Fishing in the Footsteps of Mr Crabtree

Glorious Gentlemen
5th June 2017
The Best of Barlow
5th June 2017

Fishing in the Footsteps of Mr Crabtree

  • TaskBook Review

by John Bailey, with illustrations by Robert Olsen, published by Mr Crabtree Publishing Price:£26.99, Special Edition £45.00

Those of a certain generation grew up on Mr Crabtree. We knew the book so well that we could quote whole swathes. If someone hooked a decent fish, the response was: “Gosh, Dad. It’s going like a train!” or “Don’t stamp your feet, Peter!”

And now John Bailey and Rob Olsen have dared to tread those hallowed paths; worse, they have dared to reinvent Mr Crabtree, c2013. Should they not have stuck as closely to St Bernard’s golden words, preserved in amber his wonderfully emotive illustrations, and tinkered rather than slashed?
Well, there will be those who feel that even altering a comma, or put long trousers on Peter in the depths of winter,  is a crime worse than child porn. But life and fishing have moved on. Bernard’s original text had Mr C killing fish for a glass case, or gaffing pike. How acceptable would that be considered today?
John Bailey is an inspired choice to take on the Crabtree role. He’s an ardent conservationist, excellent communicator, knows his fish quite as well as his trilby-clad counterpart, has wide experience of teaching and has a proper appreciation of Bernard Venables’ importance to angling. Hence the text is respectful but updated, and the book includes due tribute to the creator, from a foreword by his daughter Hannah to tributes from several people like Kevin Clifford, Chris Yates and Keith Arthur. There is also a hefty section detailing Bernard’s life and times.
John wisely does not try to copy Bernard’s prose. There’s a significant danger that it could easily become parody, and so he ploughs his own furrow, but with due attention paid to the book’s history. So centrepins and quill floats still have their place in the text. It’s also good to see sections added on important areas such as unhooking, watercraft and knots.
And while Venables’ fictional character landed mighty fish, Bailey catches them for real. It’s interesting how the emphasis here has swung to Crabtree the tutor, guiding a motley selection of youngsters to land carp, chub, bream and barbel, while the original focused on “Watch me do it, Peter, and learn from that.”
The text follows the television filming undertaken for the new series. It appears   later this month. But always John is mindful of history, and he is constantly referring back to Crabtree Mark I.
This works fine for those who know and love the original text: I tried it on someone who responded: “Who?” when I mentioned Mr Crabtree. He found the constant references to something he didn’t know irritating. But he was an impatient teenager…
Then again, it’s vital – for angling’s sake, if nothing else – that the book captures the young, gets them excited and interested about fishing. It’s a fiendishly tricky line
to tread: homage to the original, and moving the project forward without being hidebound by tradition.
To this end, Rob Olsen’s strip cartoons will probably evoke even greater polarisation. If you are expecting a loyal reproduction of Bernard’s artwork, you will be disappointed. But at the same time, Olsen’s drawings are surely in the spirit and style of the original, without trying to be a faithful copy.
My big disappointment here was the lack of colour. Mono is fine for the strips – I have no problem with that – but surely it wouldn’t have been that much harder to turn out something akin to Venables’ wonderful chapter breaks with colour illustrations of surface-feeding rudd, or perch scattering minnows.