Unlike my father, I’m pretty average at English and don’t profess to have any talent or a command of the language, but like fly fishing, I enjoy writing and do it my way. My father was good at it, I know because he penned many of my essays at school. He planned on writing seriously in his retirement and then six months before that day arrived, he died. It was the knowledge of his dream that kindled a spark in me to try my hand at it.
I’m frequently asked as a regular contributor of magazine articles and as author of Call of the Stream about writing as if I have some kind of expertise or talent. For the record, I don’t. I often struggle to string words together, occasionally they work, often they don’t. I admired and continue to do so the writings of many and that includes Tom Sutcliffe. I remember asking him the kind of questions I now get. One aspect that struck a chord was what the editor of the Natal Witness said to him many years ago, “write as if you are talking to a friend”. I have tried to emulate that thought and write with a relaxed, conversational style.
When did it start? My first published article was a short piece about South African flies in the UK’s well-known Fly Fishing and Fly Tying magazine. I was proud of it. That was sometime in the mid-1990s and then, my first paid-for article in 1998 in the UK’s Trout magazine, a general piece on fly fishing in South Africa. It was followed by my first article in Flyfishing magazine in 2000, titled, “Visit a Secret Valley”. Since then many articles followed in local magazines, the online Catch magazine, Fly Fusion in Canada, Country Life and a variety of other publications.
My first book, Call of the Stream was a huge milestone achievement for me. There was no epiphany or serendipitous moment, but instead it was rather like the slow germination of a seed around 2002. My great friend John Hone and I talked often about publishing a book on our many hikes together in the Drakensberg Mountains, usually in the middle of the night when the hard ground kept us awake. But, it was halfway up Fangs Pass, under a starry sky that we challenged each other to do it, and we did. Finally, in 2008 John published Encounters with the Dragon and I, Call of the Stream – we had achieved our dream. John was sadly diagnosed with lukehemia the day his book landed in South Africa from the printers in Hong Kong, he died in 2013.
With Call of the Stream, I was unexpectedly placed on some unsolicited pedestal, a shaky, precarious pedestal. It was certainly not anything I had anticipated. There was never any motive to seek acclamation or recognition – it was simply for self-satisfaction, a personal achievement and to share some my thoughts and experiences, it was my story. If others enjoyed it that was the reward. Suddenly I was considered to be some kind of fly fishing expert which quite frankly in my mind, I’m not. I received invitations to give talks, demonstrations, occasionally as the guest of honour at functions and was even on the receiving end of gifts – a situation I’m not entirely comfortable with, I possess no special skills or talents, I’m an average caster and fly tyer. I do have some knowledge from years of experience and lessons learnt. Having said all of that I’m thankful for the doors that have been opened for me, for new opportunities and the many wonderful people I have met.
What I did discover is that writing is hard work, a lot like fishing, it takes patience, curiosity, resistance, time and lots of it, a modicum of skill, a willingness to put things together in odd ways, an appetite and appreciation of the process and faith that it’s all somehow worthwhile. Sometimes sanity is questioned when it takes a day to write a paragraph that reads like it was dashed off in a couple of minutes or taking 30 minutes to decide on the position of a comma and then another 30 minutes deciding it should be removed. It’s not unlike fishing for a sighted trout all afternoon just to be able to look at it and then release it.
I think I’m better at writing now than when I started although I can’t really put my finger on what I do differently. I also think a good story has something that isn’t immediately apparent or it gets at something obvious that you didn’t think of before. Other than that, it must be honest, plainspoken and avoid being lit up for ego sake.
Did I read the Call of the Stream after it was published, no. By the time it came out I was done with it. I have moved on to something new and in any case, I’d read the manuscripts dozens of times, carefully, critically, changing this and that, then sometimes changing it back to the way it was. I read the edited copies, the proofed manuscripts and signed them off – when the book arrived I was happy to see it, it gave me a glow of satisfaction. But, I don’t feel like reading it again.
It’s appropriate that I post this piece today because my new book South African Fishing Flies – An Anthology of Milestone Patterns is being unpacked from the printers and will be on the shelves of major bookstores and fly fishing retailers within the coming days.
The seed for this project was sown in early 2011. After 2 years of research, accumulating material and developing the idea, I invited Ed Herbst to co-author the book with me. Another 4 years and we are done, the fruits of our labours reflected in a book we are exceedingly proud of – there is that warm fuzzy feeling coming on.
But, where is the fairness. I never expected to get rich, but having a cup of coffee today in the glass counter was an untouched mouth watering cake selling for R360. I wondered how long it had taken to be baked and at what cost? The new book took 6 years, countless hours or research, staring at a computer screen, thousands of photographs to eventually select a handful, sleepless nights and occasional panic attacks, it retails for R300. As authors we receive a royalty that will buy a litre of milk and a loaf of bread for each copy sold – I struggle with these realities as will every artist and craftsman.
“Happiness lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort” – Franklin D Roosevelt
I have just been asked, “are you going to do another book?” My response, “it’s like asking a comrades marathon runner receiving his Vic Clapham medal after 11 hours of pounding 89 km of hot tar in a scorching 30 degree heat with a gusting head wind. Are you going to run again next year?”