A Life Amongst Fishes and Those Who Catch Them
by Martin Donovan
Departure Publishing, May 2011
I won’t keep you in suspense – I loved this book. I know, maybe as a reviewer I should be a little more reserved about it, but I found this book a delightful read. Yes – I just used the word delightful. My daughter will sometimes watch television with this look where her head tilts to the side and she gets this little smile on her lips. It looks likes she’s transported and blissful (we’re not huge T.V. fans and we don’t let this happen too often). Well that is how I must have looked while reading this book. Although, maybe that look isn’t so charming on a 40-yr old man as it is on a pig-tailed girl, nonetheless…
Keeper, is a collection of stories by river keeper Martin Donovan. Martin Donovan has worked on the rivers for over two decades, first as an apprentice on the Itchen and then a full time keeper on the Test. Although there are a few departures, the stories are primarily concerned with the rivers, the fish that live in them and the folks that mess about on the banks with fly rods in their hands, and of course the men that oversee this all, the riverkeepers. In Mr. Donovan’s words:
This book started when someone asked me how I became a riverkeeper. Since that’s not a question that I could possibly answer in a few sentences, I decided to start jotting things down. During that process, it became clear that my love of the chalkstreams and the fish were subconsciously developed at an early age.
What follows is a collection of stories and events from my childhood days of exploring and fishing the River Test, a few odd jobs that influenced my perspective on life, and twenty-five wonderful years of cutting weeds, chasing poachers, tending fish and guiding anglers.
Donovan brings us up to speed pretty quickly, there are about 20 pages concerning his early years, ending with a description of an ill-fated, death-defying voyage across the English Channel en route to Gibraltar, as a yacht-rigger under the command of an inept captain. The captain took the yacht on a land-hugging, hop-scotching trip along the southern coast of England from Hamble to Falmouth and finally across the Channel. After revealing that “he was still learning the ropes of the navigating side of things”, the captain set off, as Donovan says “into the teeth of a howling gale, knowing full well that as soon as we lost sight of land we were well and truly in the shit.” I won’t spoil the ending of this trip for you.
The chapter serves as a sort of linchpin holding together the two halves of Donovan’s life. It’s a wonderfully literary tale to use as a metaphorical launching point for his adult life and for this book. A young man sets sail under dubious conditions, he’s unprepared, he’s in unfamiliar waters, his life is in the hands of somebody else…it’s pretty good stuff. It’s handled deftly too, without any heavy-handed exposition needlessly pointing out the well-crafted metaphor (he leaves heavy-handed pointing to clumsy reviewers like myself.) Although that particular story is not about rivers and fishing, it is representative of the craftsmanship and subtle literary touch that follows in the rest of the book.
The rest of the book, with few exceptions sticks pretty close to the banks of the river. The stories are presented roughly chronologically, but not strictly so. It is not a memoir in the sense that you’ll have a clear picture of the full timeline of Martin Donovan’s life as a riverkeeper after reading it. It’s not “And then this happened and then this happened, and then this…” What you get is more of a photo album of snapshots of life as a riverkeeper. There are snapshots of the rivers, of the fish, of the guests, of the hard work, of the riverkeepers.
Being a book by an English riverkeeper and being set primarily on the banks of English chalkstreams you might expect Keeper to be a tweedy sort of book, reserved and stodgy. It is not that sort of book. The story of his “interview” and first meeting with renowned keeper and eventual mentor, Ron Holloway is funny and exemplary. After posting a letter to Mr. Holloway, riverkeeper on the Martyr Worthy beat of the Itchen, Donovan gets a call at eight in the morning from Holloway, inviting him to a meeting.
After taking down a few directions, I was bombing down the M27 feeling excited, nervous and indeed slightly confused. Within five days of writing a letter to the Avon Advertiser, I was on my way to meet a famous riverkeeper of a premier beat on a world renowned chalkstream.
As I drew closer to our meeting point, I reflected back on the evening prior and cursed that last pint of Guinness and the chicken madras. I wished I had washed before jumping into the car; I looked like a scarecrow, I felt half-pissed, and smelt like a curry house.
The rest of the journey was spent with the windows wide open, a pathetic attempt to disperse my pungent aroma while my Dad’s advice rang in my ears, “It’s all about creating a good first impression.” It was with nervous apprehension that I parked the car and walked down to the bridge for my meeting.
If you asked any schoolchild to draw what they thought a riverkeeper looked like, each drawing would bear an uncanny resemblance to Ron Holloway…As he came towards me I can vividly remember thinking, blimey he looks worse than I do!
I immediately liked him.
He shook my hand firmly and welcomed me to Martyr Worthy. I got a definite whiff of both alcohol and curry, although I presumed it was my own breath rebounding off his rather large frame.
“Had a bloody good curry in Arlseford last night,” he said with a bloody good curry smile that I would recognize anywhere.
“Tad too much to drink, too, a bit delicate this morning,”
I almost loved this bloke and we’d only said hello.
Keeper is filled with interesting and likeable characters. And though I’m sure that there are plenty of snobby jerks (gentry, celebrities, business tycoons, etc.) that come to fish the chalkstreams, he doesn’t spend much time complaining about or discussing these sorts. There are a few funny stories at the expense of those types but he doesn’t linger on it. Mostly Donovan’s happy to keep it good natured, and he’s more interested in talking about the people and guests that he likes rather than focusing on those that he doesn’t.
I cut my fly fishing teeth on the limestone streams of Pennsylvania and have always imagined that I’ve got some fly fishing connection to the chalkstreams of England. Though this connection is tenuous at best, it surely had something to do with my enjoyment of the book. It gave me a point of reference. I can think about walking along the banks of Pennsylvania’s Big Spring, LeTort and Falling Spring when I read about the Itchen and the Test. I can’t help but wonder what these streams would be like if they were in the hands of riverkeepers like their counterparts in England. Of course this fantasy never gets too far along because if they were like those streams in England I’d very likely never have a chance to fish them. But the connection to English rivers and to this book is not predicated only on a familiarity with limestone streams and spring creeks. As American fly fishers our lineage is, of course, primarily rooted in the British Isles. And so any fly angler with a taste for history will feel that connection while reading this book.
To the point of fly fishing history, I want to be careful not to misrepresent this book. This book most certainly is not a book about fly fishing history, the history of English chalkstreams, or riverkeepers. Bits of that history come though in the telling, but this is a essentially a personal book about one man’s experiences as a riverkeeper.
As I mentioned earlier, this is not a memoir where Martin Donovan gives us a full accounting of his life as a riverkeeper. It is collection of stories that gives us a glimpse into that life. These vignettes seem to be carefully chosen and crafted. A passage in the chapter entitled “A Fisherman’s Seat” neatly reflects Donovan’s writing style and this book.
My newfound conclusion is that the sit-on furniture, whether a chair in the front room or a seat on the riverbank, is absolutely fundamental to enjoying a good sit-down.
Building a seat next to the river is not quite as simple as you might first imagine. The construction of the seat is easy enough, especially with the mastery of intricate chainsaw joinery…
The real essence of a good seat is in the positioning. It might only take me a half an hour to build a seat from start to finish, but before the first nail has been driven, I will have studied the proposed area of construction from every conceivable angle. I will have viewed the jobsite from across the river, from upstream, from downstream, and occasionally from a tree limb to gain aerial perspective. Too close to the water, not enough room to get the mower past, directly opposite a good salmon lay, wrong backdrop, sun in the eyes – there are many things to consider, any of which if wrongly chosen will render the seat useless.
Well, Martin Donovan has done a good job and he’s considered the angles. The riverside seat that he’s constructed for us is positioned just so, and it affords us a good view of the river and its denizens, piscatorial and human alike. The seat and the backdrop is perfect for a good sit-down and a good read.
Disclosure: I received no compensation, monetary or otherwise for this review. However, I was supplied with this book by the publisher.