Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

by Paul Torday

This was a first novel by Paul Torday, published in 2007 when he was 60.   A quick straw poll of the members of H3A English Reading Group revealed that everyone had enjoyed the novel and most would strongly recommend it to friends.

Some felt, on hearing the title, that it would be something like A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian: A Novel byMarina Lewycka;  in other words some of us anticipated the title to have, at most,  only a very tenuous link with the story.   However, with this delightful book, what you get is what it says on the cover….. and so much more!

Salmon Fishing tells the tale of Dr Albert Jones, a government employed fisheries scientist, who gets drawn reluctantly into what he describes initially as a “risible” scheme to introduce salmon fishing into the Yemen.   The story is told through a series of diary entries, reports, memos, emails, excerpts from Hansard and newspaper articles.

The uniting factor for all these snippets of information, as becomes evident later on, is that they are being examined as part of a Government enquiry “into the circumstances surrounding the decision to introduce salmon in the Yemen… and the subsequent events”.

The bland description of the brief to the investigating committee masks a brilliantly conceived tragic-comic tale that starts with an apparently unrealisable dream by a rich Yemeni sheikh to take traditional salmon fishing to a dried up river bed (wadi) in Yemen and culminates in the death of the sheikh and the British Prime Minister when they are washed away by surging waters as they prepare to fish during the opening ceremony of the wadi.

The book works on several levels:  at its simplest it is the triumph of hope and belief over science;   at another, delightful level, it is a wonderfully observed satire on today’s “spin-directed” media obsessed  political agenda;  at the level of human relationships, it is the story  of “two rational and career-minded people”, one of whom discovers through an “increasing sense of intellectual and emotional restlessness”   that their  “calm and settled (but passionless) relationship” is simply  not enough;   at another level, it is a spiritual journey for several of the protagonists;  for the sheikh himself it is a chance he wants to give God to perform a miracle;  at yet another level, it is a comparison of spiritual beliefs and values viewed through the eyes of believers and non-believers, from West and East.

All of us saw an all-too-familiar world  of modern “spin-based” politics which seems to be a major feature of politics everywhere:

  • a world where governments and policies are driven solely by  “appearance” rather than “reality” ;
  • a world where whether the photo op will work is more important than whether the policy will work;
  • a world of  “short-termism”, where the media “has an attention span of about 20 minutes and a new story can tempt them to drop the bone (the media managers) wants them to drop”; where the government director of communications is nicknamed “Mr Good News”;
  • a world where the carrot of an honour or award can be used to motivate normally rational human beings to do irrational and even immoral things; and conversely  where the stick is  a word in the right ear in “the club” that can ensure promotion denied or a budget cut;
  • a world where parliamentary enquiries can white wash everyone in power and come up with a sacrificial goat to assuage public opinion
  • a world of clashes between religious and political ideologies, a dialogue of the deaf, where each side  is unshakeably  convinced it has a monopoly on “Truth” and the superiority of its values ;

One of the great strengths of the book for the group was the characterisation.   All the protagonists,  particularly the politicians, the civil servants and especially the Government’s fictional Director of Communications were so accurately drawn that several of us were convinced that they were based on real-life characters who have featured prominently in recent British politics.   Was “Jay Vent”  the book’s fictional Prime Minister,  really Tony Blair?  Was the odious Director of Communications “Peter Maxwell”  (PM, like his boss, the PM) a very thinly veiled Alistair Campbell, or perhaps Peter Mandelson (PM again)?

The preface assures us that:

“this book is a work of fiction.   Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously*, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental”

*my italics 

so it must be our imagination – mustn’t it?

However, all the characters elicited strong responses from the group.

We  were united in believing that the real victim in the book (apart from the fish of course) was Dr Albert Jones.

“Dr Alfred Jones”:  down to earth, good solid Welsh name, intelligent, rational, expert in a very narrow sphere;   middle class, rather diffident , not a teller of jokes, kind and thoughtful, generously forgiving and naive.  Gives thoughtful birthday presents (The Economist subscription).  Not a snappy dresser, but does scientific  analysis on his pyjama elastic.  .  Embarrassed about sex – puts down his desire for a bit more “passion” in his life to eating too much red meat and  when he has to mention it, he alludes to it tangentially by saying he didn’t have to wear his pyjamas for the first part of the night.   Has no idea about love and was bounced into marriage just as he is subsequently into involvement with the barmy project.

Ultimately he was used by the system and abandoned to his fate.   Some felt he was utterly lost.   Some were convinced that there was more to come, that is was not “over” for Fred quite yet. Others, that he finds, if not happiness, at least contentment by the end of the story.

Dr Jones’ wife, Mary elicited less sympathy.   We felt she too used Albert in her own way.   She was the instigator of them getting married, one senses so she could get that hurdle out of the way; Albert seems to fit the bill,  love didn’t seem to come into it.   Albert describes his wife as sharp-featured, slim, intense;  we see her as hard headed, practical, professional, driven, very intelligent, unshakeably confident in her own views;  she is the leader in their relationship and a bit of a bully;  unemotional, passionless;   having children denied  purely an economic grounds;  has had an  empathy bypass ;  doesn’t like long phone calls but never at home long enough to talk;  conducts her whole life like a business meeting; gives practical, prosaic birthday presents like toothbrush replacement.  Believes that the place for alcohol is in a bottle and seems to dispense sex “like giving a dog a biscuit – to keep it going for a bit”.   Lacks any interest in clothes or makeup  “she smelled clean, of rather antiseptic soap” says Albert  and believed “expensive perfumes to be a form of female exploitation”.  As for clothes , they were “sensible and practical”,  and thought “dressing up for work as demeaning for women”, she “wears baggy brown linen work suits at home and grey ones at work”.   By the end of the story, she is left where she is happiest, still married to Albert but climbing the corporate ladder unencumbered by having to live in close contact with him, and therefore beyond risk of him causing her any further embarrassment.   Albert still believes she would look after him financially….. if he let her.   Are we convinced?

Harriet Chetewode-Talbot  is everything Mary is not.    According to Fred she is “courteous, elegant, tall and slender, intelligent, professional, beautiful with  a “cut glass voice”.    The second part of her double-barrelled name (already a class label in itself) refers to a sleek,  extinct hound often seen in portraits of the aristocracy, described as broad mouthed, large eared and usually white.  According to her, Albert is attracted to her but dare not admit it;   she regards herself as Fred’s social superior;  at first she does not like him, seeing him as pompous but warms to him;  she is great at using her femininity and looks to manipulate Fred.  At times it is like watching an experienced fly fisherwoman at work.   By the end of the book, when Fred tries to tell her how much he loves her, she realistically tells him it would not work, and takes herself off to recover from all the trauma in France.   At least one of the group felt that, if the story had continued, she might have been back with Albert.

Rt Hon Jay Vent,MP – The PM.   Could be mistaken for Tony Blair?  Archetypal modern politician and PM.   Name could be a nice bit of satire:  “Jay” a kind of bird with bright plumage and a raucous cry;  “Vent” a bore hole to allow gas to escape;  and also a fish’s anus.  A creature of the spin doctor’s creation;  shallow, opportunistic, a good actor and mouther of other people’s words, focussed solely on political advantage and will turn through 180 degrees if it is politically expedient;   but run by his communications director;  shortens everyone’s name because he is “their mate”.   The sheikh becomes “my old friend” and maybe convinces himself he met him at a cocktail party at No 10. Even the Yemeni newspaper buys into the story.  He appears to be a labour politician judging by his addressing a fellow labour MP as my right honourable friend.

Peter Maxwell – of all the characters, the most obvious lift from real life:  must be the Alastair Campbell of Blair’s administration.  The Scottish roots of both their names, a hint;  the use of Maxwell, which conjures up Robert Maxwell another clue.  And that fact that PM stands for prime minister as well as peter Maxwell, like they are interchangeable.   A thoroughly odious character, 5 foot six tall, but with a gigantic ego;   not classically intelligent but media savvy and politically well tuned.  A fount of instant quotes, but   very shallow.   Not very senior in the scheme of things but uses his position to invoke the power of his boss. Very aware of his own position “Do you know who I am?” “Doesn’t he know who I am”.   Lives by 3 televisions and his Blackberry;  always looking for the good news and burying the bad news;  dress sense very wayward, dresses like an actor, white trench coat, “suits too young for him , shoulder pads, nipped in at the waist, scarlet lining, candy striped shirts, large cuff links and terrible ties – and what’s that stuff he puts on his hair”, safari jacket and chinos;  Disliked by most people but also slightly feared.   Overly familiar with colleagues (“Mike” Ferguson eg “Have we met, Mr Maxwell”) .   Really very gauche when out of his depth;  Doesn’t understand the “toff” Boris Johnson’s question  “mens sana in corpora sano”;  believes all salmon live in fish farms.   Despite all his wheeler dealering he gets his comeuppance in the end.

Sheikh Muhammad ibn Zaidi bani Tihama – probably the least fully drawn character, and maybe because of that he probably comes out best.   He is a champion of hope, a firm believer in the power of faith and belief; he also has overblown faith in the power of fishing to unite people;  he is a pragmatist (whiskey is water of life, so A will forgive him if he drinks a bit in Scotland); a gentle and quietly spoken man who commands attention;  he has a calming effect on people but also motivates them;  an astute awareness of the threats his project posed.

The group enjoyed reading Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.  If nothing else it confirmed some of their worst fears about the modern face of politics – everywhere!

In the author’s own words (Times interview)

“One of the reasons I wrote this particular book was the great sense of discomfort I had about the Middle East, in particular our [the West’s] perception of it. I’m using that phrase now, the Middle East, but of course it is a region with many different countries. In the past 15 years or so my wife and I have been there many times, mainly in Oman. And obviously I have used that for my descriptions of places and conditions. Why didn’t I call the book Salmon Fishing in the Oman? I think I thought it just didn’t sound as good as in ‘the Yemen’.

“Anyway, after 9/11 it vexed me to see all those really quite prejudiced articles about Islamism. There are some very stable and devout societies in the Middle East which are being overlooked. The other thing that gave me the idea for writing the book as I did was . . .”

He pauses watchfully, as well he might, given the influence he is about to cite. “. . . the Hutton report. I thought a pastiche of that style would be rather a good way forward.”

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>