Tuesday, April 15, 2014

To: The Whole and Ancient Company of Anglers


Dear, my readers,

In the last weeks, my health has crashed. I'm beset with greatly enlarged adrenal glands, shot through with B cell Lymphoma. The prognosis is not yet complete. In general I feel lousy but am beautifully cared for.
 It will have to do for reason to celebrate my 88th. birthday this Easter-tide.
  I am gratefully yours,

Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Saturday Surprise

                                          The PFA

   Once again, It seems I am the last to know…. Last Saturday morning, precisely February 22, 2014, I trundled down to the local fly shop to schmooze a bit. I was as usual met at the door by one of the men of the shop who with every courtesy under the sun, got a chair and sat me down in the front row of some festivities that I knew nothing about, but were to astonish me. And, because of my broken-down hearing, I could understand not a word of what the young man was saying as he sat there, portentously, in front of a banner that repeated over and over  “PFA” and some silly slogan about a fly. The event, surrounded by a perfect swarm of young people intent on what this guy in some sort of fly fishing uniform was proclaiming to the ever-present video camera, went right over my head.
    I don’t think I ever have felt so “out” of anything and so, in a moment of official pause, I escaped to the front of the store. Here I caught my host at the shop and asked just what the hell was going on!
    He told me that this was the “signing” for the first season Tour of the new PRO FLY ANGLING, an organization to do for trout what
Bassmasters has done for warm water fishing and what the PGA has done for golf: instituting national tours of professionals competing for prize money.
   All these young people, having been “accepted” for the first tour later this year, were here, in this fly shop, to sign on.
   Immediately the question arises: Is competition like this good for fly fishing? Since last Saturday, I have learned that many object to the idea—and often vehemently.
   Opponents generally agree that competition has nothing to do with our sport, which is bucolic and solitary in nature.
   So, what am I to think? My first rush is to resist the idea as alien to everything I have known in seventy-five years of throwing flies. Now after those many decades, my fishing days are over. I can’t safely do it any longer.  Hamlet had it exactly right when he taunted Polonius with his “most weak hams” My hams will no longer do the job, and so I must just stay home and blog like this about it.
   In my initial moment of proud disdain of this PFA idea, I forgot what has always been my responsibility: to encourage the young. Never to disparage them out of hand. Let someone else do that, if they must.
   Anyhow, why should not fly fishing be competitive? Everything else is. Think of the great and distinguished fishing competitions in Ireland, of the match fishing in England. Think of the fly casting competitions that have been with us since the coming of the knotless line and guides on the rod. We compete in every thing we do.
   Everything we do for pleasure—for sport—someone ends up wanting to cash in on, even make a living off it.
   And there is always the dream, or fantasy, of “celebrity”. If it is a madness of contemporary life, how shall we blame a talented young fly fisher for wanting a bit of the glamor?  I know; I was there, dreaming that dream of being a famous fishing writer and directing a flawless production of a classic drama. I was ready to compete. And all these years later, I can still feel the drive to blog the blogest and to be noted.
   So, why not have the PFA!
   Which is not to say that something like this can’t go wrong. Like the aspiring writer who begins to sound like a Kreh rather than a Gierach, the dangers are there to be avoided.
   For instance, I understand that manufacturers propose specialized tackle for these competitive tours.  I have not mentioned that each competing pro is accompanied by his “caddy” who carries and services all the angler’s gear, keeping him fishing constantly. I’m loath to see a caddy with all manner of bizarre equipment that might insult a trout.
   And then there’s the critical issue of use of the water. What’s to be done about the regular fisherman on open public water who happens to be in the way of a Pro as he ploughs up the creek, his caddy in his wake?
   I have found that young anglers are apt to forget how and by whom their fishing has been fostered and preserved. They tend to be narrow in the range of their social thinking. I have found that they understand private property well enough, but public property? Hardly. The PFA should strive to be good for public values. I hope they will.
    And I hope against hope that these competitors will try to talk the talk of their sport decently and turn away from the vulgarisms and fast talk that we hear replacing the great tradition of English in angling discourse. Let them be decorous.
    I hope to that they will dress seemly for the videographers who will never be far behind.
      I would remind them that they turn fly fishing into a spectator sport at their peril.
   And dare I hope that they will not forget, and will want to hear from the likes of me, how once we fished….
   Most of all, I hope that when, in their competitive zeal, they encounter my ghost on the water, they will not try to push me off it.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

With the Docent


How to Look at a Silver Doctor
   Trout flies have fascinated me from the beginning, and salmon flies, with their complexity and beauty, filled me with wonder from the first.
   In order to have flies with which to fish during the good old days of the Great Depression, I had to teach myself to tie them. Long ago, before this great age of fly-tying today. Only after years of tying the simpler trout fly, did I get up the courage to try a full-dressed, Victorian, Imperial salmon fly. The results may have been good enough to fish with but far from good enough to show off to anybody.
    And so, excusing myself from the considerable expense of the rare and exotic materials for the salmon dressings, not to mention the skill and plain hard work to tie them decently, I gave up the idea.
   And now, here we are today: many are the brilliant young tiers who tie them well, some nearer and nearer to perfection, along the asymptotic curve that arrives infinitely closer and closer to perfection, but can never, ever, quite make it.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Wagner and an Old Man

                  With apologies to Professor Bruns

   What’s the good, what’s the sense, of having a blog? What excuse is there for being a blogger, of presuming to write something that someone might read, if it is not to declare, before it is too late the status of my Wagnerism.  It follows herewith.
   First, I must explain that I fell in the thrall of Rickard Wagner early in high school. In those years, Wagner’s music and the local trout kept me singing inside. Those were the years when Lauritz Melchoir and Kirsten Flagstad owned the roles of Siegfried and Brünnhilde in the titanic Ring cycle of four operas.  I even heard the insufferable and sublime Melchoir live in concert in Denver, which is akin to boasting of having heard Caruso.
   Well before that however, one Saturday afternoon, with my church-musician aunt and uncle visiting from Texas, I lay on the living room floor listening to a live broadcast of Tristan und Isolde from the Met. I must have appeared to my musically conventional uncle quite unzipped by the rapture of the music.  I could not have understood at that time its burning eroticism, but I must have been sensing something of it: its musically overt sex had to have caught me.
    Uncle Pete remarked, as he passed by and saw me there in my innocent’s ecstasy, that when I grew up I would not like that kind of music. I thought about that for a moment and decided then and there that if that is what it meant to “grow up”, well, I simply would not do it. And so I have not-- which for some readers, this essay may only go to prove.
  When it came time to go off to the big war, the one book I took with me was a translation of the Ring operas, with Arthur Rackham’s irresistible and quite erotic illustrations. I wanted somehow to get it into my bloodstream
   Home again in ’45, I sought more Wagner any way I could get it. My 78 rpm shellac discs of the overture to Tannhaüser, of Melchoir and Traubel singing the third act love duet from Tristan, the first act of Walküre, the Met Saturday live broadcasts, and a dear older tenor friend and his musical family around whose piano, with open scores of the operas, we actually tried to sing the stuff. 
   Then in college I discovered maybe the greatest Wagnerite of them all, Bernard Shaw, and his influential book-essay, A Perfect Wagnerite, a way of hearing and thinking about the operas as great political-social, as well as musical, dramatic testaments.
   In 1976, came the Marxist, Bayreuth/Chereau Ring on TV. It had to be the greatest of them all, set, as it was, in the industrial/capitalist nineteenth century. Here is where I first heard James Morris sing the god Wotan. There is nothing under the sun to match his farewell to his daughter Brünhilde  at the end of Walküre.
    Then imagine what it was to be in the  Metropolitan Opera house in Lincoln Center for the entire Ring  cycle on as many nights. And James Morris as Wotan again on all four of them! When he finished his Farewell, and Loge set the mountain aflame around the guilty and sleeping Brünhilde, the audience like to tore the place apart.
   When I was to retire from teaching, the Dean hauled me in to say that in my last semester, I ought to teach something new, a seminar, the idea for which might be something wild in my dreams of life and death, art and…. all the rest of it.
   And so I thought about how ideas could be performed on stage. I thought first of the ideas in Wagner’s Ring. What were they and how might they work on stage? Immediately, then, Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman leapt to mind with its great third act dream scene, Don Juan in Hell. And that meant moving forward, and at last, to that masterpiece of the master of all masters, Mozart, and his Don Giovanni.
   Fifteen kids and I studied, read, and listened to these immense works for those sixteen weeks. I recall how delicious it was. I wonder now if I was really up to it….
   So now, dear friends, we must note that there have of late been  complete Ring cycles all over the place. Every city of any count must now produce this revolutionary work. To top it off, we now have had it in a HD live transmission from the Met in our local movie houses. Not to mention a new production of Wagner’s final work, Parsifal, of which I hope I am worthy.
   And, in these late days, I’m reading what many think is the greatest of all biographies, Ernest Newman’s  gigantic Life of Wagner, in four volumes. In this, my old age, I have come to see Wagner the man in a different light from that of the journalist’s obsession with scandal that I had bought into so easily and for so long. For the gossips, Wagner was always morally reckless, prodigal, luxurious, covetous, faithless, dunning everyone for cash and a constitutional dead-beat in return.
  There is much truth in this indictment; but in it all, Wagner was the very model of the new artist, the real artist as the nineteenth century invented him. This new artist-exemplary, was granted to be radically different from the rest of us-- of a higher order and therefore entitled by the sublimity of his calling to moral privilege. (This idea of the artist is not entirely disappeared.)
    Wagner was what he thought he had to be in order to do what he had to do, which was always against the most impossible odds ever to oppose anyone who ever set out to re-imagine a civilization. In this respect Wagner remains Number One in the history of art.
   But all this pales  faced with the anti-Semitism that developed steadily throughout his career. It seriously compromises his ideology of heilige deutsche Kunst-- holy German art-- as he so exalted it in his comic masterwork, Die Meistersinger.
    For all these reasons, it was difficult to be of his circle. Few fully understood what he was up to, even those, like Franz Liszt, who championed his operas, never quite got it. Still, and only by dint of the most desperate effort, he got his work done. Even though his vision of the theatre-- a music drama on stage-- failed to restore German life and art to its ancient glory, purity, and preeminence  among the nations. But he reinvented us who love the opera. He gave us a glorious new sound of music to live in and new meanings to ancient story. He taught us how to be really serious about life and art-- and how thrilling that could be!
   He was worthy of his hire.
   I am grateful beyond measure that I found Wagner in my nonage, but regret that I was for so long in error about the man. He may have been terribly failed in his vain heroics; yet for singers and orchestras on stage-- and kids like me-- he was a World Hero.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Golden Ones

   I’m going to change. I’m going to reform it altogether.
Why? Because the other Sunday night I watched the Golden Globe awards and saw…

Monday, January 6, 2014

Simple, about Angling for a Change-- and for the New Year

                           Images of Our Flies

   You know what?  Everybody says,”You know what?” these days. I’ll try not to do it again, but you know what, those of us who have loved, studied, collected, and have used artificial fishing flies are today spoiled to death with images of them.
   There is a file here, close at my hand, labeled “Fly Plates”. It is my collection, over seventy years, of colored images of trout and salmon flies. The color photography of flies used to be, by present standards, rather coarse and disappointing. But these early images, rare as they were, were all that we had and we treasured them.