Sunday, 6 December 2015

Walton: Anoraks, Anglicans and angling.

Wikipedia, the modern source of all knowledge defines an "anorak" in British slang as "a person who has a very strong interest, perhaps obsessive, in a niche subject. This subject may be unacknowledged and not understood by the general public. The term is often used synonymously with geek or nerd." I am a Walton anorak.
Most anglers have heard  of Izaak Walton, many have a copy of his Compleat Angler on their bookshelves, but few have read it. I have. Of those who have read it, opinion is divided- his book (the third most reprinted literary work in the English language, after the Bible and the works of Shakespear) is either loved or loathed .... the "Marmite" of literary tomes. Jeremy Paxman and the late Sir Michael Horden both disliked it, while others have been charmed by it. I'm happy to declare myself a fan of Walton's.
The details of Walton's life are well known- his unusual longevity, his humble beginnings as a publican's son, his successful business life, his introduction into literary society, his friendships with prominent churchmen, his two marriages, his unlikely friendship with Charles Cotton, and his love of fishing and the pastoral life. He lived through the plague, the fire of London, the English civil War, the Commonwealth and the Restoration of the Monarchy, and quipped that in writing about fishing he had "made a recreation of a recreation."
That Walton was a religious man, and a devout Christian, is well known. "The Compleat Angler" often references his faith, or deviates into praise of the Almighty before returning to descriptions of fishing days, of rural idylls and tactics and techniques, and as a clergyman it's no surprise that this aspect of Walton interests me. He quaintly argues for the purity of angling as a pastime on the basis of Jesus' propensity for choosing fishermen to be key amongst his followers, and often transports the reader from the riverbank to loftier themes of eternal consequence. However, what is less well known is that most literary critics and experts see "The Compleat Angler" as being a book that- intentionally- works simultaneously on two levels, and that has a deliberate religious sub-text ... a religious allegory, if you will.

The thinking is, that the "Compleat Angler" is not only an angling manual, but also an Anglican apologia. A coded defence of Anglicanism against the more extreme forms of Puritanism. There is a myth that, in the English Civil War, the Parliamentarians were Protestant and the Royalists Catholic-leaning, but such an oversimplification misunderstands the complexities of the political and religious affiliations of the day. Walton was very much a Protestant, with theology, from what we can tell, that was nothing more or less than credally orthodox Protestantism, but he was also a man who believed in order in society, had a high view of the place of the Monarchy, was a committed Anglican and a lover of the Prayer Book, and as such was a known Royalist sympathiser - it was for this reason that he left London for the relative safety of the countryside.
The attributes that Walton expects to find in the angler are also those that he believes to characterise the true Anglican. The angler, in Walton's book, is contrasted with the hunter, a belligerent, contentious character, quite unlike the moderate, peace-loving angler who Walton describes as one who (borrowing a phrase from 1 Thessalonians Chapter 4:11) "studies to be quiet." The hunter, of course, is the extreme Puritan in allegorical form. Walton's eagerness to link angling as an art beloved of the original Apostles is a theological attempt to decry congregational Puritanism as being in some sense less an expression of the apostolic faith than Anglicanism. Walton saw Anglicanism as a "via media" between the "top-down" authoritarian magisterium of Roman Catholicism and what was, to his tidy mind, the anarchic and aggressive tendencies of some in the Puritan movement.
And this- to me- is part of the fascination of Walton; a book which informs us that the chub is "the fearfullest of fishes" and can recommend that when fishing for perch we keep our worms in a bait tin on a bed of fennel along with other observations and angling instructions, while also being  acknowledged as the greatest example of pastoral literature in the English language and simultaneously functioning as a work of theological polemic can only be, in anyone's estimation, a work of genius.
What Walton would have made of modern angling with its obsession with ruthless and unromantic pseudo-scientific efficiency, or modern Anglicanism with its large-scale capitulation to theological "wooliness" can only be speculated upon ........ I suspect he would have been disappointed in both, and if he was, I for one, would wholeheartedly concur.



1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written and illustrated Jon. I would like to regard myself as a peace-loving angler Christian. But there are many, many passionate Christians that are hunters too, especially in America.