Having lived in Great Britain for long stretches of time, I have a great predilection for British literature, and in particular British fishing literature. Most of my time in London was spent split between the British Library (both at its former location in the British Museum and its current residence) and the Public Records Office. On weekends, however, I was often able to get away on day trips away from my home-away-from-home on Tavistock Square. One such journey took me to a little tackle shop in Islington that specialized in fishing rods. It is the vision of this store that comes to mind as I read the new book by rodmaker Robert Kirk entitled A Fishy Tale…Missin’…Gone Fishin’ (UK: Merlin Massara Publishing, 2009—£14.99).
A Fishy Tale is the story of one man’s life spent fishing and in the fishing tackle trade. It’s the kind of autobiography that was much in vogue in the 1960s and 1970s and that, sadly, we don’t see nearly enough today. Kirk had a wide and varied career, and he recounts many stories beginning with growing up in the 1930s. It was in Depression Britain that he first gained a love of angling, fishing the Thames, the River Meuse and the Royal Parks.
Kirk was fifteen when the Second World War broke out, plunging Europe into the abyss. If the lamps went out all across Europe in 1914, as Sir Edward Grey famously quipped, they were forever broken in September 1939 when the Nazis war machine broke like the tide across the Polish border. It soon swept up young Robert Kirk as well, and while his war experiences are difficult to write about (his father was killed in the first bombing raid on London), they are recollected with precision. He spent the years 1944-1946 as an R.A.F. gunner on board Lancaster heavy bombers.
The war, of course, allowed for little fishing, but upon his return he was hired as a salesman in the newly reopened City branch of the Hardy Bros. Firm at Royal Exchange. This post-war period—when Britain, it must be remembered, was still on war rations until the mid-1950s—is one of the most fascinating parts of the book. “Our first job was to go down the road to Moss Bros. to be measured for the standard company dress,” Kirk remembers. “This was a black jacket and waistcoat and pinstripe trousers, so we looked pretty smart. After a couple of hectic weeks unpacking boxes of rods and other tackle, we were ready to open up the shop again.”
Kirk’s customers in the immediate post-war era included some interesting characters, including Lord Ashburton and Field Marshall Viscount Alanbrooke. Eventually he took over Hardy’s Pall Mall branch, but his tenure there was short as he was headhunted by rival firm Ogden Smith and soon after moved on to Halliday’s.
Eventually, in the late 1950s, Kirk bought a small tackle shop in East Molesey, just a hundred yards from the River Thames. Here he sold tackle including custom rods built by both himself and his friend Ted Cheeseman. The fishing stories here are outstanding and involve a lot of familiar 1950s and 1960s public figures. As spinning exploded in popularity, Kirk prospered. For example, he was the sole agent for C.P. Swing spinning lures made by Au Coin de Péche of Paris, popular in both America and Europe at the time. His most popular rod was the custom built 10 and 12-foot Spanish reed match rods, rods so difficult he could only make two per week.
Kirk was a fine rodmaker who signed his work “Hand Built by R.C. Kirk, Hampton Court.” Much of the middle part of the book is spent discussing the intricacies of the tackle market in Britain as well as the details of custom rod making. Included in this are invaluable memories of the first London tackle trade shows beginning in 1959.
By 1962, in what Kirk refers to as the biggest mistake of his life, he relocated to larger quarters. Things did not work out and he was forced out in 1965; he took work soon after with the East Anglian Rod Company as a rod builder. In 1976, he relocated to Ireland and opened a small rodmaking factory. He eventually retired and returned back to Britain in 1988.
The book can be a bit difficult to follow at times, as chronologically it does not always follow a linear line (the 1960 London Trade Show is discussed well before the 1959 one, for example). However, the book fills in an important gap in British angling history. So much that is written on the history of sportfishing in the U.K. details the big firms, such as Hardy Bros., Allcocks, etc. We simply do not have enough accounts of small tackle firms like East Anglian Rod Co. or H.W. Aiken, to name just two such concerns.
A Fishy Tale is an excellent account of fishing in post-war Britain, and a unique and interesting story of a rodmaker who lived life successfully on his own terms. Revealing details not available in other books, Robert Kirk’s narrative is a welcome addition to any angling library.
The book is available from many U.K. bookstores and also directly from the publisher by Clicking Here.
-- Dr. Todd