Love Madness Fishing

Posted on 7th June 2016 by Sally Campbell
Now at sixty, novelist, translator and passionate environmentalist Dexter Petley has turned his attention to his own past with the significant memoir Love Madness Fishing. Waterstones Online’s Peter Whitehead introduces Petley’s own reflections on the genesis of this searching new work.

‘A soggy loaf gone to bagpuss.’

When a publisher tells you they might just have the next Laurie Lee, even the softest of us might be a touch sceptical. On examination however, you wonder if that small (but delightfully discerning) press Little Toller might just be on to something.

Dexter Petley is the kind of Renaissance man you think couldn’t quite exist in the modern world. After a rural background on the Kent and Sussex borders, Petley went on to scribe a clutch of almost hallucinatory novels (‘Izaac Walton with attitude and Magadon,’ as Tibor Fischer had it) and later settled in Normandy to pursue an almost relentlessly pro-environment existence.

Surfacing again to be a regular contributor to the influential online hang-out Caught by the River (a haunt for many key figures equally united by the environment – Roger Deakin, Alice OswaldRobert Macfarlane, Chris Yates, Bill Drummond and so on), the appreciation of Petley’s deft turn of phrase and wry, unsentimental observation has won over a quiet legion of fans.

Love Madness Fishing is a distillation of growing up and a clear-eyed serenade for things past. Whilst Petley’s writing is indeed utterly unique, his acute recollection of that pre-online time will, we feel, resonate with many.

Before writing anything remotely publishable myself, decades ago I came across some truly evocative memoirs such as Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son and fellow Kent poet Richard Church’s Over the Bridge.  Childhood memoirs always captured more than my imagination.  They seemed to provide something often missing in autobiographical fiction.  For me they clarified the struggle many writers have in that first, coming-of-age-novel stage where the drifting richness of an essentially directionless childhood has to be reshaped into compelling narrative.  Sticking to a storyline in a novel often loses the essence of that childhood.   

Dexter outside his home, Normandy

Many writers, and I count myself among them, can be said to chase their own tail, write the same book, tell the same story.  But this simplifies a much more important process and seems to be a lazy way of explaining a writer’s evolving relationship with time and place.  There comes a day when suddenly that time and place exist no more, and what was once the source of narrative memory has become a lost world obliterated in a global conformity.  Preserving the existence of that past and the people who lived there becomes a responsibility.  Those stories once told, once looted like a gold mine, now appear corrupted if the place and its people are gone. All at once they have other, often more significant meanings which need to be retold.  The writer becomes historian, a chronicler as time is running out. 

In Love Madness Fishing, I’ve tried to hold a mirror to the fiction and write the coming of age memoir.  It spans the late 1950s, holds current in the 60s and 70s and washes up on the shores of adult identity in 1985 when, aged 30 and adrift from nature, alone in London, a village tragedy presented an opportunity for redemption and re-examination of the past.  To a writer, this re-examination becomes a life-long process, a kind of subjective nose-bag and blinkers until you finally step back and take an objective view.  It’s then that you find yourself, aged 60, in possession of a childhood so unique to an era that its like can never be seen again.

The nature of childhood has so radically turned away from simple instinct to self-conscious, psychologically charged awareness, that childhood is now part and parcel of the adult world.  Fifty years ago childhood was an inner sanctum of its own.  A rural childhood was a footloose trek of self-discovery with no clues from authority.  You were wonderfully on your own among nature.  Everything was mystery to be solved, from what to forage to the man next door, the fishes in the farm ponds, the strange aeroplanes in the sky. We became observers and explorers, content in our ignorance, naturally calibrated to the slow pace of change. It is this gradual filling of the blank page which gives writing memoir the freedom to explore the slower questions which fiction ejects.

Love Madness Fishing is such a memoir.  It is about how time and place inhabits us. For me, my creative centre has always been the village of Hawkhurst in the Weald of Kent.  It was where I was born and raised, on a council estate, among the poor and the last of the rural crafts which supported the locality.  These were the last days of the car-less community, the hop-pole woodyards, the menders and fixers of the post-war drift.  The village of William Brown and Victorian spinsters, of the derelict mansions giving way to housing for the country poor.  For me Hawkhurst is root and branch, home and the past.  The past is not  a foreign country, not to a writer.  It is the native soil, it is where we are most comfortable.  I haven’t seen the Weald of Kent for 30 years, and when I sat down to write what I thought would be a simple memoir of a fishing boy in a historical village, I foolishly went on a virtual Google tour, street by street of all my old haunts. I recognised nothing, found nowhere which hadn’t been built over, tarted up, sold off, insulted. 

Memory, of course, is not a continuous thread but a collection of moments of transition.  Each chapter is one of these moments.  When the boy becomes a fisherman.  When my father, from being a gamekeeper and a mole skinner becomes aloof and mechanical in a cheap rent collector’s suit.  When a sleepy village enters the plasticating 1970s and my adolescence coincides with a village now in crisis.  The rural secondary moderns are closed and country crafts and gardening are wiped from the syllabus. Faced with the realities of disappearing worlds, the people, the characters, as vital as the habitat, lose their identities and embrace the new class awareness which comes with depression and alcoholism.  Cars close the bus station.  The supermarket closed the village shops.  Traffic lights, boarded up churches, commuter estates.  The village changed hands and my world split in two. Childhood was not just over, it was impossible.  Under such threat, the power of childhood memory is unequalled.






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