Simple pleasures are the last refuge of the complex. Like some other aphorisms of Oscar Wilde, that one tends to leak when prodded gently with a pointed stick.
As a muddled operator, I regard myself as complicated, but so-called ‘simple’ pleasures for me tend to be about as fulfilling as a shopping trip with an empty wallet.
Moreover, what one initially believes to be simple turns out to be nothing of the sort. Take angling, an activity beguiling in its promise of uncomplicated euphoria but surrounded by customs and practices guaranteed to make you fall at the first – a case of complex pleasures being the first refuge of the simple.
Those who breeze through life unconcerned at the aim and trajectory of slings and arrows and rendered helpless if sympathetic by the world and its ills will take on casting and fly-tying as if they were being offered wine gums, to be chewed while sorting out a series of arcane problems.
It was on a cold Sabbath morn that I encountered one of those. If you pass me that stick from the opening paragraph, I’ll part the riverside weeds and reveal what happened.
For those who don’t know (the complex yet to resort to the simple), you fly-fish for trout, salmon and their ilk in the summer and coarse-fish for all other brands – rudd, roach, chubb and their monosyllabic relatives – in winter. You see, it’s a bit of a maze already.
The trouble on that fateful Sunday was with the trout, which were out of season and therefore on a sabbatical from the fisherman’s hook but still around to mess things up. I catapulted a snowball of maggots and wet bread upstream and cast below it. By the time it had deconstructed and the bits had flowed my way, tempting the piscatorial critturs, I was ready to haul in.
But it wasn’t that simple. There occurred what we complex types call an epiphanous moment as a fat, sun-speckled trout (the day was cold but cloudless) exploded Orca-like through the water’s surface, performed a double somersault and plopped back, just out of sheer bloody-mindedness. It scared off all the other fish in that vicinity for the rest of the day.
My simple companion, more au fait than I with the complexities of fishing, uttered a one-word expletive to do with the act of sexual congress and wrapped up his rods, silently implying that I, in my simplicity, should do the same. I, in my ignorant complexity, concurred.
The fact is, simple pleasures that involve killing or maiming wildlife, which is what fishing does, are often clothed in complex ritual, perhaps to downgrade the slaughter itself. Fox-hunting is the supreme example. What Wilde had to say about that would never spring a leak.
Maybe by ‘last’ refuge he meant that when all complication had been gone through, simple pleasures, such as taking a warm bath and thinking about nothing, was likely to be the more satisfying.
The sort of complexity I like often involves myth. As Seamus Heaney noted, the slimy, mud-loving tench is known in some places as ‘the doctor fish’ for its supposed habit of healing sick colleagues that rub up against it. My sole attempt at hooking one resulted in my line being caught in a tree. I spent the whole time out on a limb, as it were, attempting to retrieve it, like a simpleton.
Clearly I hadn’t been concentrating on the intricacies of the sport, if sport it was. Dangling from a branch and wrapped in nylon filament, I was no doubt spotted by the tench and identified as some sort of wavy, aerial ‘turn’. So it passed on to make itself useful among its lugubrious friends.
Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, I’m an ex-angler. Giving up fishing was simple; ascribing to fish an ability to recognise human frailty is a more complicated way of making oneself understood.