Top positive review
"Without faith there is no hope ..."
on 11 March 2017
Dr Andrew Jones, a scientist working at the Fisheries section of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural affairs, is told that an important and wealthy sheikh in the Yemen wants to introduce salmon fishing into the Wadi Aleyn there (which really exists), and that the Prime Minister is very keen to help him in order to strengthen British influence in that part of the world.
(It takes some time before the Prime Minister is named: here he is called Jay Vent, clearly standing for Tony Blair. His crude and smug spin doctor is here called Peter Maxwell. (Geddit?) The Iraq War is in progress. There will, quite late in the book, be a reference to “Operation Telic 2”, which, with the help of the Internet, enables us to locate the story in 2003.)
Of course Andrew, who enjoyed and knew all about salmon fishing himself, ridicules the idea: the conditions in the Yemen are totally unsuitable for such an undertaking; but when he is threatened with the sack if he refuses at least to explore how such a scheme might be realized, he reluctantly sets to work and comes up with how, at enormous expense, the things might be done.
The book consists of memos, reports, interviews, press items, emails, minutes of an enquiry, and especially extracts from Andrew’s diary, in which he comes a across as a scientist, a Humanist, a feminist, and occasionally, especially at the beginning of the book, as just a little prissy and Pooterish. He is very depressed because his marriage to a very ambitious wife is on the rocks.
He is introduced to Sheikh Muhammad on one of the latter’s visit to his mansion close by a salmon river near Inverness. The Sheikh is profoundly religious, and he sees salmon fishing as one activity in which members of all classes feel a sense of unity and peace: so he is doing Allah’s work by promoting it in the Arab world. He thought that if you have faith, everything is possible. He exudes a gentle charisma and makes everyone around him feel calm. Andrew’s view of the world will slowly be transformed by contact with the Sheikh and, later, by his experience among the devout Yemenis.
In the pages which follow, all kinds of snags appear. One of these is that, when the news of the project breaks, Al Qaeda wants the Sheikh eliminated.
Andrew is working with Harriet Chetwood-Talbot from the Land Agency which deals with the Sheikh’s affairs in Scotland and to which the Sheikh’s idea had been put forward in the first place. Part of the story is about the relationship between the two of them. She is engaged to Captain Robert Matthews who is in Iraq on so secret a mission that she cannot communicate with him.
Eventually Andrew and Harriet fly out to the Yemen (and Andrew’s diary describes the scenery there beautifully). They see the work being done on the project, and at last the day of the opening arrives. The Prime Minister and his spin doctor arrive. The Iraq War had become very unpopular; but the photoshoot of the ceremony should win over the votes of many of the four million anglers in the United Kingdom. What happened then is of course the dramatic climax of the novel.
At times the book sags a bit, with a certain amount of repetition. But the story, the satirical take on government, the character and reactions of Andrew, the knowledge of salmon fishing – all these are very enjoyable.