David Profumo Biography
Nationality: British. Born: London, 1955. Education: Eton College, 1968-73; Magdalen College, Oxford, B.A. and M.A. (with honors), both 1977. Career: Assistant master of English, Eton College, Windsor, 1978, and The Royal School, Shrewsbury, 1978-79; part-time lecturer of English, King's College, London, 1981-83. Deputy editor, The Fiction Magazine, 1982-84. Awards: Geoffrey Faber Memorial prize, for Sea Music, 1989. Agent: Peters Fraser & Dunlop, The Chambers, Chelea Harbour, Lots Road, London SW10.
Sea Music. London, Secker and Warburg, 1988.
The Weather in Iceland. London, Picador, 1993.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Blind Man Eats Many Flies," in Foreign Exchange, edited by Julian Evans. London, Sphere, 1985.
In Praise of Trout. London, Viking, 1989.
Editor, with Graham Swift, The Magic Wheel: An Anthology of Fishing Literature. London, Picador, 1985.
* * *
A keen and knowledgeable angler, David Profumo permeates his writing with his interest in fishing. In Praise of Trout is a personal account of this passion, in this case trout fishing. It details types of trout, the characteristics of their habitat, and the methods used to catch them. However, it is more than yet another treatise on trout angling for devotees, since it is related in informal and anecdotal fashion with the easy skill of a writer, as well as the fervent passion of an angler.
The advent of The Magic Wheel: An Anthology of Fishing in Literature edited by Profumo and Graham Swift, should therefore come as no surprise. It produces an interesting and compelling range of sources, to compile an unusual and intriguing collection of literary material on matters piscatorial. The collection goes much further than the obligatory homage to Izaak Walton, bringing together in chronological manner, such unlikely writers as Virginia Woolf, John Donne, Herodotus, George Orwell, Li Yu and John Gay among others. The introduction to the anthology provides an informative history of the representation of angling in diverse literary works from the ancient Greeks to Ted Hughes. It points out that this huge body of literary representation has a basis in the not infrequent correlations between fishing and acts of imagination as they have been conceived of by writers over the years: angling is "a mythopoeic activity, the shapes of its experience being representative of experience elsewhere." The idiosyncratic guiding principal of fishing as "a paradigm of the individual struggle," makes this anthology committed and earnest, yet equally something of a rewarding curiosity for the nonangler.
Such themes and preoccupations reemerge in Profumo's first novel Sea Music which appeared to general acclaim. Set on a remote western Scottish island in the early 1950s, it narrates the adventures of a public schoolboy, James Benson, on his summer holiday. His businessman father and an assortment of Tory friends have rented a hunting lodge for the summer, and they generally engage themselves in huntin'-shootin'-fishin' pursuits. The adults treat the islanders with colonial contempt and insouciance, preoccupied with their various sporting triumphs and business transactions, while passing the wine and port around the dining table. Enclosed in their conservative milieu, little attention is given to James by these people beyond a condescending pretense of interest. With his mother incarcerated in an asylum (for some action which is never entirely clear), and somewhat estranged from his distant, severe father and his father's friends, James finds himself lonely, alienated and isolated in the group.
In such circumstances, it is not surprising that James is drawn into a friendship with the lodge underkeeper Alec Campbell, one of the indigenous islanders, who takes him under his wing. He introduces James to his aunt Rachel, a woman with the reputed mystical properties of second sight, and with whom James becomes increasingly fascinated. It is Alec and Rachel who engage James's attention: with stories about the island's past; jaunts to different parts of the island; anecdotes about various natural phenomena like the blood-stone; myths and legends about the Three Sons of the North Wind, and Bride, the foster-mother of Christ. It is through Alec's friendship that James undergoes an initiation in various island rites sufficient for Alec to acknowledge "You're an island boy now," in what appears to be all but an adoption of James as a surrogate son.
Profumo's writing is understated, working more by suggestion and hint than by emphatic declaration. It uses the Scottish islands as a gentle backdrop to the boy's unfolding consciousness, and the Gaelic language which marks the speech of the native inhabitants seems somewhat too "atmospheric" at times. Nevertheless, his novel constantly brings one back to water—the rivers and lochs of the island, the surrounding sea, and its animal life. The book is punctuated with James's initial observation of and contact with sea life: the "inky, arched backs" of lobsters; the jellyfish "like an egg poaching in a pan;" the skinning of a dead seal; the tense excitement of catching a trout; the surreptitious stealth in the night expedition to poach salmon; the compelling horror of finding a rotting monkey carcass on the shoreline. Profumo subtly brings his knowledge and love of fishing into the narrative and his dialogue between the portly Doctor and James about the art of making flies for fly-fishing; the descriptions of various fish throughout the holiday; and the lore attached to various fishing pursuits. This serves to give the narrative a delicate touch of depth, in a novel which is finely balanced between sketch and full portrait. Most of the characters are no more than suggestive types, from Mr. Benson's garrulous mistress Mrs. Walker who gushes and oozes affection throughout the novel, to the obsequious gamekeeper Willie Grant, who desires to rid himself of Alec Campbell and please the squirearchy.
It comes as something of a shock when James Benson dies in the final pages of the novel. He is diagnosed as having some form of blood disease, but the causes of death are inexact and there are symbolic and structural hints of some mysterious links with the illness Rachel suffered in the final days of James's vacation on the island. In the concluding scene, Alec launches a small leaf-boat on the sea and this returns the novel back to the realms of Scottish folk-myth which so riveted James in Rachel's company. The return to the sea also completes the symbolic dimension of the novel, with its fascination for the sound of water and the music of the sea. This first foray into fiction produces a compelling drama of childhood development, which provides a sympathetic depiction of a lonely and marginalized youth, whilst simultaneously acting as an oblique indictment of the class and community values of the English postwar bourgeoisie.