Rating 4 stars
Book 10 in my 10 Books of Summer reading challenge.
Mortimer and Whitehouse Gone Fishing is a companion book to the BBC series of the same name. You don’t need to have watched it to enjoy the book (although I hope you do watch it, it’s quite the antidote to much of the rubbish on the box). Nor do you need to be an angler or interested in fishing. You don’t even particularly need to be a fan of either Bob Mortimer or Paul Whitehouse. The book is more than the sum of its parts.
I love Bob Mortimer. I’ve loved him since I first watched Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out as a student. Vic would be prancing around, being the star, and Bob would interject pure silliness with no fandango. “Vic, I’ve fallen.” was the funniest thing I had ever seen. The mimsiness of Graham Lister, the weirdly aggressive feyness of Wavey Davey, the cry of “You wouldn’t let it lie!”, all chimed with the silliness in my brain.
I’m not an angler. I feel no joy thinking about a baited hook ripping into the flesh of a fish’s mouth or about a fish being pulled gasping from the water as some sort of trophy. Even with the modern practice of catch and release, it’s the thought of the stress a poor creature that’s only trying to live its best life endures when it’s hooked and reeled in that turns me off from fishing. So much so that I only watched Mortimer and Whitehouse Gone Fishing because I love Bob so much. Unexpectedly, the programme captured me, because of Paul Whitehouse’s love for the water, the fish, the slowing down of life, and because of Bob Mortimer’s giddiness about the act of catching fish.
The programme is about friendship. It’s about taking time out from the frenzy of work, whatever your work might be, and getting back to nature. It’s a travelogue that celebrates British nature, and that explores craftsmanship and quirkiness. It’s a nature programme that showcases the variety and beauty of British fish. I still find the catching and examining of the fish brutal, and wish that they could be left to swim in peace, but then there wouldn’t be the beautiful programme to watch.
I’m talking a lot about TV here. What of the book? It’s inspired by the programme, rather than a version of it on paper. In it, Bob and Paul go into more detail about their friendship of over thirty years and the health issues they have had more recently. There’s a lot of kindness and love in these pages, and it is, of course, very funny.
It expands on things from the first two series of Gone Fishing. There’s something different about reading Bob and Paul’s words on the page, hearing their voices in those words, but not being distracted by their facial expressions and gestures that sometimes, on the tv show, draw your attention from what is being said.
Through Bob’s view of Paul and his friendship with him, I gained a greater appreciation of him. I know him best from The Fast Show and his work with Harry Enfield. I like him, I think he’s funny and clever in his humour, but watching him on TV I also sensed a sharp edge to him that meant I never loved him. I read an article about Adam Buxton recently, in which his former comedy partner Joe Cornish said something that made sense of why I often shy away from one person in a double act. Cornish, like Paul Whitehouse, had an edge to him that, for me, often crossed a line and was unnecessarily mean to Adam. In the article, he says this:
I think I was probably looking for the most provocative answer. My brain issues the true standard answer and then thinks, well, that’s a bit boring, what would be more interesting?
That search for the more interesting thing to say is what I sense about Paul Whitehouse. In comparison, Bob Mortimer (and Adam Buxton) seems to be less filtered, his instinct more on the side of silliness than whether he is doing the clever thing. Bob’s comedy is clever, but it’s daft clever. Paul says as much in the book.
He pretends not to be clever, but he’s a very clever boy, Mortimer. Much cleverer than he lets on.
… whenever we talk about comedy, Bob always says, ‘Paul have you noticed how people these days want to do their routine and want to be remembered as being clever? What’s wrong with just being daft?’ One of the cleverest things – and Bob won’t thank me for saying it’s clever – is, ‘Oh, Vic … I’ve fallen.’ Who else would think of that? Nobody.”
I enjoyed getting to know Paul better through his reminiscences of childhood fishing, out with his dad around the River Lea, near Enfield where the family moved when Paul was five years old, and in the Rivers Usk and Wye when they went back to the Rhondda to visit family. These youthful adventures, being close to his dad, awoke in Paul a love of the beauty of Britain and its wildlife.
Bob’s chapter about the act of going fishing, of returning to something last done as a teenager, draws strongly on how the landscape is important to him, and how it’s the activity rather than the success that makes for a good day. Bob seeks to lose himself in the moment in a way that reminded me of when I used to go out for a photography trip. The planning of where to go, what I might see, whether the light would be good, what sort of photographs I might end up capturing has echoes in how Bob prepares for and thinks about a fishing trip. And then being there, and being alive to the moment, all expectation gone.
Bob says something interesting in regard to being seriously ill, about considering the limited time we actually have on the planet and how we ought to slow down and enjoy the small moments.
I used to look at my mother-in-law when she came round and she’d stare at birds. Wouldn’t say owt but she’d stare at the birds. It was boring for us – we’d be trying to watch the football and she’d say, ‘Oh, look at the birds on that tree ‘ And thinking you might die, you get a little window into that mindset. Being able to be alive and watch a magpie is incredible, and you ignore it. So I got a little insight – I understood exactly where she was at that point in her life. She didn’t have long left at that time, and when something like this happens, you realise you have to drink from it while you can.
Not that I think I’m going to die soon, but this made sense to me in the context of the Coronavirus pandemic. This sense that there’s something microscopically small out there that could steal your life from you at whatever age, and the sudden restrictions on living the life you had been living that we still don’t know whether they’re temporary or not, have certainly focused my mind on what’s important. I used to get ridiculously anxious about work. I still do, when my head has resubmerged itself in work mode, but over the last five months, I’ve grown better at turning away from my manufactured stress and looking out of the back bedroom window, where my laptop is set up, to stare at the trees in the RAC carpark and think about nothing. I need to work on giving myself permission to leave the house more often and stare at trees in different locations. Maybe dig my camera out and start doing photography as a hobby again, for the sake of it, rather than for likes on Instagram or Flickr. I didn’t expect to get that from a book about fishing!
I also didn’t expect to learn that the fixed spool or spinning reel was developed by a textile manufacturer who thought that the principle of the shuttle on a loom might work to prevent fishing line becoming tangled when cast.
Paul’s knowledge of fish comes to the fore in the chapter that acts as a guide to the river fish of Britain. He mixes facts with humour and delivers some startling statistics about the sizes and ages these fish can reach. Learning about the fish was one of the unexpected joys of watching the tv show, and having even more information in the book was a delight. Paul is also passionate about the environmental role that anglers play in the health of Britain’s rivers and the fish stock that live in them. And yet, for all his heartfelt pleading of the case for responsible fishing, I still can’t get past the stress the fish must be under, even if only momentarily.
Personally, not being interested enough in fishing to want to do it, I found the sections on fishing technique a little dry. The history surrounding how those techniques developed was interesting, and the nonsensical rivalries that existed among upholders of different methods in the Victorian era were amusing. The technicalities weren’t for me, though.
I also found the chapter about how the TV show came about a little lacking. It felt as though Bob and Paul had been asked to include it to secure the tie-in with the programme, but I don’t think it was necessary. The spirit of the programme comes through in the more natural references to it throughout the book. The chapter about the telly show was neither one thing or another.
More to my taste was Bob’s eloquence on the joys of a traditional pub with a good range of ales. If you need a guide to how to find and drink in a quality pub, Bob’s your man. Swap out a starting pint of best for a pint of mild, when you can find one, and Bob’s pub drinking technique and mine are in tandem. A trip to the pub is a lovely way to end a book about friendship, fishing and fun.
I’d recommend this book if you like the comedy work of these men, or if you’re curious about fishing, or if you just like listening in on warm and lasting friendships. You won’t be disappointed.