Friday 9 May 2014

'When no bait avails...'

"Your husband is very lucky," observed Smithers,
"to have ornithology to fall back upon when fishing fails."

— Cyril Hare, Death Is No Sportsman

Now that - taken from a little-known English 'golden age' whodunit by a barely remembered author - is not the kind of quotation you expect to find as epigraph to a Kay Ryan poem. But such it is, and here is the poem it heads, When Fishing Fails (in the 1994 collection Flamingo Watching, collected again in The Best of It)...

'When fishing fails, when no bait avails,
and nothing speaks in liquid hints
of where the fishes went for weeks,
and dimpled ponds and silver creeks
go flat and tarnish, it's nice if
you can finish up your sandwich,
pack your thermos, and ford
this small hiatus towards
a second mild and absorbing purpose.'

That half-rhyme of 'thermos' and 'purpose' is surely unique...
 As for 'Cyril Hare', this was the pseudonym of a county court judge, Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark. He was born, I was interested to learn, at Mickleham Hall in the village of that name, hard by butterfly-haunted Box Hill, and he died in the nearby hamlet of West Humble (where the great scientist James Jeans also lived). I knew the name 'Cyril Hare' from my father's collection of green-and-white Penguin whodunits, but never read one as far as I recall. The best known of them, Tragedy at Law, has been widely praised as one of the best murder mysteries set in the legal world, and has never been out of print. A couple of other titles have been recently reprinted, but Death Is No Sportsman is not among them. Apparently it's an ingenious tale in which the investigating detective cracks the case by acquiring a knowledge of the finer points of fly fishing. I hope Kay Ryan enjoyed it...

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