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Review: A Jerk on One End by Robert Hughes

I bought this book many years ago, when I still I hadn't forgiven Robert Hughes
his tantrum against postmodernism, The Culture of Complaint, which ties with
Harold Bloom's The Western Canon as the book I've most disagreed with. Then I
tried reading Goya, which I didn't finish on account of how flimsy it was.
Nevertheless I keep reading Hughes because he's a good writer and smart, and it's
always wise to keep the flint of your opinions sharp by rubbing it against smart
contrary people. So this book, A Jerk At One End, was like a taunt – it's about
fishing, a sport I neither knew about nor cared about.

A slim volume of only a hundred pages, it's in three sections. In the first two
('Salt Water' and 'Fresh Water') Hughes effortlessly weaves together personal
reminiscences with Hemingway, Longfellow, shark stories, 16th century poetry,
Roman history, Christian history and even a theory as to how trout and other
salmonids were socialized to become aristocratic game fish. So far, this virgin to
piscatorial writing had no trouble paying attention.

His descriptions are as evocative as ever: “The jump of a tarpon is startling and
scary. It can go as high as three metres. The fish explodes out of the water,
twisting and whipping, a column of quicksilver in a storm of foam. It is an
epiphany. Nothing is more silver than a tarpon in the sunlit air.”

Hughes' ruminations into the sport of recreational fishing reveal that it is

indeed a sport, and like any other, you must love the playing of it, not just the
winning, or you won't last – fishing is time-intensive, expensive and often
frustrating when you confront that indisputable conclusion that 'fishing largely
consists of not catching fish'.

I felt a curious warmth towards Hughes for his 'Salt Water' story of not being
able to spear a tuna after looking into its hypnotic eye. This contrasted with the
unexplainable revulsion I felt towards his 'Fresh Water' moment where he refers to
the first trout he ever caught as 'him' (“I roasted him in the embers for lunch”,
“I ate every scrap of him”).

These first two sections are the eloquent discourse of a man passionate about his
hobby, admirably rescued from indulgence by his learnedness. Then comes 'Troubled
Water', the final section. Hughes' intended form for this book becomes suddenly
clear: the first two sections are lyrics, while the last is a warning. Here, the
sentimentality and nostalgia disappears, and we receive a treatise on the impact
of human commercial fishing. Whether or not he intended it, Hughes' form is
identical to Aldo Leopold's in A Sand County Almanac, a book I love and which must
rank with Thoreau's Walden as amongst the most influential books of environmental
writing. After drawing in the reader with achingly beautiful descriptions of a
twelve-month cycle in Wisconsin, Leopold discusses other North American
wildernesses where marshes are drained, wolves are killed for sport, rivers are
dammed with disregard for consequences. Leopold then asserts a 'land ethic' to
change “the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain
member and citizen of it” - all this in the 1940s.

Hughes begins 'Troubled Water' by asking what it would be like if the role of fish
and angler were reversed – if you went onto a pier to buy a hot dog and suddenly
felt a choking pain in your gullet and were pulled over the railing into the
ocean; you'd be dragged to the sea bed where you either drown or are killed by a
blow to the head. From this shock opening, Hughes pulls back to say that nothing
we humans do can rival the savagery of what fish do to each in their hunt for
food; what really matters is not what individual fish feel but what is happening
to their species.
And we cannot deny that human technology is bringing whole species to extinction.
Our appetite for bluefin tuna, that deep red fish used for sushi and sashimi, has
brought the Atlantic population down 90% since the 1970s. Eat salmon instead?
Salmon farming results in severe marine toxicity from the highly concentrated
waste in the fish pens leaking into the ocean.

And I didn't know of the cyanide method of catching fish until now. Reef fishes
like snapper and wrasses are delicacies in Chinese restaurants, where diners get
to choose a live fish from a tank to be cooked for their meal. Well, these fishes
were likely caught using sodium cyanide sprayed into coral reefs, from which the
fish emerge groggy and therefore easily netted. The reefs die, the fishermen may
also die from prolonged exposure and apparently the fish, though flown out of
South East Asia alive, would die of cyanide poisoning if not cooked first. Cyanide
fishing is of course banned but it's not enforced. Hughes doesn't say, but on
reading all this I realize it has implications too for the ornamental fish
industry, ie. home aquariums, for which I'm sure most fancy reef fish on sale are
caught using cyanide.

As a recent convert to semi-vegetarianism, I heard the message loud and clear when
Hughes agreed with marine ecologist Carl Safina: “it is no longer possible to
propose fish-eating as somehow less objectionable than meat-eating.” I am only 85%
vegetarian in that I have 3 meals a week with a little fish or meat, so as to not
have to take stupid supplements for iron and B12 and iodine and so on. Now I have
to make sure the fish I eat is conscionable.

Beyond food, it is necessary to conserve even fish which seem a threat to human.
Pace Jaws which sent the world into 'shark shock', Hughes praises the Australian
government for declaring the great white shark, along with the saltwater
crocodile, an endangered species: “We have no moral right to protect only cuddly
tourist attractions like the koala. Wildness, otherness and dread, embodied in
living creatures, also have their claim. It is beneficial, if you find yourself
casting a fly for barramundi from an aluminium dinghy in the waters of a north
Australian coastal billabong, so see a saltie longer than the boat swim by. It
puts you in your place. For that, it is worth losing the occasional careless

The recreational fisherman and the industrial fishing fleet share the same waters,
Hughes recognizes and therefore the same fate. “There is no better ethic or
aesthetic of angling that doesn't centre on moderation”, he writes, and of course
he means the same to apply to commercial fishing.

I'm pleased I read this. I'll give more Hughes books a shot.

Footnote: Indulging in my personal favorite sport of error spotting, there are too
many slight errors in the book, such as Izaac Walton's name spelled wrongly and
that it was Graham Swift, not Smith, who edited The Magic Wheel: An Anthology of
Fishing in Literature. And the index has page numbers that don't exist... I think
Hughes needs a firmer editor.