Thoughts While Fishing

To write of fishing without so much as mentioning I. Walton is just faintly possible, but to overlook Walton without offending angry hosts of gentle anglers is beyond anyone’s powers. Let me therefore spell fishing as fyshynge; this is a perfunctory bob, not to Walton’s reasonable ghost, but to his unreasonable living idolaters, the men who would do anything for him except read him. Having given this pleasure to so many at practically no cost to myself, I pass hurriedly on.

I was fishing (pronounced fyshshynggge) for sea trout this morning. Nearly every one I caught ran about nine or ten ounces, until a little fellow turned up who weighed scarcely two. I killed the big ones cheerfully enough, but I felt very sorry indeed for the tiny chap. You can tell, from my calling him a chap and a fellow, how sorry I felt. If I called him a big bum, a trained (and, I hope, housebroken) psychologist would deduce that I didn’t give a darn for him. And the psychologist would not err. (Who ever heard of a psychologist erring? It is the psychologist’s children who turn out wrong, not the psychologist.) If this little fish had not been fatally well-hooked I might have spared his life and got cheap pleasure from my kindly act.

The sole reason for my sorrow was his size; not his actual size, but his size compared with that of the others I had caught. If I had been fishing for shiners, to use as cod bait, and had taken this small trout, I should have been delighted to welcome him with gently smiling jaws. The little fish suffered no more then the big ones, but my conscience, that gifted liar, told me that he suffered a great deal more and deserved death a great deal less. If I were fishing for whale and caught a poor little eighty-pound salmon, I’d feel the same way.

Whatever seems small provokes our pity, with the possible exception of Herren Goebbels and Hitler, who are both uncommonly sawed-off little growths, I understand. And insects, perhaps; I am sure no one feels uncomfortably sorry for mosquitoes.

I think it was Chesterton who pointed out that the true patriot dwells lovingly upon the smallness of his country and not the immensity of it. People want to be taken back to their little grey homes in the west. Great big homes in the west, no matter how grey, cast few nostalgic spells. It is not just a question of taxes, apparently. Everyone wants a little house. Mr. Yeats and Miss Millay wanted to build little shanties on far-off shores and never go home again. If they had wanted comfortable bungalows with plenty of room for everything, their songs would have failed to move the reader.

Similarly, when we discover an interesting shop and take credit for it as somehow, mysteriously, part of our own property, we must call it a little shop. Its proprietor becomes a little man. ‘Oh, I know a little man who makes absolutely anything out of pewter.’ You couldn’t know a big man who did that. If a woman comes in to ‘do’ your apartment for you, she must be a little woman. ‘Oh, a little woman comes in and tidies up.’ If you said an enormous woman came in, it would sound dreadful; the flat wouldn’t seem tidy at all after that. Anything you buy from a peddler, if it is useful or interesting or pathetic, comes from a little man at the door. What if D’Artagnan’s poor friend had been, not a little milliner, but a tremendous one? Imagination not only boggles but breaks down at once.

But I digress. I intended to speak solely of size in animals. Why is it that we can feel sorry for a mouse and not for a rat? The rat’s size is nothing very amazing. He seems large only when compared with a mouse, and the curious thing is that we always do compare him with a mouse. You can feel sorry for a poor little baby elephant but never for a great big rat. What is charming in a miniature dog may be purely horrible in a Great Dane. And yet a Shetland pony, larger than any dog, can support in comfort a bad character that would ruin a Great Dane, simply because he is smaller than a Percheron. You may have a hundred reasons for refusing to kick a Shetland pony in the stomach, but chief of these is the fact that he is so much smaller than anyone expects a horse to be.

To return to mice for a moment, it occurs to me that if Burns had found the ‘wee, sleekit’ fellow in his glass of barley bree, he might not have called him a ‘big soggy blustering murderous beastie,’ but he would have been shocked to find anything so gross in a small dram.

‘Little one, O little one,’ sings James Stephens to the rabbit. ‘Little hunted hares,’ sings Mr. Hodgson. Not big ones. Never big oues, I suppose a judicious use of the word ‘little’ has produced more good poetry and more passable fake poetry than any other single word in the language.

That is all I thought about while fishing this morning. But it is more than most people think about while fishing.

Tomorrow, if they are biting nicely, I hope to think of nothing at all.