by John Watson, published by Coch-y-Bonddu Books
Happy is the author who unearths a treasure trove of source material, be it manuscripts, diaries or (in this case) fly books. John Watson did his detective work for a previous book so thoroughly that he had enough and to spare for a second.
Armed with a fly book and case belonging to the tackle dealer and fly-dresser Roger Woolley of Tutbury and Hatton, he was then offered a second collection of flies and packets, and supplementary material kept on, er, materialising.
We know a lot about Woolley’s patterns from his articles in The Fishing Gazette, three published books (two based on the Gazette articles) and his commercial catalogues. But Watson discovered cases and packets, with many patterns that were hitherto unknown, among his books. And thus, the second book was born.
Over half of this work is a record of these forgotten flies. Watson meticulously analyses the hooks and materials of the dressings and gives an authoritative recipe list, illustrated here and there by photographs taken by Terry Griffiths (so the photographic quality is never in doubt).
This listing is the glory and the grief of the book. It is important for the history of the art of fly-dressing that a record has been made, but who (I ask even myself) is going to wade through them?
Where there are illustrations, the interest is maintained. But would it not have been better to take photographs of all the leaves of the fly books and cross-reference with the descriptions, in addition to giving some close-ups? Otherwise, however laudable, it does seem a somewhat sterile exercise.
The rest of the book consists of chapters on Woolley’s career, moving on to Woolley the fly-dresser, the angler and the writer. Watson makes some headway with Woolley’s early years in Ireland, but is still reduced to conjecture about his fly-tying mentor (assuming that there was one single one and not several).
There is new evidence about Woolley’s war service (including letters sent back home to his family) and about his Christian faith, which paint a rounder picture of the man than we have seen before.
Watson has also unearthed a series
of cartoons with Woolley as their subject
by the otherwise unknown Leonard Morinan – all grist to the mill, but do we
really need to know the sizes of the originals? Methinks not!
And that encapsulates my concern about this work, so commendable in so many ways. There is simply too much of it with too little critical edge. It is too descriptive and not discursive enough.
I longed for a critical analysis of the subject, a biting comment, a shrew insight. For example, Woolley’s style of writing is sufficient to the task with occasional touches of the poetic, but it is essentially dry. It is not great prose-writing.
Woolley adventurously embraced new styles of fly-dressing and new materials, but completely underrated the influence of Japanese fly-dressing. And unhappily for him, his first book appeared in the same year as Courtney Williams’ far more lavish production, which makes Woolley’s seem very dour in comparison.
There are areas where Watson seems to have missed a trick or two. He mentions John Henderson, but there are two of them, father and son, and both had an influence on Woolley. Indeed, John Henderson junior supplied Woolley with hackles for some years. And the Butcher series of mayflies would seem to owe little to George Butcher himself, who only tied one mayfly (by name) and that was black.
Copies of George Eaton’s tribute book to Butcher are scarce, but not impossible to find, especially for one with Watson’s detective powers (there’s an obvious Sherlock Holmes joke there, which I resist) and one of Butcher’s original fly wallets also exists in private hands.
Three smaller gripes. The subject is sometimes referred to as Roger Woolley and at others as Roger or Woolley. Consistency would have been nice. And I can never understand how biographical accounts can quote the year and month of a particular event (birth or death) and omit the actual day, especially when the dates are not hard to find. And what (wails an old-fashioned grammarian) has happened to the use of the comma, sadly neglected here?
This is a labour of love on the part of the author, but it demands a love of labour on the part of the reader, even though it is made clear that this is largely a reference book that is not intended to be read from cover to cover at one sitting. Be that as it may, it remains an important record of the legacy of a significant fly-fisherman and fly-dresser.