Stephen Harper on writing The Mightiest Mahseer - in conversation with Steve Lockett
Steve Lockett: In your recent interview with Martin Salter, you have covered lots of points about the fishing for hump-backed mahseer, as featured in the book. I would like to focus more on the history and the process of writing The Mightiest Mahseer.
The book has a clear sense of style, which reflects the earlier writing on mahseer. It is written by and for anglers, yet in such a way that a non-angler can easily follow the thread without becoming bogged down in jargon. Who influenced your writing, both as an angling writer and as a writer on Indian angling?
Stephen Harper: I don't have any single writer influencing me but I do read a lot and always have several books on the go. They must all influence me subliminally.
When I first wrote an article, Dick Walker had recently written advice on writing for angling. He said "just write as you speak". That is what I have always tried to do. Then having an article published gives you the confidence to write more.
The Indian angling classics were very Victorian in style and I am amazed at how good they were at writing in the English language; using correct words and punctuation. Using a semi colon was taught at school when I was there, but few people know how to use them nowadays.
Of the writing about fishing in India and fishing for mahseer, Quest for a Legendary Fish plus Paul Boote and Jeremy Wade's writings have all been influential.
SL: The layout is beautifully simple, with ample use of both non-specific page dressing and lots of photos. Was illustration or writing your primary route into publishing?
SH: My first article was published in 1977; my first book in 1989, which was Angling Afloat, written for Crowood Press. Being a graphic designer, I felt I could do better and control the whole process by myself. I was a photographer, illustrator and a writer. My first, self-published book was A Line on the Water, in 1991.
I started Harper Fine Angling Books in 2010 and have now produced 39 books, including one non-angling title.
SL: Tell me about the page dressing, it looks very Indian in style. Is there some hidden meaning behind it?
SH: The five symbols were simply chosen for their Indian-ness. They were available in a typeset I have in my computer.
I also have an old map of the River Kaveri, which mentions "rounded rocks". That description helped to fix in my mind one of the elements that readers who know the river would relate to.
SL: Some of these elements seem to be common across your website. For instance, the colour palette used has an earthy, muted, Indian sense of colour, even in your paintings. The ochre oranges and bold yet very flat matt greens and reds all feature prominently, perhaps as a result of your visits to India?
Does this style of page dressing appear in others of your books?
SH: The green and orange on the white background was a deliberate choice to reflect the Indian flag.
When I design a book, each title has its own identity, which takes me a while to develop. I just sit and experiment with different elements. I feel each part of the design helps to immerse the reader.
Having these dressings is my style. It sets me apart from books which I think have been designed by printers, not by graphic designers.
I have always been a book collector. For me it is just a case of bringing it all together into a single thing of beauty. Not only for the overall look but also the quality of materials used.
SL: Did you have a clear research process? If so (or if not), how did you begin?
SH: My process began because I am a bit of a hoarder. Once I get onto a subject I do like to find out as much information as I can. The information on mahseer was very interesting. The WASI journals were given to me on my first trip and they included a list of the largest mahseer caught. From there I started to hunt through old books and other publications.
I then wrote to Joubert Van Ingen, who was very helpful indeed. I sent him a copy of my painting of a hump-backed mahseer and in return he sent me detailed sheets of records from his father. The information just snowballed.
The old books were interesting but contained little information on the very biggest fish. Some of the journals like Bombay Natural History Society journals, The Pioneer and The Field held useful detail but they were only available by tracking down the original print copies. I came upon a brick wall because there was not the right level of information available on the Internet. So I shelved the project. I just had a name and a weight of all the big fish and nothing more to go on.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, I decided to have another go at tracking down the information. I found that much more information was available to access online, as original documents had been scanned and uploaded into various research libraries.
My first focus was any information about big fish pre-Raj. The only information I could find was in the writings of Someshvara III, from the Chalukya dynasty. Then I was very methodical in tracking down every 100lb plus fish caught by angling from pre-Independence records.
Once I had the pre-Independence details, I turned to the more modern era. Andy Clarke of Trans World Fishing Team was brilliant, very comprehensive in his recounting of their pioneering journey. John Wilson had given me his angling diary with carte blanche to use in print anything I wanted.
SL: What appeals about history? Did you study it at school or university?
SH: I have always been very interested in all history. Art was my main subject at grammar school but history was my second favourite while I studied at Norwich School of Art. The British Empire and the World Wars are my favourite historical subjects.
My love of history means I have written similar books on the history of pike fishing (Broadland Pike; The Pike of Broadland, both similar in style to The Mightiest Mahseer. Plus A History of Pike Fishing Vol 1 and Vol 2, by Graham Booth, published by Harper Fine Angling Books).
SL: I have found that many small details in The Mightiest Mahseer offer clues as to why there has been so much pressure on the fish. For instance, you recount Sanderson’s mention in 1878 of the diversion of the Lakshmantirtha River into the River Kabini. That there were huge hump-backed mahseer in the Lakshmantirtha is completely incredible nowadays, it is nothing much more than a garbage-filled, water hyacinth-choked canal around Hunsur.
Yet perhaps these water diversions hold some of the key to their disappearance? (rhetorical)
Are there any historical details that you wish had been more easily available, indeed any information that you were simply not able to find?
SH: Details about captures from the Raj days were pretty scant and come with a lot of confusion attached. The location of the Murray-Aynsley marker stone (scene of the capture of a huge hump-backed mahseer), for instance, is not entirely clear. I decided I had to just report what I found in my research, not be judge and jury.
Angling details would have been great to include but in many cases have just not been recorded. For example: Rivett-Carnac mentions his fish came on a lure but others have reported his fish was caught on ragi. I suspect he means his baited hook was his 'lure', rather than the fish actually being caught on a lure.
You have to work with what you have to hand.
SL: Was it a difficult process tracking down all those who have been lucky enough to be up close with a 100lb hump-backed mahseer?
SH: The modern fish were a lot easier and I did manage to speak to each captor. It meant I could ask specific questions, which was a lot easier than trying to get 'flesh out of the bones' of the Raj-era 100lbers. Dave Plummer hosted many of the trips where 100lb fish were caught, and he was always available to give me contact details.
Javid Ansari I found through Facebook. He was very helpful and sent me the photos taken at Galibore camp. He called me and talked me all the way through the account of his capture.
It was a similar situation with Faiz Rashid.
I had an account of Saad Bin Jung's capture from two different places, which differed slightly. I had kept every account I had found, so when I finally spoke to Saad, he was very helpful and I gave him the option to alter the two stories. He settled on a report that held elements of both stories I had heard.
SL: In The Mightiest Mahseer, you talk about the “Renaissance” from the late 1980s onwards. Have you found many details about what was happening with mahseer in India from Independence until the Trans World Fishing Team’s journey in 1977?
SH: From 1947, the only fish I could find was a 96lber mentioned by Van Ingen. Other than that there is very little information about the fishing. I guess there was so much work and unrest involved with Independence. The Van Ingens were quiet, which suggests not many were going fishing.
WASI forming in 1972 was a key action in securing prime spots of river for angling. Those days saw some good mahseer caught by their members. Plus, of course, all the locals who were employed as ghillies went on to play a big part in every anglers' success, as part of the WASI story. Without them, Bola, Subhan and Sundar Raj among many others may have continued as poachers rather than becoming the fierce mahseer protectors they became.
SL: Either from your talks with anglers while on the river, or possibly reflected in sales of the book, do you think the “Renaissance” period is of interest just to UK-based anglers? Spread wider across Europe? Or are there people worldwide who are interested in the legend or the plight of the hump-backed mahseer?
SH: When I first fished the River Kaveri in 1991, a lot of the anglers were from Germany, Belgium, Holland and Denmark, not British at all. There is definitely interest in mahseer from anglers across Europe thanks to those early days of the "Renaissance".
SL: Has response to the book been as you expected?
SH: Well, I have sent copies to China, Latvia, Singapore and Australia, among others. Many of those who have bought the book have never fished for mahseer. It reflects what a special, legendary fish the hump-backed mahseer is.
I never imagined I would get this kind of response because the subject is somewhat niche. No other book of mine has received such a positive response. Readers have to come back to me and tell me how much they liked the book.
I get lovely comments and I am very appreciative of all those comments. Many of the comments are listed on the website.
SL: You mention some of the work that Adrian Pinder and I did in the Natural History Museum, London and in the Regional Museum of Natural History in Mysore. In Mysore, we saw so many preserved fish and, indeed, the head and skin possibly from Sanderson’s fish known to have previously been in Bangalore Museum, as well as the cast of J. de Wet Van Ingen’s 120lber and trophy boards of pharyngeal teeth. We have discussed creating a hump-backed mahseer heritage museum using those artifacts?
Do you think there would be educational value in such a project?
SH: Anything like that is a fantastic idea. Had I been able to access that sort of display, it would definitely have fired me up. The value is immense and will help naturalists and historians. Sadly they will probably be following on in a time when there are fewer hump-backed mahseer than now. That is another reason why I needed to write this book. It is very sad that many will never see what I have been lucky to see.
SL: The book’s cover is also available as a limited edition print, it certainly encapsulates many elements of the hump-backed mahseer. When did you create that illustration?
SH: Whenever I get inspired, I have to paint. I don't do many and I have to be pushed into it. When I got home from India it was a link back for me and after three trips I completed that painting. It was sometime in the mid-1990s. A few people I showed it to asked for a print, which lead to me offering limited numbers of copies through the website.
SL: Is Harper Fine Angling Books a one-man operation?
SH: It certainly is.
SL: To finish, isn’t publishing in decline? Why do we need a book like The Mightiest Mahseer?
SH: I never felt that I had in my hands the mahseer book that I wanted to read. I always had that urge to create the book I wished I could have read.
With the rise of the Internet, I did wonder if that would see the end of the printed word. Books do seem to have revived in much the same way that vinyl records are more popular again now. It may be that the Covid pandemic has played a part. My book binder has said that he has never been so busy.
I think we spend too much time staring at a screen. A lot of the information on a screen is very ephemeral, whereas a book sits on the shelf and is always there.
Gary Newman, TV Production Manager for Korda:
“Mahseer being my favourite fish in the world, I had to get a copy of this book. Stephen Harper has done a fantastic job of documenting the captures of the big mahseer that have been caught over the years. It is an interesting read, with great photos and is beautifully produced. I bought both hardback and leather-bound copies. The latter is one of the nicest looking books in my entire collection.”
Buy The Mightiest Mahseer and other superb titles in luxury bindings direct from www.harperanglingbooks.co.uk