The Peripatetic Reviewer
THE River Test as it flows through the village of Stockbridge is the most famous and exacting trout stream in the British Isles, and it was there that I went for my initiation this spring. If ever there was a river made to order for anglers, this is it. It is a chalk stream and spring-fed, which means that there is a cold flow of water even on the hottest summer days. The banks had been freshly cut on the day of my arrival in early May, which meant that the fish — the brown trout and the rainbows — had an alarming view of anyone who stood erect at the water’s edge. The stream itself is gin clear, and the current moves at a perfect pace for a dry fly.
I was lucky to be there, for the Beats (approximately four hundred yards of the main river and its attending sluiceways) in the vicinity of Stockbridge are booked solid from the end of April to the first of July, so I was told by Miss Kay Potts when I telephoned to ask permission.
“Well, Miss Potts,”I said, “I shall be praying that one of your members may come down with an unexpected attack of measles while I am still in London. If this happens, will you please be sure to telephone me? I shall be praying hard.”
That was on Tuesday, and on Thursday morning there she was. “ Your prayers have been answered,” she said. “One of our partners has just telephoned to say that he must go off to the hospital for a check-up, and he has released four and a half days for the week of May 7.”
Since those were days when I was supposed to be seeing authors and publishers in London, my conscience would not let me play hooky for them all, but I did reserve Beat No. 5 for the evening fishing Monday and Beat No. 8 for the whole of Tuesday.
A cultivated English chalk stream has nothing quite like it in America. The Test, which is seldom wider than forty yards, is here controlled by a system of weirs so that the depth of the stream is fairly constant; and breaking off from the main current are shallow, narrow canals forming small marshy islands before they rejoin. This means that there will be good pools at either end of the island and that the brown trout, who seldom move from their favorite lairs, will be dimpling the water at regular intervals when the time comes for them to feed on the new hatch of flies. They are late risers and are seldom hungry before 11 A.M. The evening hatch of flies will be the big one, and the finest fishing, when the water is really roiled, comes after sunset.
The evening before my initiation had been blustering and cold with no hatch whatever, but that blessed Tuesday was full of sun; the wind had shifted to the southwest with just enough of a ripple to help the upstream casts of the amateur. My wife and I took a packed lunch and left it and our extra sweaters in the shade of a big willow. I had Beat No. 8, which is a perfect beauty, with a big island with good pools at either end, and the fast water going under the bridge to Longstock and emptying into a wide, spacious pool with a narrow aisle runoff to the south of the bridge. This I decided to reserve until after sunset. Meantime I fished the island and by 11:30 it was a problem which rings to follow. For the fish were rising in number. They were bottom-feeding, showing their fins and tails, and they paid no attention whatever to Mr. Lunn’s Particular. So I shifted to the Blue Upright and had three good strikes in the next fifteen minutes, each one of which I failed to hook.
I was striking too fast, and when Mr. Mott, the head keeper and a great gentleman, came by, he said, “Why they really seem to have discovered the Blue Upright. Now let me show you.”
And show me he did. He pulled up his boots and he got me down on my knees, and since my Wellingtons were short and the banks very wet, I was soon well soaked. (I was to pay for this with three days of stiff rheumatism, but no matter.) He showed me where to place the fly, and he also showed me howto hold my breath until I’d said to myself, “God save — the Qween!” and then hit. Together we netted two good fish before lunch, the larger being two pounds two ounces, and the other one pound twelve ounces, and I took another brace of about the same size in the gloaming.
One good fish was feeding beside the gunwale of a boat moored to the bank. It was an impossible cast to bring the fly over him with the wind blowing into the boat, but when I suggested casting it downstream, “Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” said Mr. Mott. “You see, sir, the Test is for upstream dry-fly fishing only.”
Of the fish I lost, I remember best a great green and silver cruiser who came out from under a bank and showed me his whole perpendicular beauty as he rose straight up to turn and close on the fly. I shall sleep with that picture for some months to come.
No fishing day is complete without at least one good bumble; I made several, and the best as dark was coming on. I had been fishing the lovely capacious pool under the bridge, fishing the shallows into which the trout had moved after sunset. One strong fish had been hooked and netted, and he was such a beauty that after applying the priest to him I left him lying there in my net on the grass while I drifted back to look at the water. A small disturbance was going on in the shallow canal to my left. I had been drying my fly with false casts, and now without much thinking about it I let it fall in the little runoff. There was an explosion and I realized that I was into a bigger fish with my net hopelessly beyond reach. The fish and I played each other up and down the bank; he showed no signs of exhaustion, and this might have gone on until dawn if the English angler and his wife who had the Beat below me had not suddenly made their appearance crossing the weir. “ Would you, like a good guy, loan me your net?” I called.
He came running, and after a certain amount of sputter the trout came ashore. “But you really should carry your net with you,” admonished the Brigadier, after he had weighed my prize. “Otherwise you may find it rather awkward.” Yes.
In the gorge
A Single Pebble by John Hersey (Knopf, $3.00) is a rewarding novel; it is clearly thought and beautifully projected on the screen of the imagination with a word choice which reminds me of Willa Cather. It makes good the promise he gave us in his war novels. And symbolically it induces what is rather rare in books these days: a feeling of humility toward the East.
It is the story of the Yangtze River in China and of a long boat trip made in the upper gorges of the Yangtze by an American engineer, a youthful dam surveyor who has been sent out in the 1920s to explore the possibilities of a vast power project. He makes the trip to Ichung, the gate of the gorges, on a British gunboat, for a thousand miles the river wide and sluggish, the landscape flat. Then because of the bandits and revolutionaries he transships to a Chinese junk for the final, hazardous two hundred miles, and his initiation begins. The junk is one hundred and two feet over-all, with a nineteen-foot beam, built of tough cypress, with a cargo of cotton and a crew of forty-odd trackers to tow it through the gorges.
The engineer (who is the narrator) is young and cocky and very full of all he knows. He looks down on the Old Big, the owner of the junk, who is too niggardly to employ a pilot. He has compassion — with a little sex—for Su-ling, whom he first mistakes for the daughter of the owner and who with her magical soft voice gradually reveals to him the timeless poetry of the river; and he is mystified and rather antagonized by Old Pebble, the head tracker, a strong, passionate man of the river, who guides their destinies and with his singing sets the rhythm and lifts the morale. “The trackers, doing the work of animals,” writes Mr. Hersey, “sustained their hard hours by listening to antique melodies and fantasies which the head tracker constantly sang as he, too, tugged at the top end of the towline. They marked time for his songs with a repeated unison cry at the moment when all of them together planted each footstep: ‘Ayah! . . . Ayah! . . .’ This rhythmic work-cry had an indescribably poignant sound. The head tracker’s formal title as a crewman was Noise Suppressor. With a thread of sweet song he was supposed to suppress the groan-shout that marked each painful step. He sang songs of an incongruous beauty, that were like dreams — of palaces and of roasted doves’ wings and of the daughter of the mist laying her cheek and her love on a prince’s pillow; while they, hauling, protested: ‘Ayah! . . . Ayah! . . .’”
Old Pebble is young enough to attract Su-ling; he is given to sudden rages when things go wrong, and he resents the condescension of the American. His temper is something to see.
The engineer is any one of us entering an ancient, alien country in the conceit of our supremacy and knowledge; we take it for granted that the old lore will be superstitious and ignorant, and only when we become dependent on the natives and see, as Mr. Hersey makes us see, the fearful power of that rising water in the gorges, only then do we begin to understand and respect the tenacity and the loyalty which fear change and hate the magic of our money. The author never labors the point, for the narrative runs as swift and compelling as the stream in the gorge. But he makes it clear that in learning humility the engineer has come of age.
The days of the frigate
In The Age of Fighting Sail (Doubleday, $5.00) C. S. Forester, father of Captain Hornblower and great narrator of the sea, has told the story of the naval War of 1812, and a thrilling and audacious story it is — an odds-against-odds struggle, a David and Goliath in which the American David had as his captains such conspicuously able seamen as Decatur and Hull, Bainbridge and Rodgers, Lawrence and Porter, and Isaac Chauncey.
The story begins on the usual note of American unpreparedness. Although the Madison Administration was clearly headed for war, Congress refused to vote funds for any ships of the line; frigates would be enough for us, and not too many of them. Fortunately, as Mr. Forester points out, the building of the American ships — the Constitution, the President, and the United States — was entrusted to Joshua Humphreys, who combined originality with professional ability and who constructed within the limitations a frigate more powerful than any yet thought of.
It was also fortunate that the war broke out at the hour of England’s pride — the hour when pride was growing into vanity and when the Admiralty seemed possessed by a “semi-religious confidence in the national destiny.” The Cabinet, watching Bonaparte on his way to Moscow and Wellington in his crucial campaign in the Peninsula, gave little thought to the American Navy’s dash and enterprise and none whatever to the possibility of the swift conversion of our merchant fleet to privateering. Wellington with more prescience saw what was coming, and when American privateers working off the Portsmouth coast captured British cavalry and ammunition, he wrote in protest: “If they only take the ship with our shoes, we must halt for six weeks.”
In the meantime, the frigates, superbly handled, built up a series of five unbroken victories, the first rude defeats suffered by British captains after twenty years of continuous winning. It came as a shock to London, and the author lets us in most amusingly on the bickering and anger of the countermeasures.
Few writers at any time have told of sea action so well, and the blood is stirred by Mr. Forester’s account of the early fights: of Hull’s masterly handling of the Constitution when, broadside to broadside, he subdued the Guerrière in fifteen minutes; of how the United States under cool Decatur dismasted the Macedonian, took her surrender, rerigged the captive, and sailed her into Newport with the Stars and Stripes flying over the British ensign; of the Hornet’s destruction of the Peacock (“eggshells armed with hammers”), the British brig a shambles, the American sloop hardly scarred; and of the Wasp’s destruction of the Frolic at the range of half a pistol shot. In words like these Mr. Forester tells of the lighting: “They were rolling until their gun muzzles were sometimes under water and the spray flung up between the ships drenched them both, and amid the spray and smoke and confusion the gunners, bending with their rammers as they loaded, felt the outboard end of their rammers strike the side of the other ship across the gap as the ships rolled toward each other.”
There is only one difference from the Biblical analogy—the British Goliath did not lie down forever, as the merciless blockade and the heavy losses suffered later by the Chesapeake and the President were to show.