Casting at the sound

Angling don Chris Yates on setting fire to transparencies at art college, fishing at Redmire – and writing to music. Words: John Andrews

The teenage Chris Yates harboured serious ambitions to become a composer – but by his own admission lacked the mathematical mind and discipline to conquer the complexities of reading and writing music. However he was adept at mischief and would vanish from the more tedious lessons at school via a hole in a fence behind the bike sheds. “Once you were past the elm trees the next stop was Switzerland,” he says down the phone. Many maths lessons were spent gazing into the waters of the nearby Hogsmill or if incarcerated in class, lost in the reverie of being a member of a giant bream shoal – an orchestra if ever there was one – in the Thames. “Up until my release, my schooldays were an ordeal and I dreamed almost constantly of escape.”

Art school and fishing

Yates left school aged 15 with one art O Level and promptly enrolled into Epsom Art College for a year of Foundation and Liberal Studies – and became their longest-serving alumnus, staying until he was 21. Art school was a hotbed of music. There was a thriving bop scene and the rhythm and blues explosion meant that bands were forming every week. Yates' tastes were already pretty wide and weren't swayed too much by what was popular. But he fished too, with a zeal that came out in his artwork, much of which was based around fishing quests.

He had his first piece of writing published in Angling in 1968 and at the same time, made a 16mm film over several nights on the bank of a Sussex carp lake. His photographic tutor Roy Sims was a great influence: “He pushed me to be radical, to set fire to transparencies and plunge film into acid”. Under Sims’ guidance Yates was soon working as a stills photographer and got his first commission, to shoot the sleeve for Stravinsky's Firebird (RCA) in 1973. It won runner-up in the Classical Sleeve of the Year. 

“I always write to music”

Through the Seventies, Yates produced dust jackets for Dick Francis novels and fished – both when time allowed and when it didn't. His ears were fed by the 'the cultural pillar' of Radio 3. “I got heavily into difficult music and especially the work of George Kurtag,” he says. And then on the night of 16th June 1980 he entered the national consciousness when he broke Richard Walker's British Carp Record which had stood since 1952, with the capture of the fish he called 'the Bishop' from Redmire Pool in Herefordshire. 

The capture of this fish and the consequent account he wrote of it for Angling – an act of loyalty as every paper under the sun (including The Sun) – wanted the exclusive, launched Yates' career as a writer in earnest. The work of composers and symphonies began to inform the way he worked even more intensely, with the composer Morton Feldman being a particular favourite.

“I always write to music,” he says. “It’s essential. It’s easier to create to music but it has to be something abstract without words or lyrics, something that insinuates or encourages language like Satie or Cage, and which above all creates an atmosphere in which I can write. I might play a certain section or piece over and over again whilst working on something.” 

Like father, like son

Yates’ debut 'Casting at the Sun' was published in 1986 and immediately established him as a unique voice, destined to fill the void in angling literature left behind by the death of Arthur Ransome and Hugh Tempest Sheringham. Nearly three decades and several books later Yates is rightly revered as a national institution but is still very much a music student. It’s something that’s reflected in his love of Radio 3’s Late Junction. “You can hear all sorts of stuff: Moondog, who was a friend of Stravinsky; Gillian Welch; John Cavanagh; or some Nordic Jazz or a rarified violin piece, or a concerto.” 

There’s as much music in his home as there was in the one he grew up in: “I've been doing a lot of writing recently on the bed, surrounded by columns of CDs.” You also sense the pride when he speaks of his son Will who is on his own musical journey as much as the young Yates was after his own father fed him with Bartok et al.

Tea rituals

“Will is incredible. He plays all over the place as Memotone. But we play at home too, sometimes, on the baby grand piano that Will managed to snaffle at a local auction for a fraction of what it should have cost. It's a lovely piano. My own ritual in the morning is once I've made the tea and it’s standing in the pot, I improvise on the grand. Usually this means I play for longer than I should and by the time I get back to the tea it’s stewed and I have to make a fresh pot.” 

Music is almost as central to Yates life as fishing or writing. “I go to the Salisbury Festival each year. I love a good concert space, like the Wigmore Hall or St. John’s Smith Square. And whenever I return from a night walk [the subject of his book Nightwalk published by HarperCollins in 2012], I have to listen to Owl Splinters by Deaf Centre. It’s night walk music.”

Pilgrims of music at Redmire

Like so many cultural icons who failed their 11 plus and were subsequently rescued in part by their experiences at Art School, one can only wonder what would have happened to Christopher Yates had he persisted with mathematics and scales and studied under Cornelius Cardew, like his hero Howard Skempton did at Morley College in the Sixties. Perhaps pilgrims of music would have flocked to Redmire Pool in the same way that anglers still do today. Ironically, Yates has appeared on stage in the Southbank’s Purcell Rooms – as a writer. Once upon a time in another life perhaps other work would have been performed there. One can only dream.

In the meantime, here is his playlist; one he tells me that changes as frequently as the direction of the wind at Redmire Pool but which clearly holds some fixtures such as Bartok and Shostakovich that will never change.                                

Howard Skempton Well, Well Cornelius
Bartok 2nd & 4th String Quartets
Shostakovich 4th & 15th String Quartets
Morgan Feldman The Viola in my Life
Supersilent Track No 8 on Supersilent 10
Sibelius 4th Symphony
John Woolrich The Viola Concerto
Mark Hollis A Life
Deaf Centre Owl Splinters
Alexander Knaifel In Air Clear and Unseen

Read Part One of this piece here.

Last date edited: 18 December 2014

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