It was a strange moment. I experienced a time-warp. I was on the banks of the River Test in Hampshire having been given a day’s fly-fishing for grayling. These are colourful salmonids, with a ‘coarse’ breeding season, with all the mystique of trout for devotees of the sport.
I had taken along my father’s old splitcane rod, but was advised by the bailiffs not to risk such an historic treasure, so in my totally-amateurish way, whipped the famous waters with carbon fibre instead.
My thoughts were very much on my father’s experiences of fishing on the Liffey, the Bray, the Barle, and the Stiffkey rivers years ago, and on his descriptions of those waters in Salar the Salmon, A Clearwater Stream, Goodbye Westcountry, and other books of his.
Then all at once there was Salar right in front of me. The name means Leaper. But here was Salar at the very end of his life, just as in the book. He had finished spawning. He was exhausted, and looked like a battered submarine, his fin sticking out of the surface like a conning tower.
Again the whole joy and poetry of the book came alive, from Salar’s thrilling return one brilliant moonlit night from out of the Atlantic and his fights with seals, porpoises, lampreys and poachers, to his moment that all this had been engineered by existence on the planet towards, that of procreation.
“For a few moments Salar lay in ecstasy... the sight of the eggs of his mate Gralaks and the taste of the water made Salar quiver. And as she moved backwards, he moved forwards feeling as though he were being drawn from underneath by a lamprey of sweeter and sweeter sensation.
“His milt flowed from him in a mist, millions of invisible organism wriggling in the water. Some of them found eggs, into the skins of which they bored, desperate for security.
“Those which were successful in finding the liquid were lost in the creation of new life; the rest drifted away, to perish in water palely lighted by the star galaxy of night, whose mirrored fate was as their own.”
Salar was dedicated to Lawrence of Arabia, father’s friend who was killed on his Brough Superior motorcycle as the book was being written. It inspired Poet Laureate Ted Hughes to his own apogees of creation as it did Michael Morpurgo (War Horse, etc) who has written the introduction to a new edition of the book published by Little Toller Books, with illustrations by Charles Tunnicliffe, another family friend.
Michael Morpurgo says of Salar: “It is a rare gift for a storyteller to be a poet... to tell a tale so deeply engaging that the reader wants to know what will happen and never want it to end... to leave a reader wide-eyed with amazement at the sheer intensity of feeling that can be induced by the word-magic of a poet. This is just such a story.”
That old magic of the storyteller came alive and full circle for me last week, seeing Salar and my father in spirit.