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Posted on 14 Jul 2022 in Non-Fiction |

MARK WORMALD The Catch: Fishing for Ted Hughes. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Mark Wormald follows Ted Hughes through rivers and streams to provide insights into his life, his poetry – and fishing.

Mark Wormald is a scholar, a poet and a fisherman. In 2012, he made his way to the British Library to begin some research on the work of the poet Ted Hughes. Hughes’s fishing diaries, he had been told by a friend, were no more than ‘a curiosity’, and the first pages he read seemed to confirm that. Then he came to the page for 28 May 1983 and a note, ‘Begin here.’

Suddenly, Mark was immersed in the story of a pre-dawn poaching trip on a Devon river close to Ted’s home. Here was the scramble ‘up the short tunnel of trees to the field gate across the sky’; then he was among the wild plants – primroses, cow parsley, Himalayan balsam – hearing the first birdsong; and here was the river, hiding the sea trout that had made their way up it the previous evening. Caught up in Ted’s words, Mark, followed him up the river to the pool where, the day before, Ted had snagged something and ended up with a large solitary scale on one of his hooks – possibly from a big sea-trout or salmon. Mark is so gripped by Ted’s evocation of the thrill and anticipation of this dawn poaching that he is horrified when he discovers that he has licked a finger to turn one of the pages Ted wrote, and there, on that page, is an incriminating inky smudge.

So began Mark’s odyssey of discovery. He wanted to see the places where Ted had fished and to fish there himself. Ted’s fishing diaries told him more ‘stories’ and described places and people in detail. Ted’s letters, too, sometimes provided hand-drawn maps; and his book of poems, River, was full of the beauty of the natural world, the plants and the creatures, the rivers in their natural cycles, and, of course, the fish.

‘Fishing,’ Ted once told a friend’s daughter, ‘is my way of breathing.’ For Mark, too, it is clearly an essential part of this life – ‘not an escape from but an escape into. Another dimension. Another world.’ Through it, both men found a connection with the hunting instincts and energies that link us back to our ancestors. And the fish, too, are killers, especially pike, which often have the scars of old battles on their flanks. Catching these canny and clever predators is a challenge that demands, as Mark puts it, the concentration of ‘hand, body, eye, balance, will, confidence, care, faith’.

The Catch is as much about Mark’s own life, adventures and discoveries, and the people he meets who knew and fished with Ted, as it is about Ted’s poetry and prose and Ted’s growing awareness of the ever-increasing pollution of the rivers he fished.

It is, too, an alternative biography of Ted Hughes that captures something that other gossip-laden reporting never has. Ted fished with farmers, artists, land-owners who lived in rambling mansions, and with royalty: an invitation from the Queen Mother ‘is a command’ he told his friend Leonard Baskin. Especially, he shared fishing expeditions with his son Nicholas, seeing him grow from a 15-year-old boy thrilled to have caught a huge pike on his first fishing trip in Ireland, to a man who could out-fish him and who became an expert on salmonoid ecology. Sylvia Plath asked her mother to bring her own ‘spry’ little fishing rod with her when she visited them in Devon, hoping to join Ted on one of his early morning trips and have ‘beginner’s luck’, but for Ted, fishing was a time when he could be alone and ‘wade into underbeing / Let brain mist into moist earth’, as his poem ‘Go Fishing’ instructs.

From the beginning of his journey in Ted’s fishing footsteps, unexpected meetings and casual conversations led Mark to exciting discoveries, and new connections brought more discoveries. The most important was, perhaps, Mark’s contact with Ted’s fishing friend, the artist Barrie Cooke, who invited Mark to meet him in Ireland. Barrie had introduced Ted to fly-fishing, and talking to him gave Mark a glimpse into the close friendship they developed and to the reasons for Ted’s lifelong need to return to fishing in Ireland, often with Nicholas.

Barrie inducted Ted to his own dreamland, the skills he’d learned there. They lay in slots of rock at dusk as the geese flew in to roost from their watering grounds and heard their unearthly call, yards away, from the margins of Loch Gealáin. Barrie must have told him its English meaning: the Lake of the Flesh. These slots became folds of skin.

Barrie also showed Ted ‘stone flesh’ that had inspired art Barrie exhibited in Dublin in the Sixties, where it must have been ‘a shock for Catholic Dublin’.

One Sheela-na-gig, an old crude Celtic fertility symbol, wizened figure of a woman, primitive fingers between splayed legs, ‘pulling herself wide open’, in a carving on the wall of the ruined Kilnaboy old church.

Barrie now took Mark to fishing spots steeped in history and myth and introduced him to many of the wealthy landowners who owned the fishing rights to rivers that Barrie and Ted had fished. Mark’s account of his eventual ‘re-discovery’ of Barrie’s archive of letters from Ted, Seamus Heaney, and other well-known writers, eventually made international news and was, through Mark’s fund-raising efforts, acquired by Ted’s old Cambridge University college, Pembroke.

Of course, there is a lot about fishing in this book, but even for a ‘dry-footed scholar’ (Mark’s words) like me, who has only ever caught tiddlers with a hand-held line in Sydney Harbour, there is much more. Mark makes it easy to share his and Ted’s immersion (often literal) in the rivers. He captures the excitement, the anticipation, the careful judgments of the behaviour of rivers and fish, which adds up to the thrill of fly-fishing; and the joys of sharing the waters with the other inhabitants:

Last cast, last throw. The line went out, and I followed the water for the gleam or a silver shadow towards the lure. Instead a darkness, not below or through the water but definitely breaking the surface. A head. An otter inches beyond my fly.

And, on another occasion:

Under the shade of the bankside oak I did come across a family of stoats, watched them for four minutes, got within six feet of them at play, before they slipped into the long grass.

The Catch, in a different way, is Mark’s own memoir of his early years fishing with his older brothers in a local pond; of family holidays in remote countryside to which his doctor father would drive them, sustained, as he later discovered, by pills – ‘DF188s he’d pop from the surgery to keep him going’; of the fly-fishing course his father bought for him when he was a teenager; and, more somberly, of his last memories of his mother before her sudden death from a heart attack; and of a brief, ‘important’, time fishing with his eldest brother when their 86-year-old father had just been admitted to hospital.

Mark’s reading of Ted’s poems is that of both fisherman and poet. Often, he inhabits the poem, just as Ted did when writing it. Here are Ted, and Mark, stealing trout again:

And now he follows the fish, becomes one: ‘My mind sinks, rising and sinking’, as he plunges into the tunnel of trees, mostly hazels, exchanges the sky’s embrace for something suddenly savage. The stuff beneath his boot is wild, plunging, and at first he can’t name it: it’s ‘a thing black and sudden’. He needs to stand in it, square, confront its force, before ‘it is river again’.

As Mark traces the places and people in Ted’s life, he provides, for someone like me who knows Ted’s work well, a new perspective and a new depth to the poems, especially those in River and in the prose/poem Gaudete.

The Catch: Fishing for Ted Hughes is a warm and enjoyable book in which Mark’s scholarship is worn lightly. His odyssey has led him far and he has also found and read poems, manuscripts, published and unpublished writings, as the page-notes at the end of the book show, but this is not an academic tome. Maybe Mark is a little obsessed with fishing; and perhaps I learned more than I will ever need to know about rods and flies and lures with delightful names like ‘Silver Badger’, ‘Muddler’, ‘French Mepp’, ‘Minnows’, a ‘Toby’, and ‘a cartoon shrimp’, but for most of the time I was an absorbed, dry-footed, companion on Mark’s great adventure.

I flinched at the kills, but many fish were released, too:

In those last moments, of weariness, those flanks are always more dazzling, the shawl of water more miraculous, than you could possibly have imagined. What have you done? Now you are responsible. You wanted this, the hunter in you wanted this. But you have to be protector. So you moisten your hands, everything under water if you can, ease the fly from the gristle of that gulping jaw, return it to its element, cradle that fish, working until the body flexes and it’s away upstream again, into the stream, gone. Taking something of you, too.

Finally, Mark decides that he must be ‘a catch-and-release poacher’:

Regrets? Of course. I will never kill another. Writing this book has made that clear to me. The rivers need their salmon more than I do. And the last years and months of writing have brought me proof of how much Ted’s example, the lesson he learned in caring for salmon and the water they swim in, still needs our attention.

Mark Wormald The Catch: Fishing for Ted Hughes Bloomsbury 2022 HB 336pp

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

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