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Walker on Desert Island Discs - 19/02/10

Richard Walker had more than a passing interest in music. He could strum along on a guitar, he was an enthusiastic singer and he had a wide-ranging taste, veering towards the classical and opera.

There is a famous story about him proving to Fred J Taylor that opera could attract fish, and how he sang different airs and caught various fish. He also appears in several photographs playing a spanish guitar, even on the riverbank.

But it wasn't for his musical knowledge that Walker was invited on to the pretigious BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs, the world's longest-running radio programme, on June 9th 1972. Walker's invitation came as a direct result of his fishing prowess, and his reputation as the greatest angler of his generation.

Others might have qualified for the honour: Bernard Venables and Jack Hargreaves are two names that immediately spring to mind. But Walker was (and still is) the only guest that the programme has entertained who was purely there for his angling talent.

No doubt the producer, Ronald Cook, and the presenter, Roy Plomley, thought that Walker would prove an entertaining if slightly eccentric guest. (Plomley had never fished himself.) But with Walker the programme got more than it imagined.

Desert Island Discs was first broadcast on January 29th 1942. Guests are invited to imagine themselves cast away on a desert island, and to choose eight pieces of music (originally gramophone records) to take with them. Discussion of their choices permits a review of their life. Excerpts from the choices are played (or in case of short pieces, the whole work).

At the end, they chose the one piece they regard most highly, and are asked to select one book. The Bible ( or for non-Christians another religious or philosophical work) and The Complete Works of Shakespeare are provided automatically to all castaways.

They also choose one luxury, which must be inanimate and of no use in escaping the island or allowing communication from outside. Large supplies of champagne seem to be allowed.

Desert Island Discs, which is still running, was devised by Roy Plomley, who went on to enjoy a distinguished broadcasting carrer. He wrote to Leslie Perowne, who was in charge of popular record programmes, received a favourable reply and set out his ideas with names of personalities to be invited. The firsy castaway was vic Oliver, the actor comedian and musician who went on to marry Sir Winston Churchill's daughter Sarah.

The past six Prime Minister's of the UK have all been on the programme, although only John Major appeared while in office. A few guests, including Arthur Askey and Earl Hines have been cast away twice and the most requested music has been Ode to Joy, the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Much of the pleasure of the programme is not hearing the guests' choice of music, but rather their comments. In these days of celebrity worship, it has all become rather anodyne but Walker held some trenchant views and was not afraid of expressing them. Listening to a recording of the programme, it is apparent that much of what he said on certain issues has been edited out.

On areas such as the deceit of politicians, modern farming techniques, water authorities and the poor pay of female fly-tyers. It's clear that the interview does not flow smoothly, indicating some editing. It's likely that this would have been because Walker's remarks were too acerbic, rather than uninteresting!

The interview also shows that while Plomley had been briefed by researchers (or perhaps done his own research), he was not a fisherman, and the naivety of his questions illustrates this. You might argue that he was doing this for a non-fishing public. But Walker answered each question thoroughly and courteously.

His love of opera comes through in his choice of music, though he also asked for works by Marlene Dietrich, Bernard Miles and Joan Baez. Friends said that Walker often sang snatches of opera while fishing, and his choice of just one piece was Puccini's Nessun Dorma from the opera Turandot, long before Luciano Pavarotti popularised it as the 1990 World Cup theme. Asked if he was musical, Walker said that he loved music, but he claimed he was not a competent singer or player.

His greatest enjoyment was the nostalgia it evoked, and the things he wished to return to after escaping his confinement on a desert island, he told Plomley.

Walker's appearance was broadcast on July 6th and 8th 1974. Described by Plomley as "the best known freshwater angler in the country", the interview began with Walker being asked if he would be good castaway material and wether he could take the loneliness. His initail response appears to have been scored out of the broadcast, though later in the programme, Plomley asked if Walker could live in a hut. This would doubtless have amused those who fishd on his stretch of the Great Ouse, where he was often photographed in the famous hut.

Walker replied that it wouldn't be a problem but when asked if he would try to escape, he replied "I'd escape - I promise you!" Plomley wanted to know how. Walker replied that he'd make a boat and need some cutting tools.

Angling author and historian Fred Buller once said that Walker was at his best when having to think arounsd a problem: his response to Plomley's question proves the point. He immediately began to think about making a varuety of cutting tools, and emphasised that he would escape- not just try, bacause there were so many things for which he wanted to return. He finished the programme by saying "Never mind your desert island: I'd get off it!"

Earlier, he spoke about being encouraged to fish by his paternal grandfather, and his earliest experience of fishing was being aged four when he was first taken by his grandfather.

His maternal grandfather, he said, was a farmer and taught him about natural history. Plomley asked if Walker saw himself as a town or country boy, to which he replied that he was born in a market town (Hitchin, Hertfordshire, UK) that was surrounded by the agricultural industry. Walker believed that his grandfather's occupation might well have influenced his own development as a noteworthy writer and that his farming grandfather instilled a love and knowledge of the countryside.

When asked by Plomley what he did when he wasn't fishing or bird-watching, Walker sadi that he wanted to be a farmer and grow things, which he wanted to harvest using modern equipment.

He believed that farming could be "mechanised without destroying its soul", so this had motivated his early career in designing horticultural machinery. When he left Cambridge University before completing his degree he went into the family lawnmower business as Technical Director.

The technical side of angling clearly fascinated Plomley too. He referred to the number of different hooks used, but Walker responded saying that he didn't use a great variety of hooks,. He added that it was increasingly difficult to obtain those of quality, and cited production costs as the reason for the inferior quality compared with those of 100 years earlier. (Would he feel the same way now?)

Plomley asked how many made their own flies. Walker responded that it was probably around five per cent, but the number was rapidly increasing because the tackle trade could "no longer rely on underpaid ladies working....making flies at so much per gross," and that it was something that couldn't be mechanised.

He also felt that it was an absorbing hobby, and said that though his hands weren't small, he could still tie flies as small as one eighth of and inch (3mm)!

Plomley was clearly puzzled by competition fishing, and the fact that hundreds of anglers gathered together at ten-yard intervals along a river-bank to fish. He wanted to know whether big prizes were awarded in this branch of coarse fishing.

Walker was unspecific in his response, but replied that he had completed a season of match-fishing to learn what it was all about. He felt that if he was to write coherently on the matter, he needed to participate so that he knew what he was writing about.

It seems that he must have been rather good at it, because he won 13 out of 16 competitions that he fished, although he rather modestly said that they were not "top flight" matches, and that he wouldn't have done so well if he had been competing at national level - rather dispelling the myth that he was an arrogant man.

Plomley was also mystified by the different seasons for game and coarse fishing (as many were in those days, even anglers!). Walker explained that in Yorkshire, the season started on 1st June and elsewhere on 16th June. Game fishing, however, had different starting times, which ranged annually from February 1st to May 1st, depending on location, and the fact that it was necessary to find the correct season for the area in question, and the species of fish, whether salmon, trout or sea trout. One can imagine Plomley nodding wisely and still not understanding the confusion of the dates.

The most interesting section of the interview for many people was Walker discussing his record carp Clarissa, (although he actually nicknamed it Ravioli because of its colour). Vaught from Redmire pool in Herefordshire on the welsh borders in 1952, the 44lb fish shattered the previous British carp record of 31.25lb and was for many years the largest coarse fish taken in the UK.

It's capture provoked, in Walker's words "acrimonious correspondence". People just didn't believe a fish that large could be caught. He quoted one response as saying: "This is straining our credulity beyond reason."

To his great delight, some of his letters were published in a magazine on one side of the page, alongside a photograph and his account of Clarissa'a capture! When asked what had happened to the fish, Walker replied that he thought it had died the previous year (1973)

In fact the fish, which had been transported to London Zoo's aquarium after its capture, died in 1972. It was later mounted by a taxidermist for £80 and was on display for many years at the tackle shop of W H Lane and Son of Coventry.

Walker said that one of the luxuries he would take to the desert island would be Cellini's golden salt cellar, he did not know its whereabouts. He admitted he had never actually seen it, but he'd seen some wonderful images. Walker felt it was an unsurpassed "expression of civilised creation".

The salt cellar, sometimes referred to as the Mona Lisa of sculpture, is a part enamelled gold table sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini completed in 1543 for Francis I of France. It depicts a male figure that representing the sea and a female figure that represents the earth. A small vessel meant to hold salt is placed next to the male figure.

It came into the possession of the Habsburgs as a gift of charles XI of France to Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol, and was originally part of the Habsburg art collection, but was transferred to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna during the 19th century.

On May 11th 2003 it was stolen from the museum, which was covered by scaffolding due to reconstruction. It was recovered on 21st January 2006 buried in a lead box in a forest near the town of Zwettl, Austria, about 90km north of Vienna.

When asked what books he would take to the desert island, apart from the Bible, Shakespeare, and an encyclopedia, Walker replied that he would take Puck of Pook's Hill by Rudyard Kipling. His reason was that it contained some "nice poetry" and that it was about the England he knew and loved. It was a book into which he could dip from time to time, he said, and it would remind him of "all that makes England". He even concluded the interview by quoting form it;

"She is not any common earth, water or wood or air -
But Merlin's Isle of Gramarye where you and I will fare."

He followed this quickly by saying: "And I will fare there too. Never mind your desert island - I'd get off it!" And you have to feel that, placed in such a situation, he probably would have done.

Walker's eight tunes selected were:-

1) Norma Ite Sul Solle (Bellini) sung by the Covent Garden Chorus
2) Me an' Old Charlie (Bernard Miles)
3) Sadko (Rimsky-Korsakov) sung by Dusan Georgevic
4) A satisfied Man (Joan Baez)
5) Your Tiny Hand is Frozen (Puccini) sung by Charles Craig
6) Sagt Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind, sung by Marlene Dietrich
7) The Holy City sung by Frederick Harvey
8) Nessun Dorma (Puccini) sung by Flaviano Labo

This article was written for Classic Angling by Sandra Armishaw, and was edited by Keith Elliott appearing in the July/August 2009 Edition No. 60