Eden Phillpotts, Pretense, and Fly Fishing in the 1800’s and Today

First Edition of Folly and Fresh Air, 1891

First Edition of Folly and Fresh Air, 1891

I received an email today from a very old and reputable outdoor company, with a subject line that read, “complete your look with the right accessories.”  Of course, I found this line a bit ridiculous.  I fully realize, though, that many fly fishers are more concerned about appearances than they are the practice of fishing and the other activities that go with it.

Things seem a bit different than they were, say, fifty years ago, here in the States.  Back then, most fly fishers probably would have been casting a glass rod with an automatic reel or Medalist attached.  At least, that was certainly the case in the West.  It’s also true that there were simply fewer fancy fishing clothes in which the fisherperson of the time may have donned her or himself.  That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of other gadgets marketed to fly fishers.

Still, there is a segment of the fly fishing population that has always been concerned more with appearances than fishing.  And I would be less-than-honest, if I did not admit that my own eyes are often caught be a particularly nice piece of gear, wearable or otherwise.  My tastes are a bit eccentric, however (look at the books I read!)  and not so much affected to impress any one other than a community of fellow sartorial weirdos in my head.

Regardless, one of the most amusing examples a fly fisher obsessed with appearances is a fictional one.  This is a young man, who is the central character in Eden Phillpotts’ (b. 1862, d. 1960) Folly and Fresh Air.  The book, narrated in the first-person, was published by the prolific and very successful English author in 1891.  The young man in question is rather prone to exaggeration.  He attempts to impress his family and colleagues by claiming fly fishing prowess.  Before long, he has accidentally talked himself into taking a fishing trip to Devon with his brother, who actually does know how to fish.  In Devon, the two brothers make friends with locals, find romance, and even catch a few trout.

The funniest part of the book comes toward the beginning, when the central character visits a tackle shop to gear up.  Actually knowing nothing about fishing, but trying to pretend that he does, he makes a buffoon of himself.  Following are a few passages from this hilarious scene:

Finding an admirable establishment, I entered it and asked to see some fly rods.  I said—

” I happen to want a new one.”

Note the ‘new.’  This, if properly understood, must have led the man to suppose that I owned hundreds of faithful, well tried, old rods, and now, just for the mad freak of the thing, thought about adding another to my collection.  But it was not understood properly.  The person in the shop appeared to be upset about some private concern, and answered, shortly—

“We never sell any but new ones.”

Then he dived out of sight behind his counter, and brought up a fishing-rod.  He put it together without a word and handed it to me.  I took it from him, weighed it and frowned.  Then I shut one eye and looked down the handle, as though I purposed shooting something with it.  Meanwhile the man regarded  me in stony silence.  I began to yearn for a word of encouragement from him.  Even censure would have been more bearable than the look he cast at me.  I felt as if I was doing wrong, grew nervous, and flourished the thing to show technical familiarity with it.  This action fetched down a gas globe, which should have made conversation.  I took the liberty of pointing out that anybody showing technical familiarity with a trout rod here, must destroy that glass globe every time the man renewed it.  Still his taciturnity was such that I grew foolhardy, and advised him to modify the whole scheme of his shop.  This stung him into retort.  He said any alteration would depend up the extent of my custom.  If I could limit my visits, and mention the date of them beforehand, he thought he should risk leaving things as they were.  For which intentionally rude remark I snubbed him. (19-20).

Things go on like this for some length, until the shopkeeper realizes he has a sucker on his hands.  Eventually, the young man leaves the establishment with “all the best things in the shop” (21).

No doubt, if Phillpotts’ fictional character were an actual person and alive today, he would have been mightily excited to receive the email that was sent to me this morning.  And, perhaps, after acquiring the latest zipper-crotched waders, expedition quality wading  jacket, retro trucker cap or fedora, and so on, he would have actually gone fishing, as the character in the book does, and fallen in love with the pastime.  No doubt, there are worse things than well-dressed fly fishers — well-dressed bankers, politicians, and used-car salespersons, for instance.  Then again, a lot of those well-dressed fly fishers probably are bankers.

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