The Old Man and the Sand Eel by Will Millard - review by Tom Fort

Tom Fort

Angler of Incident

The Old Man and the Sand Eel


Viking 323pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Will Millard is my kind of angler. Born and brought up in Fenland, far from dainty trout streams and brawling salmon rivers, he is untainted by angling snobbery. He was taught about the ways of perch, bream and roach by his grandfather – the Old Man of the title – who got through maggots by the bucketful and considered lobworms the only possible alternative bait on those dark, sluggish creeks and ditches.

His boyhood, Millard recalls, gave him ‘a lifelong fixation with peering into water’, and he is delightful company. How could you not warm to a bloke who could dump his girlfriend (now wife) in a hotel on the M1 in a room overlooking a petrol station while he sits through the night beside a neighbouring canal waiting – in vain – for a giant eel to pick up his lamprey-head bait?

He has a fondness for curious locations: St Pancras Lock on the Grand Union Canal, where, after an unsuccessful job interview, he consoles himself by catching a hatful of perch; another canal, this time in Cardiff, where the capture of a big pike moves a passing spliff-smoker to enquire, ‘What dafuk is that?’

The writing is sharp and clever. His biggest perch was so large ‘you could have fitted a tangerine in its mouth’. On wind-blasted Cuckoo Drain he encounters a ‘typical piker, tall and grizzled with a ragged ginger beard – he strongly resembled a starving Viking’. A frenzied session with crucian carp gives him a specimen of two pounds five ounces and a memory of fish wallowing like ‘giant golden hubcaps’.

I would have to be an exceptionally stony-hearted reviewer to consider giving a bad notice to Millard since at one point he refers to a book of my own, saying, ‘Tom Fort superbly breaks down the origins of the eel in what is surely the seminal eel text of our time, The Book of Eels.’ Luckily I face no moral dilemma with The Old Man and the Sand Eel: I loved all of it and would almost as happily read it again as I would sit beside the river waiting for the evening rise of trout to begin. My eel book was commercially a total flop. I worked out later that everyone who cared deeply about the subject bought a copy; the problem was that there were so few of them. I sincerely hope The Old Man and the Sand Eel does well, because it deserves to.

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