Essay writing for the idle

We all have comfort books that we revisit from time to time.  One of mine is George Orwell’s collection ‘Inside the Whale & Other Essays’, a book I revisited the other day in response to a comment that Tolstoy was not a particular fan of Shakespeare.  The collection includes ‘Lear, Tolstoy & the Fool’, a simple yet brilliant deconstruction of Tolstoy’s carping criticisms of the Bard.  Here it is here.

It’s not my favourite essay in the collection though – that place (just pipping ‘Shooting an Elephant’ to the post – sorry King Juan Carlos) is reserved for ‘Politics & the English Language’, which is as true in its insight into the condition of the English language today as it was in 1946, surely the hallmark of a timeless classic. Here it is here.

Then of course there are other giants of the art such as William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Thomas Carlyle, G.K. Chesterton, Michel De Montaigne and Francis Bacon to name just a few… but my all time favourite essay and comfort read is Stevenson’s ‘Apology for Idlers’ – good to know we’re appreciated! Here it is here –  happy reading!

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Fly Fishing, by J.R. Hartley

What I know about fly fishing could be written on the back of a particularly small fly: or at least that was the case until a year ago, when my good friend Charles decided to introduce me to the noble art.  Now, my assembled knowledge on the subject could easily cover a small postcard, but already I’ve become hooked on the whole experience.

It is a pastime which doesn’t exactly open itself out for the interested amateur.  For a start, the equipment is rather expensive (think golf).  Then there’s the whole question of where you do it:  it’s not immediately apparent where all the trout and salmon rivers are in Scotland, in the way that golf courses for example are well indicated.  Then there’s the impenetrable lingo of those already steeped in the subject (you don’t say ‘good luck’ to a fellow fly fisherman, for example, the proper greeting is ‘tight lines’) and finally, if you have the kit, know where to fish and can understand what your fellow fly fishermen are on about, there’s the disappointing realisation that wild fish are rather difficult to catch.

So far, my fishing career has been limited to two days on the River Tay at Kenmore and one day on the River Lyon just a mile or so to the north; from which I can boast one rather modest wild brown trout (which was of course returned immediately to the river).

Standing chest deep in a river and repeatedly flicking a fishing rod is, I accept, unlikely to appeal to everyone; but there is something so vital about the experience, something that brings you so close to your immediate environment of river, rocks, trees and mountains (but not fish of course) and so far from the daily grind, that it becomes almost spiritual.  Time doesn’t just pass, it evaporates; and after a day fishing you experience an appetite for food and desire for sleep that is really rather satisfying.  Besides that, there is the fact that fly fishing takes you to places that you might not otherwise see (I had a very pleasant stay in Aberfeldy and visited Castle Menzies) and unlike golf, you can fish just as happily in the rain as the sun, a definite bonus in post-greenhouse gas Scotland.

All in all, I look forward to my next outing, and I’ve even purchased a copy of Trout and Salmon to improve my lingo – but I doubt I’ll ever progress beyond an enthusiastic amateur.

Fly fishing has a rich literature, and many of the best books were written by Denys Watkins-Pitchford (pen name ‘BB’) who also wrote children’s classic Brendan Chase.  Here is a selection of three of his better known works on fishing available here:

In the meantime, however, Charles has lent me copies of his favourite works on the subject, which include the gloriously titled The Way of a Trout with a Fly by GEM Skues and Loved River by HR Jukes.  I’ll give you just a few lines from the first chapter of Loved River, which sets the tone rather nicely:

“You must not think of my river as one of those royal streams whose photographs appear so frequently in all the illustrated weeklies – generally, I have noticed, as a background.  No, my river is not like that.  Really it is very little wider, and just as winding, just as flower strewn and fragrant as a country lane.  And just as gossipy.  Sometimes, like the road, it encroaches on to the grassy banks, so that you can hardly tell which is grass and which is river; and like the road, too, it has rough places, delightfully rough and bumpy places which create groans or laughter according to your quality as a fisherman or of the car you own.  Perhaps you would call it a beck.  But it is a river; it is marked so on the map.”

Wonderful stuff.  Tight lines everyone!

Bella Italia!

Well, we’re now back in sunny Edinburgh after three glorious weeks in Italy – notwithstanding that at one point the temperature was 12 degrees while it was almost 30 degrees in parts of Scotland!  There were the occasional continental thunderstorms which are wonderful to watch, but mostly the weather was warm and sunny.

The area where we were, on the shores of Lake Bolsena about an hour north of Rome, is steeped in the history of the pre-Roman Etruscans and their relatively mysterious culture.  The Etruscans were largely swallowed up by their ambitious neighbours to the south, as the Romans gradually gained control of all modern Italy at the end of the second century BC; but their mark is there in the tombs, pottery and surviving artwork from their heartlands in the border of Tuscany and Lazio – and even the words Tuscany and Etruria (the wider region) are ultimately derived from their name, so great was their mark on that part of the country – here’s a map which in particular shows the Etruscan city of Velzna which became the Roman Volsinii, and then ultimately over the intervening centuries became the modern town of Bolsena on the northern shore of the lake which shares its name: such is the way that names and pronunciation change imperceptibly over time.

Bolsena is a beautiful and tranquil corner, and the almost perfectly spherical volcanic lake which it looks across is reputed to hold the purest water in Europe, as well as shoals of the local delicacy coregone, a delicate kind of white fish, a little like sea bass, and delicious roasted whole in the restaurants which dot the shores.  The town is the home of the ancient festival of Corpus Christi (or Corpus Domini as it is known in Italy), celebrated this year on 10 June with a wonderful parade through the streets known as the infioriata, for the flower petals used to line the route of the procession.  It looks like this:

The miracle of Corpus Christi in 1263 (next year is the 750th anniversary celebration) led the then Pope Urban IV to dedicate a cathedral in the nearby Umbrian city of Orvieto, which is truly one of the pearls of Europe.  It looks like this:

(out of shot to the left of the cathedral is one of the best ice cream shops in all Italy!)

Apart from relaxing and enjoying the beauty of the surroundings, it was also interesting to follow the twists and turns of Italian public life in their newspapers, mainly La Repubblica (left wing) and La Stampa (right wing).  The main theme was of course the daily unfolding of the Euro crisis, but there was significant coverage of allegations of large scale corruption in Italian football (shocking I know – who would have believed it!), refuse collectors on strike in Rome, a big story about the Pope’s butler having been arrested for leaking Vatican documents to the media and last but not least, two terrible earthquakes which shook the Emilia region just north of my old university city of Bologna, on 20 & 29 May.  The quakes killed 24 people, including one parish priest who had gone back into his church shortly before the second quake to recover a statue from the rubble of the first one.  Many fine buildings were badly damaged or destroyed as you can see.

What was particularly interesting was the national response as Italy’s 66th annual festival of the founding of the Italian Republic on 2 June drew closer.  The Italian President called for a day of reflection and calm in light of the earthquake crisis, and true enough despite being a public holiday there was little of the usual pomp and ceremony, with significant resources being diverted to assist those affected in Emilia.  It was impressive and touching to see that act of solidarity on the part of the Italian people in the face of adversity; and while their country seems at times chaotic and frustrating, it’s still a wonderful and fascinating place to be – not to mention their fabulous ice cream and coffee!