I’ve just spent a few days chasing pike with Henry Hughes, professor of English Literature at Western Oregon University. Henry is a poet and editor as well as a lecturer in English. His most recent anthology Fishing Stories in the Everyman Pocket Classic series featured a story of mine – Wash and Tope – in with some pretty good company: Annie Proulx, Norman Maclean, Rudyard Kipling. I didn’t mind at all when Henry dropped me a line asking if he could include it.
We hadn’t met – except by email – before I collected Henry from his bus at the Vancouver Bus Station Kings Lynn just as it was turning dark on New Year’s Eve. He was optimistic for a British pike, laden with wine and spinning baits. It was a small party that night, our family of four, Henry and Richard, also a poet. We needed something to mark the New Year and decided to launch a single rocket on the dot of midnight from the spit of land beyond the coal-barn at Thornham harbour. After all, this was the harbour from which our tope boat had launched in my short story.
We carried a camera to mark the occasion, but my son Patrick took charge of the photo while I wrestled with matches in the biting wind. It took a while. East and west the Norfolk coast was lit up by distant rockets, all more professionally propelled into the firmament. We almost ran out of matches. Finally one caught. As the rocket climbed and climbed and burst into brief, starlit life about a mile above the marsh I realised that even on wide-angle Patrick would never have captured its full explosive glory. We played back the image with trepidation … but Patrick’s photo was different. A firework shot none of us had seen before and way better for it.
By breakfast the next morning Henry had written a poem to sit beside Patrick’s photo.
New Year’s Eve, Thornham Harbour, 2015. Poem by Henry Hughes.
Beyond the silly disco-lit pub,
Heavy wind and moon blowing us
Beside the trickle of sober boats
And brick coal-barn,
The wide Wash
Drawn down to muscle and vein.
Champagne, tripod and camera,
And one huge rocket
We try to light in furious wind –
Match after match,
Huddled around the fuse
Like artillerymen desperate for ceremony –
Then sparkle, back pedal and Oh!
The searing launch and bright explosion
Of another Happy New Year!
Hugs, pours, wishful wishes,
And the camera’s eight-second shutter
That only shows
The molten, burning stem of ascent
And not the pretty flower
That died in the sky.
And we say, ‘That’s pretty cool’,
‘That’s better’, ‘That’s great!’