element of deception in the way I got the job: the interview was conducted around the back of one of the fork lift trucks, whose unsilenced diesel exhaust pipe rattled away between us. Both Leif and I were wearing hearing protectors. When I could hear what he was saying, I probably gave the wrong answers. When I couldn’t or when I failed to understand it I just nodded and grinned enthusiastically and he heard the right ones. It’s a bit like catching fish on a spoon, which is most effective when it is not a detailed model of a small fish but an almost two-dimensional abstract that wiggles with exaggerated clumsiness. You allow the pike to see what it wants and expects and he does the rest. The language the fishermen speak to their prey is wholly deceptive. Between humans, things are more complicated. Leif expected and anted a fit young man who could speak reasonable Swedish. I was neither but After three or four months there I had become the prey he thought he’d seized.

We worked from half past six in the morning till nine; from half past nine till half past twelve; from one till three thirty. For the first six weeks of the job, conversation was not a problem. I would stuff my face with sandwiches for fifteen minutes, and then fall asleep, my head propped on my hand, for the remaining fifteen minutes of the breakfast break. Then I would fall asleep at lunch, and again on the bus back to Nödinge and finally lie on the concrete floor of our living room there, beside the cloth-covered cardboard box that served as a coffee table, and fall asleep again. At the end of six weeks I had expected to be sacked, but I was not. Shortly thereafter, I found that I could stay awake from morning until bedtime. Within three months the job was no longer physically impossible at all. It remained physically demanding: even on the coldest days I could work in a T shirt after the first hour because there was so much heat coming off my body. Every movement had become a sort of dance-step, though I worked in clogs: there was a quickest and least exhausting way to shoot in every nail and not a day went past without my chasing it.

The timber was in delivered in two-ton bundles six or eight metres long from the saw mill. These had to be sawed down into usable lengths and stacked on ordinary pallets; some had to be further sawn into V-shaped supports for the transmission. This sawing was easy work. At first it was done by a Finn who drank fourteen or fifteen cans of weak beer a day while he worked. I don’t remember ever seeing him doing anything else but pissing against the outside of the barn by the far door and smoking fat crooked roll-ups. But between these breaks he sawed five tons of wood a day, beneath his sour miasma of sweat and mellanöl. He kept this up, day after day, winter and summer, for the first eighteen months I worked there, until he finally sank beneath the beer and found himself unable to get up in the mornings. Leif, the owner, sacked him. The whole factory depended on the sawman.

The rest of us — three or four people for most of the two years I worked there — had to take this sawn wood and nail it together into pallets. They five types we made differed in the sort of detail that emerges only from the most grinding monotony. I remember vividly only the first I was told to make: it was the heaviest the factory built, and the one that required least skill. There were six planks in the base, held together by two thick feet; two thick pine blocks for engine supports, an inch-thick cross-piece where the transmission rested, four side pieces nailed into a frame, and two little reinforcing bits. It was all nailed together; the noise in the barn was like continual gunfire as these nails were banged in by three different types of compressed air guns. Each gun weighed two kilos, and had to be concealed from close inspection by the health and safety people, because we had lightened the triggers on them so they could be pulled at arm’s length. I only shot myself twice in two years, when the n il hit a knot in the wood I was steadying and twisted into my hand.

A fully assembled pallet weighed 47 kilos, or a little over a hundred weight. I had to make 72 of them every two days, in nine stacks of eight: the highest flung up about head height before the whole stack was lashed together with wire tape and dragged out by a fork lift truck. One day would be spent nailing the subassemblies together: 72 right-hand posts; 72 left-hand posts; 72 frames and 72 plank bottoms. Each had to be fixed together with a precisely specified number of nails, placed in precisely specified ways. Every day I fired around two thousand nails into the wood, trying to place each one exactly where I had fired uncountable predecessors; every day the only break in this monotony came from trying to do everything a little faster than the day before. "You should start at full speed, and then get steadily faster", I was advised was the trick of it.

I never really grew strong enough for the work. I was willing enough, and outlasted fifteen or twenty young Swedes whose attitude of sullen entitlement and resentment sat oddly with their enormous, well-fed bodies. One, I remember, lifted weights for a hobby, but thought it demeaning to exert himself outside the gym or for an employer. But alongside Leif and his foreman Rolf, two men in their forties who had done hard physical work every day of their lives, I would simply run out of strength. When I tried to work ten hours a day, to save for a car, I found I could make no more pallets than when I worked eight. Shifting three and a half tons of wood every day was my limit.

It was this physical incapacity that drove me back to Brian Clarke. When the demand for marine diesels grew in Australia beyond the rate at which I could build crates for them, Rolf would be transferred to that job for a few days and I would saw out for him the V-shaped cutouts on which the transmission rested. The wood for this was thick and unplaned, with a rough splintery surface like flattened chicken skin. That observation more or less exhausted its interest. I would mark a V on five hundred pieces with a pencil: the act reduced to five movements, over and over again as I shifted the stacks from a pallet to my left to one on my right. Then I would feed them into the band saw. Little buttocks of sawdust puffing up each side of the blade as I pushed the wood over the sleek steel table. Shrieking and screaming from the blade pressed through my hearing protectors. Pull it back. Turn it round. Press it against the blade once more until the resistance eased for a moment with a sudden clunk. Pull back smar ly, and swat away the discarded triangle into a waste crate; in the same movement lift and stack the new V piece. Swivel left. Pick up another do it again. Inside, my mind ran round in circles, screaming. This work was not particularly exhausting. It demanded about half my attention to keep up to speed. The rest was fixed on water, on a cool pewtery surface between water lilies that would stir as something rustled against their stems.

To this day, when I think of the band saw, I see the chipped steel housing of the motor, a thin metallic blue; and behind it the bare pale planking of the factor wall. From the ceiling hang black electric power lines to the machinery, and the air hoses for nail guns in parabolas like jungle vines. I hear the bandsaw ringing, the banging of the guns, and even the accordion music, fanged and slimy, writhing from the radio speaker above my head. But all these things seem foggy, as they were at the time, because they stood between me and the lake, which shone through them.

In the busy banging solitude of the factory I taught myself to write English. I hardly spoke the language then. I worked in Swedish, I was married in Swedish; I thought and dreamed in Swedish too: it’s still the language in which I think of fishing technicalities. But I still read mostly English books, and I wanted to become an English writer. The first thing I bought when we got married was ancient office typewriter with its base machined from solid brass, which went on an old desk borrowed from Anita’s younger sister. I knew nothing about myself and very little about the world so it was hard to find a subject. But as I worked with the planks, hauling and banging, and building the boxes, phrases would appear to me. If they were good. I grabbed the thick pencil used for marking wood and scribbled them on the cardboard dividers from the cases of nails. This allowed me one good fragment for every 500 nails I fired in. When I came home, the breast pocket of my overalls might have half a dozen of these bits nside it: sawdust would fall from the seams as I pulled the cardboard strips out and placed them beside the typewriter.


Deep winter is curiously easy to endure. The shortest days of the year in December are much better lit than the longer, days to come, first by Lucia processions, and then by Christmas and the New Year sales, which let shop windows blaze and make even the saddest towns look cosy after night falls at half past three four. But in February the days lengthen so quickly you can feel it and you know that tomorrow will cast a clearer light on the landscape of slush and frozen, rutted mud which thaws a little every afternoon and then refreezes every night.

The thaw is never silent. Our flat in Nödinge had an aluminium railing on the walkway outside, about three feet from the kitchen window, and the measured plinking sound of water dripping on it as the snow melted from the roof was the most agonising thing I had ever heard in my life for the six weeks that I listened to it. In later years I learned not to listen, but the first spring, I could hear a whole country unfreezing, drip by drip, all day. The first few days, I thought the ringing of the balcony rail meant that Spring had arrived. But every night, the snow refroze and the thaw must start again. For the next three weeks, I thought each plink must mean that spring was on its way. But every night the that refroze, and spring retreated further. For the last fortnight or so I believed that every plink was telling me that spring would never come. Finally came a day when all the snow had retreated, leaving patches of bare unfrozen dirt. I walked for half an hour up into the hills behind Nödinge, where the map showed a lake, carrying my spinning rod, wearing a black leather bomber jacket against the wind, burning for a fish. When I got there, the lake turned out to be little more than a pond, but very hard to miss the only pale thing in the landscape among the bare brown hills, dirty blue and green still frozen solidly.

I went back almost every day for a week, unable to believe that it could stay frozen. I was perhaps a little mad. Most days I carried my rod and a tin of spinners. Sometimes I would tie on the heaviest spinner I owned and hurl it onto the ice in the hope of breaking through. Sometimes I would throw rock at the ice instead. One afternoon it rained for hours, solid wonderful rain beating the snow down into mud after months of sleet and snow; there was a boisterous wind, and the next day half the pond was clear of water and the ice as a jostling crumble heaving on the waves against the lee shore. I cast for about an hour, certain the fish would greet the open water as ecstatically as I did. My fingers grew very cold. I waked home chilled and fishless, filled with a kind of grim confidence of final victory, like Churchill in the battle of Britain.

Cod fishing

The summer that followed was a time of extraordinary profusion. I no longer needed to fish for pike, but one blazing day Leif took us out on his boat into the archipelago of granite shoals and skerries that extends for miles beyond the coast. Summer in the West coast is like a carnival that goes on all the way to Norway. Everything floats in a light like mercury. The red-walled wooden houses look as buoyant and carefree as tents. The granite looks gentle as crumpled paper; it is toasty and gentle under bare feet. There aren’t really any beaches. Swimming is done from rocks and boats; but owning a boat was as natural as owning a car; perhaps more so, for the people who lived near the coast. Leif’s boat was magnificent, towering twice the height of a man where it rested, most of the year, swathed in tarpaulins on a trailer outside the barn. Somewhere around Whitsun he would run it down to the sea behind the lorry with which he normally delivered pallets. In a fiercely egalitarian culture which hated ostentat on or any sort of non-conformity, boats were the only sort of boasting that was allowed and approved. He would work more on it half the summer, then by August it would be ready for showing off.

The day he took his workers out in it for a day’s fishing the others used handlines, with heavy silvery jigs, almost the size of a fist. I had bought a spinning rod, probably Anita’s, loaded with coarse line. At the little sea-front supermarkets in every hamlet up and down the coast you could buy cod lures stamped from painted tin plate with a piece of lead the size of a finger welded down one side. They were extremely cheap, since they were designed to be hurled into the seaweed and snagged there. That’s what I did with them, anyway. But when they didn’t catch the bottom, they caught fish.

Leif motored out for about an hour in his huge boat: we lounged in a way impossible at any other time until he had anchored by two low skerries, a few miles into the archipelago. I cast towards these rocks and let the spoon flutter back in an arc just above the sea bed, sinking as it came towards the boat. It was needless craft. The fish grabbed everything and we hauled until our arms ached and our necks burned from the sun. There were cod, ling, saithe, wrasse and others whose names no one knew or cared. They were fish. All were killed, until the five blue plastic buckets on the deck were overflowing with variegated corpses, pale, dulled, and finally smelly.

Leif and Rolf had no conception of fishing for sport. They belonged to the old Sweden, where you warred with nature for everything; and when it showed weakness, you harvested until your arms ached and the light off the salt sea struck headaches from your skull. When I came home with my carrier bags, sick from killing and sunstroke, I had thirty four fish in them, most of them Ballan Wrasse, which have a curious pouched stomach that makes them almost impossible to gut. Also, they taste like fermented mud, even when they are very fresh. I stood at the sink for nearly two hours, dragging my knife through the toughening flesh, and tugging out handfuls of smelly intestines with my fingers. There were two carrier bags full of guts before I gave up and threw the rest of the fish, ungutted, into the last bag. It was August: the rubbish was collected in a room at the very far end of our block of flats, and three stories down, so the smell was still tolerable immediately outside our flat five days later, when the inmen came. I hoped very much that none of the people in the flats closer to the rubbish chute knew I was a fisherman.

For much of that summer, I was not. There were other purposes to life. We bought a car. We visited England. Even so, I remember vividly only one thing that did not happen by a lake: we were driving through a dusty forest in southern Lapland when Anita asked me to pull over. She opened the passenger door, leant out, and was neatly and quietly sick by the side of the road. "Drive on" she said. I thought she had eaten a bad mushroom until a few days later she told me it was morning sickness.


Fishing anywhere is a form of enquiry. The patient watchful wonder of the fisherman seems to me the root of all science. In sea fishing this mapping, and bringing of order from the formless shifting waves is especially ambitious. Attention broods over the water like the spirit in genesis, moving, casting, until suddenly all the possibilities are narrowed into one taut line. Perhaps this explains why I have always sought the sea at times of upset and disturbance in my life. The fish comes like an answer, the rod in my hand a divining instrument.

A couple of years after the expedition on Leif’s boat I started cod fishing again, on my own, from the shore, in the autumn. The lakes inland would close around the middle of September and even those that did not could seem to be in the grip of a cold grey evening all through an October day. Even the berries were fading then as if the last scraps of colour were being scraped off the earth in its descent into winter. Only by the black and dark green sea was there a sense of life. I had a rod well suited to the crude ferocity of my pursuit: a thick blue fibreglass pole with ugly ceramic rings that would hurl a 40g lure into the dusk so far I could hardly see it splash into the water. I fished off rocks and round the edge of car parks; the view in front was pretty ugly too. I looked for sites with a deep current close to land and kept my eyes fixed on the water in front of me. It didn’t matter if there were an oil refinery or a chemical plant across the bay. The water had for me the same kind of importance as music; and I heard music all the time, by a feat of will. I could not afford a radio or cassette for the car: to have one seemed to me to entail a state of nearly as boundless riches as possessing a credit card. But I learned, through concentration to memorise music as I had once memorised Brian Clarke, so that as the winter night fell over the road like sleet, I would hear over and over again a fragment of a Steely Dan song, a descending piano figure and a sprightly bass: "If I had my way, I would move / to some other life time".

Nor was I interested in the sporting quality of the fish. In my experience cod feed like vacuum cleaners and fight like hoover bags. But their skin was delicately dappled in all the colours that were disappearing in the winter on land, brown and green and silver; and they tasted delicious. This mattered because the food value of my catch had again become an important consideration in where I fished. I had stopped work at the factory after selling a couple of articles to English magazines. We lived precariously on Anita’s earnings as a trainee nurse and what I could earn as a journalist and teaching English at night classes but I spent most of my time looking after little Felix in the deep loneliness of the forest. We had left the dog-turd flats in Nödinge and moved to half a bungalow in the woods outside Lilla Edet, reasoning that if the neighbours never spoke to you there was not much point in having neighbours at all. I drove a hired Transit van down the long straight road to Lilla Edet bellowing in my best Joe Strummer mockney "This here rock is a revolution rock", as if my elated position swaying high above the front wheels, would carry me through the rest of my life.

We had one neighbour in the woods, the owner of the bungalow, an ancient half-Danish and half-crooked businessman who was dying — I now understand — of congestive heart failure. He wheezed as he waddled, and he had a terrible gurgling cough, treated with regular applications of low-tar cigarettes. The dark interior of his house smelt overpoweringly of dog-food, dog, cigarette smoke and old man’s undershirt. This made eating with him a difficult ordeal but some social contact was unavoidable because I held a mortgage on our part of the house. It couldn’t simply be rented for immensely complicated reasons which boiled down to the fact that he had no planning permission for the part in which we lived, He had hoped his married daughter would come and look after him, but until then he needed the money, he said, to finish the conversion of our part. It had started off as a caravan parked in a field as deep into the forest as the dirt road reached, about three miles from Lilla Edet on the Western bank of the ri er. Then he had built his own bungalow, a little distance from the caravan, and standing askance from it. Finally he swathed the old caravan in wood and turned the intervening space into a crooked shack, where we lived.

It was reasonably weatherproof. There was a fireplace, which on cold nights had to be swathed in blankets to stop the draught rushing down it for no wood could possibly burn unattended all night. The walls and roof were insulated. There was a bedroom for us, a little alcove for Felix, a study for me with one small desk for the typewriter and another for my fly-tying equipment, and an angled kitchen where we could eat more easily than cook: it had a boxy electric oven with two hotplates on top: you could either have two hotplates on at once, or one and the oven.

The long dirt track through the forest to the bungalow was lined with blackberries in the autumn and deeper in the woods there were chanterelles growing beside exposed pine roots. In summer I could reach out from the study window at the back of the house and almost touch the leaves of the nearest birch tree; but in front there was a cleared meadow running a hundred metres up the hill to the only other neighbour’s house. Across the valley was a clear-cut jumble of stumps and bramble where sometimes we could spot elk or deer grazing but otherwise the forest closed all around. One cold winter a party of six wolves moved down from the Norwegian border, tracked by naturalists, and killed a sheep in the fields on the Lilla Edet side of the forest from us. The silence among the trees was very deep; when guests came to visit from England they would get lost within a hundred yards of the house, bewildered by the endless variations on a tiny repertoire of rock and pine; spruce and birch; juniper bushes, sand and a thills.

When the autumn came, rats moved into our roof space and I began to hate the landlord. He was reluctant to spent money on pest control while they scrabbled around the roof above our heads: they’re only shrews, he said. Then one morning I found a trail of crumbly plaster running down from a small fresh hole in the wall above the cooker. The rats were trying to break into our kitchen. I grew hysterical and shouted at him. That night, when everything grew quiet, I was roused from bed by the soft noise of cascading plaster. I padded into the darkened kitchen, picked up a sharpening steel and bashed the little black nose protruding from the wall. I spent much of the night sitting on a chair and glowering at the wall with a carving knife in my hand. I might not be able to do much for my family, but I could by god kill any small creatures that came into the kitchen and crapped in our food stores.

There were also adders in the meadow and one that lived in the rocks at the front of the house, under the heap of sand that had been left when the landlord ran out of money for his building plans. "It will make a wonderful place for the little one to play" he said. Felix spent a lot of time playing there, after I had killed the adder by jabbing a crowbar into the crevice where it lived but I still kept a pair of wellingtons by the kitchen door in case I had to rush out and kill another one. Otherwise, we lived barefoot all summer.

I practised my fly casting on the meadow for an hour every day. Only the gales that threshed the oak tree over our bedroom could stop me. Snow certainly didn’t. To stand on a crisp February day with the snow half way up my shins and a fly rod in my hand was a sort of liturgical dance, even if there were no one to observe it but a couple of elk. Fly casting is in any case a way to dance from the hips upwards. Everything depends on catching the rhythm of the line as it loops through the air and this can only be done by feel, one reason why I could often cast better in the dark than when I peered to see what was happening as dusk fell. If I could just get the movements exactly right, I felt as if I were dancing the spring a little bit closer. I had come to feel that I was only really alive when I looked at water, or when I drove towards it.

This was not a world in which women played much of a part. Anita took to spending two or three nights a week in Uddevalla, where she was training to be a nurse. It saved a lot of driving and some silences between us. I didn’t notice that it was anything more than a practical arrangement. It took me ages to notice that the woman who ran my evening classes was throwing passes at me. It seemed a thing impossible. I was a married man. Evie was a slightly fluffy blonde in her thirties, divorced, with a son of about eight and a cat. She liked to talk. We would chatter for an hour on the phone some days, when I was alone in the house, and when I walked into Lilla Edet, pushing Felix’s pram, I would stop at her house for coffee. None the less, my first reaction when she proposed a game of strip poker was simple astonishment; my second was to flee, but three weeks later, anyway, I was weeping in the car park by an oil refinery, too weak to climb out of the car and fish, The sky was like a great grey boulder, crus ing me. How could I have been so stupid? How could I face the rest of my life?

Time passed. We visited my parents, in Godalming. Surrey, the county of stockbroker Tudor and horse brasses in pubs, seems to me the place furthest on earth from Sweden. Instead of the vertiginous seasons everything is frozen at room temperature in an unchanging drizzly light. Even the soil of clay and sand is dead. Nothing looks modern or artificial; nothing is in reality old or natural. Only the trains to London were honestly disgusting: they smelled of grit and grease, and childhood misery, as if every one were carrying me off to school.

My parents lived in a house with high-ceilinged rooms in which everything was tasteful and calm. It was filled with exquisite, impenetrable manners from which Anita hung as if they had been barbed wire. It all seemed part of the natural order of things. I scarcely noticed that I was shuffling round in the mud and rats of the family trench system, or that every night in our bedroom I patrolled to the other side. I talked all the time there, inexhaustibly showing off to everyone but no one would ever say anything important out loud. Unspeakable things unsaid rang in my ears all day. I wanted to get back to the whisperings of the forest, and took my fly rod onto the Surrey lawn, where I cast again and again over the roses (the back cast flew over the gravelled drive) until after two or three hours the sweat running down my arm reacted with the black foam plastic handle of my fly rod and I developed terrible eczema. My fingers swole and bubbled like melting plastic. Anita, looked up from her book in our room My god, she said — she had a lovely smile — they look like crayfish claws; and that is what we called them for the next five years. The claws did not stop me fishing, of course. They merely convinced me that I must spend an extra forty pounds on a fly rod with a cork handle, made in Norway.

Each time we visited my parents things were worse. After a while I no longer needed to touch a fly rod to bring my eczema out. Touching anything in Surrey would make my hands swell and itch. I rubbed my blistered fingers on the rivets of my jeans until they bled and this would stop them hurting for a while. And I went fishing. Quite close to where my parents lived, at Willingshurst, there was a lake where Brian Clarke had actually fished himself. It figured in a chapter called "early experiences of practising what I preach". He had caught three fish one after another, as he saw them moving along the edge of the lake towards him and deduced at once what they were eating and how to offer them an imitation from hiding. Then he had gone to a smaller lake in the woods and caught several more by spotting the faintest glimmer in the dark water, and realising that this meant a trout four feet under the dark surface of the water had seized a single midge pupa half an inch long.

I myself never saw such things in real life, but I watched for them with such fanaticism that I must have missed innumerable fish whose signals would have been obvious to anyone who had not read the book. For some reason the easy, selfless predatory instinct which had guided me to all those pike deserted me whenever I held a fly rod in my hands. Whatever my technical accomplishments as a fly caster and a fly tier I was blinded, when I was trying to catch fish, by the idea that there was a right way to do it, the way that Brian Clarke would have done. So it was with very high hopes that I took little Felix to Willingshurst, when he was four and a half.

I had made him his first fly rod that summer, spreading my threads and glues and varnish bottles over the polished mahogany dining table in my parents’ house. The rod was a perfect child’s wand, built with as much magic as I could summon. It was only six and a half feet long and the grip was thin enough for the smallest hand. I had anguished for half an hour in the shop between scarlet and viridian silk to whip on the lightest rings I could find. Even with a reel and line, it weighed virtually nothing.

At one corner of the smallest lake in the woods there was a little concrete outwork; probably concealing the mechanism that kept the water looking natural. There we sat, with our legs dangling over, each wearing, like uniforms, waistcoats made almost entirely of pockets to hold everything that might help to charm a trout: there were fly boxes, spools of nylon in differing thickness, tubs of unguent to make the nylon sink, and of grease to make it float. None of these helped Felix to cast in the slightest, though he loved the dressing up. There were trout feeding quite close to us but in the end I laid my own rod down and cast his line out, telling him to watch. The line lay across the dark water like a stroke from a calligraphy brush. At the end, it vanished and the meaning was clear. I was almost blind with apprehension. I knew a trout was mouthing at the fly. I knocked his rod into the air with my forearm so the fish was hooked. "There! You see?" I said. "You caught a fish!".

We killed it, of course. There is still a photograph somewhere of the two of us crouching in front of a laurel hedge in my parents’ garden, Felix holding up a distended gutted little battery trout. We both are smiling because we know it is expected of us. I can admit now, nearly twenty years later, that he has never really liked fishing. Sometimes I say he has never seen the point of fishing but in some sense he has seen the point of it all too well.

Later that summer I returned to England alone, and when Felix asked, in the car, when Daddy was coming back from this trip I could not answer.

Front Cuts Book Back