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ST remembers Fred J. Taylor

Fred J. Taylor, a close and personal friend for 40 or more years, was a one-off. A true and genuine countryman who followed a personal hunter-gatherer code, Fred knew more about wildlife in every shape and form than all your Bill Oddies and similar pseudo-naturalists will ever come to know. Born in February 1919, Fred was a modest man with a wealth of knowledge that was always at the disposal of anyone who sought his help, as the many visitors who met him on the Shooting Times stand at the Game Fair will readily testify. A countryman, yes, but not for him the posey thumbsticks, elaborate tweeds, funny hats or camouflage clothing, for Fred was a simple man with simple tastes and dressed down for an occasion, not as a deliberate gesture of defiance, but because that is how he was.

His skills were many, whether with rod and line, gun or ferret, but his greatest achievement was, without question, his rare ability to write with clarity and simplicity in a style that left readers feeling that he was speaking directly to them. His writing appeared to be instant and, though he was untaught, his many and regular contributions to Shooting Times and the books he wrote, such as Reflections of a Countryman, Country Hearts and Travellin’ Man, so clearly reflect his innate ability to master the written word and communicate with his readers. Though he was brought up as a simple country lad, spending his boyhood days with his pals Will, Knocker and Dinger, hunting starlings and moorhens with catapults and fishing for eels and perch with primitive rods and tackle, his way with words may possibly have stemmed from his father, who was a bookbinder. Yet, by his own account, he spent little time reading or bothering with schooling, far preferring to be long-netting and ferreting for rabbits or hunting with an air rifle.

Nothing went to waste. Rabbits, starlings, rooks’ breasts, all were prepared and cooked. There is little doubt that Fred’s love of food and its preparation was founded in those early boyhood exploits. Indeed, the transition to his first job in a bakery, shortly before World War II, was a natural progression of his love of pot-hunting. Always adventurous and seeking new experiences, shortly before the War Fred joined the Tank Corps and was already serving in Egypt on the outbreak of hostilities. Though he was reticent about his war service, he told me that, having helped to defeat the Italians in Libya, he found himself one of the defenders at the Siege of Tobruk when assailed by the Afrika Corps. After weeks, he said, of boredom and terror, the British managed to break out, but Fred’s tank shed a track and ran a big end.

The company cook had been severely wounded and Fred, though a gunner, stepped into the breach to put his culinary skills to the test with resounding success, because hewas then promoted to company cook, a post he continued to fulfill after the D-Day landings in Normandy, though soon afterwards, badly injured with burns, he was flown back to England and new horizons. Perhaps best known to Shooting Times readers as a man devoted to rabbiting and roughshooting, Fred was also an accomplished and highly skilful angler, and in the late 1950s he was one of the dedicated few who joined the well-known angler Richard Walker as a member of his select carp fishing group. It was Walker who broke the record with a 44lb carp which he sent to London Zoo aquarium.

Fred was a highly innovative coarse fisherman it was he who developed the use of dead-baits for pike fishing as an alternative to the thoroughly unpleasant practice of using a live bait, and it was Richard Walker who convinced Fred that he should distil his knowledge of coarse fishing into a book. Though diffident, the result was a classic work, Angling in Earnest. It was around about this time that Fred met the late Colin Willock, who had been editing the monthly magazine Lilliput, and who had left to start a new angling tabloid, The Angling Times. Recognising Fred as a talented and innovative angler, Colin persuaded him to write for the paper and Fred’s career as a journalist was launched.

Long before the lure of Fleet Street and shortly before the end of the War, Fred had begun a penfriend correspondence with a lady named Carrie. The exchange of letters was so fruitful, it was to blossom into marriage in 1947. Fred could not have found a more supportive or loving partner and they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 1997. Sadly, Carrie died three years ago, leaving Fred bereft. In 1979, perhaps pandering to his wanderlust and with the lure of a daughter and grand-daughter in Australia, Fred, with Carrie’s support, decided to emigrate and leave behind his writing career and regular slots on television angling programmes. It was a tough decision, but he believed he could forge a similar career in Western Australia, while living close to his family near Perth. It must, at first, have seemed as though he had landed in a sporting paradise. Rabbits abounded, sea-fishing was on his doorstep and he quickly gathered a group of like-minded Australians who were only too happy to spend their days on Boys’ Own hunting trips in the bush.

The sport was almost too accessible and Fred began to realise that he was missing the green English countryside and a way of sporting life that was irreplaceable. His growing unease was further fuelled by the failure of the phone to ring. A well-known and respected fieldsports writer in Britain, in Australia he was unknown and unwanted, his skills and talents ignored. Increasingly upset and on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Fred told Carrie that he wanted to return home and she, understanding and supportive, told him to go back to England and find somewhere for them to live. With only a few pounds in his pocket, a fishing rod and a shotgun, Fred headed for his old haunts in Bedfordshire, where he found a small bungalow in the village of Cheddington.

It would do, he told Carrie when she joined him, as a temporary base, but she, wise woman, decided it was to be their permanent home and so it proved. Several years before Fred departed for Australia, as then Editor of Shooting Times I had recruited him as a regular writer for the magazine. It was a decision I was not to regret and over the years, especially once he had returned, Fred J. Taylor established himself as one of the most popular contributors to the magazine. His articles were always based on facts and long learned experience, and written in an easy, deceptively simple style which at once created a bond between writer and reader.

For many years, too, Fred joined the staff on the Shooting Times stand at The CLA Game Fairs, usually escorted by his good friend John Mason, and there, ensconced in a comfortable chair, sustained by a bottle of red wine and ever jovial, he greeted and chatted with a seemingly endless succession of readers and admirers. Despite his less than svelte figure and a minor stroke in 1969, Fred was incredibly active and for many years crossed the Atlantic to both America and Canada to live off the land for a few weeks with old friends such as Ted Trueblood and Bill Hughes, fishing, hunting and, of course, cooking the spoils in camp. They were idyllic days and, naturally, provided Fred with ample copy for articles and books.

Fred J. Taylor is no longer with us, but he will not be forgotten for he will be counted among the great and notable country writers, and though a seemingly simple soul, never more content than when fishing for pike, grubbing after rabbits or sitting under the stars by a camp fire, he was master of an art which few acquire but to which many aspire. I, personally, will greatly miss his kindness, his wisdom and his ever open generosity.