Book Review: Keeper by Martin Donovan

What They Say

At age fifteen, Martin ‘Donny’ Donovan graduated from Testwood School in Southampton, England and set out on a ten-year odyssey of traveling the world, working odd jobs, and pining for an eventual means of returning home to the chalkstreams where he fished and explored as a child.

Through connections and persistence he eventually worked his way into the exclusive niche of riverkeeping and landed a job working the Nursling beats on the famed River Test.

Keeper, is Donovan’s rollicking account of his antics abroad, and two decades of tending rivers, coddling fish, and guiding anglers. His stories are exceptional, but what ultimately sets them apart is Donovan’s wry voice and his bracing departure from the stereotypical English fly-fishing memoir.

After eleven years of working as a riverkeeper on the Lower Test at Nursling, Donny moved his wife, three children, and two dogs to the headwaters in the spring of 2010.

He now keeps the Whitchurch beat, a quiet and scenic stretch of the River Test with lots of rising trout, comparatively few poachers, and an owner who shares Donny’s passion for the river and the fish.

What We Say

This has been my late-night reading for the last week or two and it has been perfect for a chapter or two before bed, laid out as it is into a collection of 35 short stories following Martin “Donny” Donovan’s life that has revolved around his love and passion for England’s wonderful River Test. With chapter headings like “The Northampton Mafia”, “A Bottle of £2 Vintage” and “Falling Tree and Floating Farmer” you can tell instantly this is more than just a memoir of life and times on the river which in fact it is but it is also so much more.

‘Donny’ Donovan (“only my mum calls me Martin”) has a great knack for hitting the funny bone and I have to admit to several laugh out loud moments that probably had the family wondering what was going on. The life of a riverkeeper can often seem idyllic to those of us just passing through for a day or two a year, spending time in the bucolic atmosphere of such a hallowed river as the Test but as Donovan shows there is much more to the job than meets the eye both in terms of natural challenges as well as having to deal with various & nefarious characters!

When I bought the book back into the office after finishing it I immediately recommended it to my colleagues (as I do to you dear reader) and I don’t think I can give it any higher praise than that. Now we just have to hope that Donovan has more stories up his sleeve so we can look forward to “Keeper II” somewhere down the line.

For an example of one of the stories please see the extract from the book below…

Motorcycles & Fishing Rods

For the past thirty years or so, my primary method of transportation has been an old British motorcycle. Sometimes it gets me halfway to my destinations, other times not quite that far, but it’s no doubt a great little motorbike.

I’ve chased poachers on it and I’ve escaped from poachers on it; and while I’ll admit to a few close calls, the bastards have yet to catch me. The one near miss with a pissed, shovel-wielding Irish gypsy did, however, prompt me to enquire about the chances of fitting an electric start button onto it.

An unusual “company vehicle” it may be, but I love my British bike, and am sure that it is to me what a cane rod is to the wicker basket brigade. Its attractions and our relationships can be similarly explained.

One of my mates has just bought a brand new 2004 Yamaha R1 motorcycle, and according to his normally sound judgement it is, apparently, the “dog’s bollocks.” It does nought-to-sixty in a little under three seconds and has a top speed of very nearly 200 miles per hour. It has incredible handling and amazing suspension, sounds like a grand prix car and looks like a space vehicle.

When the Yamaha R1 needs service, it has to be done by a team of professionals who plug it into a computer and tweak where necessary. Unless you have a degree in computer science and a Ferrari mechanic’s toolbox, it’s best you don’t touch the engine bit. The R1 will start at the press of a button and is widely regarded by modern day racing lunatics as the finest and most exhilarating motorcycle ever made.

In my opinion, the 2004 Yamaha R1 is so brilliant, it’s crap.

I ride a 1956 G9 Matchless, which fifty years ago was deemed to be of that same cutting edge technology. British motorbikes were the best in the world during that era and the Matchless was as good as any. Top speed for the Matchless G9 is about half that of the Yamaha R1. Comfort and handling are somewhat agricultural and your average modern day plastic-fantastic rider would probably get bored of waiting for its nought-to-sixty interval.

Of the many classic quips that I’ve heard from Vic Foot over the years, two apply to my motorbike: “Dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle,” and “If it’s got wheels or tits, you’re bound to have trouble.”

Starting the Matchless takes the strength of a carthorse, the balance of a gymnast, and the daring of a stunt man. If you get the timing of your kick-start slightly wrong, you’ll be launched over the handlebars like an amateur cowboy. The Matchless is smelly, smoky, sounds like a machine gun, and leaves great pools of oil wherever, whenever, and indeed if ever you can stop it. It can be taken apart and reassembled at the side of the road using nothing more than an adjustable spanner, a decent screwdriver, and plenty of rags. Nothing too technical can go wrong with this bike because there is nothing very technical about this bike.

The 1956 G9 Matchless is so crap, it’s brilliant.

Admittedly, I used to ride the motorbikes usually referred to by my Dad as “Jap crap.” Like most kids, I was impressed with speed, acceleration, styling and so on. The older I get, however, I find myself more irresistibly drawn to the simplistic delights of an earlier time.

After many years of motorbiking up and down the Test Valley, I have noticed a difference in reaction relative to the machine I was riding. When I used to ride the quiet, clean, eco-friendly modern bikes, I sometimes felt an alarming sense of intrusion as I meandered my way through the delightful little villages. People would stare and scowl, and some would turn away in disgust. While I was never actually spat on, a few of the villagers looked as if they were considering it.

Nowadays, when I putter through the villages on the Matchless, sounding like a Sherman tank, scaring the living daylights out people and animals, and leaving a good deal of smoke in the air and oil on the road, I am looked upon as some kind of returning hero. Oh look dear, a real motorcycle like the one Grandad used to have. They don’t make them like that anymore.

It’s all about character, a bit of individuality, of style, feeling, and soul. The Matchless most definitely has a soul, and is a living, breathing, loudly-talking creation that has become much more than just a method of transportation; it has become a good, trusted companion. I have lengthy discussions with it, divulging personal information that I wouldn’t dare share with anybody else. I understand the Matchless and feel as if I should look after it as I would an elderly relative. At times it becomes a temperamental old bastard that I cuss at when it refuses to start or breaks down at the side of the road; but just like in marriage, the making up part makes the fighting worthwhile. What on earth is the point in owning a bike that’s never going to break down? Where’s the fun in that? Half the enjoyment of owning the Matchless is in the promise that once in a while you may actually complete your journey on time and without having to rebuild the bike on the way.

If I could associate my adoration for the Matchless to a piece of fishing gear, it would have to be my preference for a classic bamboo fly rod over the modern-era carbon rods.

Like the flawless, gleaming Japanese motorcycles coming off the production line, the carbon blanks are mass produced overseas by machines that neither understand nor particularly care about the reasons why we fish.

Again it comes down to personal choice, and is very dependant upon how you want to fish, or indeed how you want to ride a motorcycle. Do you want to wear a full, snug leather suit with lots of colourful writing on it and go ridiculously fast at the touch of a button, or do you want to potter about on a misfiring old fart box while wearing goggles to keep the engine oil out of your eyes? Do you want to effortlessly cast forty yards using an ultralight piece of soulless carbon, or would you prefer to have a toned and muscular casting arm because you’ve chosen to fish with something that at one time in its life had leaves on it?

It’s a tough choice that needs careful consideration, and probably should be decided well away from any elderly relatives, especially trout fishing grandparents who may claim to have ridden “real motorbikes” in their younger days.

With the motorbikes it’s about whether you ride for enjoyment or necessity, although with fishing the same argument can’t be used. Efficiency can never be measured against tradition because the Yamaha R1 or the carbon rod would win almost every time.

If we get pleasure from fishing with cane, then fair play to us. There’s no need to pretend it’s better than carbon because we’re not trying to compete against carbon. Likewise, when sat at traffic lights desperately trying to keep the British bike ticking over, we never make grotty hand gestures at the Japanese models because us older, wiser people have finally realised that we don’t want to race anymore, we just want to enjoy the ride.

I guess you could say that I’ve started defending the past. Strange thing, sentiment.