Jill Glenn meets Paul Cook: fisherman, artist, craftsman, author.
I’ve never understood the appeal of fishing. Now I do. That’s thanks to Lost In A Quiet World by local man Paul Cook… part memoir, part coffee table art book, lovingly written and beautifully produced.
Paul Cook is 46. Born in Bushey, and now living in Oxhey Hall, he grew up on the outskirts of London, in a cramped urban landscape that held little promise of a life in the great outdoors. Trips to the less than salubrious Grand Union canal with his father and grandfather, though, were his introduction to a hobby that would come to obsess and absorb him all his life; the unexpected gift of a second hand rod from an elderly neighbour, and the opportunity to fish on a nearby rural estate where his gas engineer father worked occasionally, transformed his world. From the age of ten, for three or four summers, Paul had the lake almost to himself… setting off day after day with rod, tackle and bait, plus a bottle of pop and a packet of home-made sandwiches, to the place he discreetly refers to in the book as ‘Old School’.
It sounds a solid, idyllic childhood. Very Enid Blyton, in fact, except that Blyton’s young heroes were looking for adventure, not creeping through the undergrowth stalking carp. Paul’s take on his past, though, is that it was an adventure. “The place wasn’t managed, it was a jungle… overgrown, exciting.” He had “a lot of freedom”, too, more freedom than he feels able to give his own teenage son today. He recalls the years so lovingly articulated in Lost In A Quiet World as full of mystery, anticipation, hope and restless desperation for results.
Fishing, Paul explains to me, is “not just about catching fish…”. For him it’s about connecting with nature, about sharing the environment with wildlife that you don’t usually see. There were kingfishers, kestrels, herons, and early on he began the practice of making rough sketches of both birds and fish in his rudimentary diaries. “Nature came to me,” he says. He learned to be patient and quiet. It was all very grounding.
Paul’s other love was drawing, and he amassed a body of work that – despite his lack of academic initiative – was good enough to get him a place to study art. One year into a two year course at Cassio College (“and it was hard to get into Cassio”), Paul was offered an apprenticeship as a glass engraver at a firm in Harrow. “It was an opportunity to good to miss,” he says, but his parents were horrified that he was throwing his chances away. Despite their profound opposition, he persisted in his choice with the determination that had taken him back to Old School lake day after day in pursuit of the elusive mirror carp.
He took to engraving on the very first day. “It was unbelievable… amazing…”. His mentor was 75, but so in love with gold leaf work that he didn’t want to retire. The age difference melted away in pursuit of their common interest. Over five years Paul learned etching, French embossing, sandblasting, gold leafing and sign writing. A year or so after his training was over, however, Peterborough Glass closed down. Paul was on his own – and so he set up his own studio in Queens Road, Watford. He recognises now that he was far too young and inexperienced to take such a step, whatever he thought at the time, but he’s been there ever since, producing bespoke large scale highly decorative glass panels for pubs and Victorian houses (even for the Sultan of Brunei, and for film and television sets). His work often, unsurprisingly, has nature as a theme: bursts of flowers, birds etc.
Even though his old mentor once said to him “If you can pick up these skills you’ll never be out of work”, around ten years ago the market began to change. There are people who still prefer hand-made, hand-designed work, but most of us nowadays go down to the diy supermarkets and pick up something cheap and mass produced. It saddens him – but he doesn’t want to change the way he works. He likes the personal input, and putting his heart and soul into a project. He uses the word ‘organic’ a lot, to indicate – I think – old-fashioned craft values and beliefs, and a human scale.
The business is still flourishing, though, but alongside the engraving Paul now makes split cane organic bamboo fishing rods – for anglers who, like his glass customers, rate the hand-made over the mass-produced. He speaks of his rods lovingly, and even to my novice eye a glance at his website (www.artofangling.net) proves that they are things of beauty. In fact, of late he has been spending more time making rods than fishing with them. From fishing three times a week as a norm, last year he went only twice, his time taken up entirely with the artwork for Lost In A Quiet World. Now it’s published, though, he’ll be out there again, scanning the surface of the water – waiting, watching, communing with nature. He’s a lucky man in the way that his hobby and skill have come together to deliver a rounded fulfilling life, such as few of us experience so coherently.
Many of us lose interest in our childhood hobbies as we grow older, but Paul’s enthusiasm for what he describes as “an upside down world” has persisted. Married – “to a very understanding wife” – he has two teenagers whose interest in fishing ranges from mild to non-existent, although they have inherited their father’s creative side: one with a talent for music, the other for art. Despite the responsibilities of family life, and the pressures of his own business, he has always found time for the fish.
Those early diaries – full of fascination with the colours of a minnow or the movements of a dragonfly, for example – were, of course, very useful as memory prompts when he came to write Lost In A Quiet World. Paul paints with words as well as he draws. This is a beautifully written book – an easy, lovely read –and he conveys magnificently the anticipation of his smaller self as he waits for a bite. I found myself holding my own breath as I read his descriptions: the baiting of the hook with a worm, or a crust, or a cube of luncheon meat (remember luncheon meat?); the casting of the rod; the patient observation. I shared his quiet hope at the first twitches on the line, his frustration at missing the unmissable, his exhilaration at landing his prey, and his satisfaction at returning it to the water before any harm is done. The cruelty aspect worried me – but Paul assures me that fish have no nerve endings in their mouth, so I overcame my qualms. The angling fraternity are also, to my surprise, generally active in conservation too. “It’s all about preserving proper diversity in lakes and rivers,” Paul explains, “and keeping a balance in nature.”
I surprised myself by just how much I enjoyed Lost In A Quiet World. I loved the stillness at the heart of the book, the affection for the past and the respect for nature. Crisp and nostalgic at the same time, it’s good to skim, and great to read.