Bernard Venables is most famous for 'Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing', a strip-cartoon book that he wrote and illustrated while working for the Daily Mirror.
Written in 1949, the book sold more than 2 million copies, making it the best-selling sports book of all time. A whole generation of anglers in the 1950s and 1960s grew up on Mr Crabtree, and many can still quote from it, with sayings like: "Don’t stamp your feet, Peter!” or "Gosh, dad! It’s going like a train!"
In this age of hi-tech tackle, Bernard’s advice about learning to use a centrepin before you progressed to a fixed-spool, or gaffing pike, or taking away a specimen fish to have it mounted, might seem quaint. Not many youngsters are brave (or perhaps stupid) enough to wear shorts in all weathers, as Crabtree’s son Peter did. But many people fishing today owe their start to Mr Crabtree.
Bernard, though, was not a trained writer. He was an artist and illustrator, and his first book was on tanks, written during the Second World War for the Ministry of Supply and published, incongruously, by Country Life. It’s often believed that his first fishing writing was the Mr Crabtree strip, but while he worked at the Daily Express during the 1940s, he wrote occasional fishing pieces that he illustrated with drawings.
Bernard joined the Daily Mirror in 1946 and his first job was to illustrate readers’ dreams. Bernard proposed that a gardening strip would probably work well post-war, and so it proved. Jack Hargreaves was the scriptwriter and chose the name of the gardener: Mr Crabtree.
Problems came as the winter of 1947 took its grip. "What’s Mr Crabtree to do now? Nothing’s happening in the garden," asked Philip Zec, a Mirror director.
"Well, he could go fishing," said Bernard. Those few words would change his life.
The cartoon strip was an immediate success and it expanded into a full page. There was even better news for Bernard. The editor told him: "I don’t want to see you in the office. I don’t want your copy to smell of the desk." So he wrote and illustrated from home – and went fishing.
Not long afterwards, it was suggested that he should produce a book of the Crabtree strips. He took the ones that had been published, added more, a few watercolours (who has read that book and not been moved by the wonderful picture of perch chasing fry?) and some text below his cartoons. Bernard described it: "I let my loving pleasure run as it would."
Jack Hargreaves saw an advance copy. He told Bernard: "This will sell a million." He was wrong. By the mid-1950s, he went past the Mirror building and saw a huge banner saying: "Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing: Now 2 Million Copies Sold."
Imagine the royalties! Alas, Bernard didn’t get a penny. He was a Mirror staffer, and had been commissioned by his employers to create the book. It was part of his job.
Bernard was tempted in the early 1950s by the offer of launching a tabloid weekly angling newspaper. Angling Times was published in July 10, 1953 with Bernard at the helm as editorial director.
He did some amazing things there. They included opening up the fishing potential of Ireland to English anglers, catching a 700-kilo six-gilled shark off Madeira (still the largest fish taken on rod and line in European waters) and setting up a publication that is still running today.
He left Angling Times, feeling he needed a new challenge, to set up Creel, a 64-page monthly magazine in full colour (a huge innovation in 1963). It was beautifully produced and all the top writers of the day contributed, from Walker to Clive Gammon.
But it proved hugely expensive to produce. Two years later, it had reduced in size, was printed on cheaper paper and had a new editor, John Nixon. It never made a profit and was absorbed into Angling magazine in 1967.
Bernard then travelled extensively. At an age when most people start to think about retirement, he lived with the whalers in the Azores, going out in tiny boats and hand-held harpoons after sperm whales; he travelled 1200 miles from the source of the Zambesi downstream, writing books about both adventures ('Baleia', 1968 and 'Coming Down the Zambesi', 1974).
He fished in Mauritius, the Bahamas, the Seychelles, before they ever became popular. In his 80s, he fished for Nile perch in Uganda and tigerfish on Lake Kariba.
In 1995, he was awarded an MBE for services to angling. He was still writing, broadcasting and painting right up to his death, aged 94. He was buried, appropriately, in a wicker coffin. His influence on angling through his writing will probably never be matched, and it was delightful writing, too. He loved all forms of fishing (he wrote with equal facility on trout, tench or tarpon.)
Maybe his philosophy and his writing, born of a gentler time, is out of tune with the modern angling scene, with its obsession on PBs, rod hours and competitiveness. For him, fishing was an escape.
He once said: "Urban life doesn’t help. That’s the scum on the pond of life. People can’t help it, but there’s little to remind them of what life on earth is." His best writing reminds us of that.
Last date edited: 24 March 2020