Fort entertains no such divisiveness but addresses in turn the respective passions animating the three or four million devotees who are still said to enjoy fishing in Britain: obsessive carp fishers, rustic eel trappers and plain old coarse anglers going for anything from tiddler-sized gudgeon to monster catfish. One of the best sections of the book covers the hobby’s heyday, when there were 200 fishing clubs in the city of Sheffield alone.
On the page, Fort comes across as a bookish, daydreamy kind of guy. Fishing is by its very nature a meditation as well as an action. Unlike an American angler, Fort’s very British mind – Eton and BalIiol – doesn’t wander easily to excavations of the self but rather to ruminations about history and class. ‘I like to picture Prior More of Worcester on a fine summer’s morning in, say, 1521,’ he writes, as he sets off on his bike to find the original commissioned ponds, a botched journey which nonetheless yields a great deal of information about the pond as an ‘expression of status and wealth’ and on the carp imported as early as 1462 from the Low Countries to populate them. Fort is nothing if not intrepid.
Sixty years ago, one hot summer’s day on the Thames, Fort felt the tug of a perch on the end of his line and something was ignited that has burnt inside him ever since. Casting Shadows is a beautifully written, unexpectedly humorous and fastidiously researched expression of gratitude for creatures and for a sport that have given Fort so much.
Who but Fort would have thought of writing a book about the A303? Or lawns, or eels? The world would be a poorer place without his eccentric passions, but maybe it is fortunate for the national GDP that there is only one of him, because he stubbornly chronicles what interests him, not what might make him richer. He is a master fisherman, and one of the many virtues of this social history of the sport is that he is an unsnobbish one. While casting for salmon has always been the toffs’ choice, Fort prefers the humble chub, “a solid, reliable, handsome citizen”, albeit inedible.