The Musical World of Chris Yates

"I only have to hear the opening bars of Shostakovich's 5th and I'm immediately transported to the lake. It's 3am, yet to be dawn. Just me and the carp." Words: John Andrews

Chris Yates is known throughout the angling world for his rare ability to capture the essence of what it is to go fishing. His 1986 book Casting at the Sun and his subsequent role in BBC2's A Passion for Angling mean that whenever he appears at a book signing, scores of people turn up to hear him read.

Not since Bernard Venables, author and illustrator of 1940s classic Mr. Crabtree Goes Fishing (arguably the greatest angling book of the 20th Century), has there been such a one-off and it is not surprising that the two men forged a firm friendship in the years before Venables' death in 2001. But what is surprising is that one of Yates main ambitions in childhood, alongside wanting to catch monsters, was to be a composer. 

Giant carp, ancient lakes, holy trout

This disclosure, during an interview I conducted with him for Caught by the River, was something that stayed with me for a long time after I'd filed my copy. We spoke about many things that day - it was a conversation that began over a pint at lunchtime and continued until it was time for me to catch the last train back to London.

But of all of the things we talked about – giant carp; ancient lakes; holy trout; secret ponds; myths and charms – it was that admission which left a lasting impression. It gave me a different view of the man, as if I had suddenly learnt that Elgar had been a roach man or Vaughan Williams had a thing about bream. 

Bartók and Bach

This time round we return to the conversation over the course of several long-distance phone calls on that old-fashioned listening device – the landline. “I have vivid memories of my father playing piano at home when I was a child,” he says. “I would be in bed by 8 o'clock and from downstairs would come the sound of my father playing a piece by Bartók or Bach. He would single out whichever piece he was trying to master and play it over and over again. He wasn't a brilliant player but he had quite a sensitive touch and would go over and over a phrase until he had got it right.”

It wasn’t long before the young Yates was having music instruction of his own with the formidable Mrs. Bullet. “I lived like most of her pupils in mortal fear of missing the C minor during tenor lessons.”

“It was the day after I bought my Mk. IV Avon”

After one too many encounters with Mrs. Bullet's eponymous style, Yates began to teach himself. He picked up pieces by ear by listening to the monthly delivery of the latest World Record Club disc, most of which were the work of his father's favourite Russian and Eastern European composers.

This prompted Yates to try and learn Bartók’s cycle of short piano pieces For Children. “My sister Helen and I would sit and learn them diligently at the piano. She mastered them all and I managed a couple. It's a wonderful cycle which strongly influenced my tastes.”

Living a relatively short train journey from London and the newly built Festival Hall, it was not long before Yates experienced live music in the form of the monumental Shostakovich's 11th Symphony with its huge percussive section. Closer to home at The Kingston ABC he saw The Shadows as a thirteen year-old (whose twang prompted him to form a band) and later witnessed Otis Redding and The Four Tops at The Croydon Suite but returned continuously to the musical conversation he had been having since he was a small boy.

After a night of Motown he would go home and put on Prokofiev's 5th Symphony. “I loved the contrast. I remember the first time heard Shostakovich's 5th, not the 4th for which he was almost sent to the Gulag. It was the day after I had bought my Mk. IV Avon on the eve of the first day of the season in 1964. I only have to hear the opening bars of the 5th now and I am immediately transported back to the side of the lake. It is 3am, yet to be dawn, damp and misty. Just me and the carp.”

There was another conversation beginning here – one in the space of the music of these composers and the way that Yates read the landscape into which he was becoming increasingly absorbed as he fished.

In the next newsletter: music and writing, and a special playlist of his favourite music.

Last date edited: 4 December 2014

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