The Main Road in Kalk Bay, which is finally open to two-way traffic after some years of roadworks, was awash just hours before the launch of Duncan Brown’s fascinating new book, Are Trout South African?: Stories of Fish, People and Places. Tim Butcher, a Kalk Bay resident and author of Blood River, was there to chat to the author. He suggested that the flooding was a ploy by Kalk Bay Books’ new owner, Audrey Rademeyer, to lend veracity to the event’s theme of fishing.
Butcher’s a self-proclaimed foreigner, “A Brit,” he says. “How long does something have to be in South Africa to be South African? Trout are not indigenous. They were introduced to South Africa in the late nineteenth century, and their continued existence in the country’s rivers has been heatedly debated by local authorities.”
Brown’s book asks whether trout are special above other fish. They are some of the less invasive and threatening of introduced species. He said carp are not good for water quality, making the water turgid. They are not attractive to bodies of water. “The ferocity of the debate pivots around elitism, and colonialism,” said Brown.
Butcher said, “This is a subtle book about fishing, place, anthropology. It makes one ask what does it mean to think about place in the complex region that is South Africa.” Norman Maclean’s famous novella, A River Runs Through It, ends with the last line, “I am haunted by waters”. Are Trout South African? explores how human identities are interposed with the natural environments and species they support, particularly as regards the waterways they frequent.
Brown’s audience included avid flyfishermen, fellow academics from UWC, readers and book lovers. They were treated to a fascinating discussion on how the various types of trout got here, how some died out and some made it. “There is a subtle theme of snobbery,” said Butcher. “Brits all boil everything down to class. Trout fishing was for the upper classes. All other fishing in the UK is known as ‘coarse’ fishing, as if it’s somehow something vulgar.”
Brown talked about the state sanction up until the mid-80s which protected trout. “Conservation bodies saw it as their business not to protect alien species, but to protect indigenous fish. Alienness is associated with undesirability,” he said. “How do we think about the value we place on indigeneity without going back to the hoary notions of origin?”
He said that there are purists who say that dingoes are not indigenous to Australia because they have only been there for 5000 years. “How do we look at that in a South African context? Who, apart from the Khoi are indigneous from that perspective? How far back do you go? It’s an arbitrary decision and legislation is introduced on the back of an assumption that is only a model. What does it mean if something is introduced by the human hand? It can’t be indigenous, say the biologists.”
Brown loves fishing. For him it is about solitude and quiet company rather than the esoteric technical issues about how to tie a fly. “It’s about an immersion in a world that requires behaviour of a different fashion,” he said. “You have to alter the way you read, noticing the water and the wind. Fishing is a significant and humbling activity, not just because of my astonishing lack of success.” Fishing offered him something around which significant relationships had been formed, in particular with his father. As he lay dying, he insisted that his son release a four-pound trout from the end of the hospital bed. Soon after his passing, Brown took the rods he had inherited from his father and, much to his surprise, he caught a fabulous four-pounder. This was just the sort of synchronicity that flyfishing attracts, suggested Buthcher.
Brown said that writing the book had been an intense experience. “This was the first book I tried to write which I hope will be accessible, not just to academics. It has a lot of self-revelation, and, I hope, a coherent argument with just the right amount of cartilage.” His previous books had too much cartilage, he mused. “They were too bony!”
He recalled the advice of Isabel Hofmeyr who suggested that academics should get up from their desk to do their research. He mused, “Did she mean they should go fishing?”
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Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted from the launch using #livebooks:
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