Jamie Maxtone Graham, did he break or make the mould?

I often hear “there aren’t so many characters in the tackle game anymore.” Perhaps not, but in this high-speed I.T world it’s easy to become a keyboard warrior reducing effort, travel, and sadly social contact.  Covid restrictions aside, perhaps that is the root cause.

A recent purchase of a large fishing book library contained all three titles written by the late James (Jamie) Anstruther Maxtone-Graham, 1924 – 2001.

I took a few minutes to read through the newspaper obituary contained in one and thought it may be interesting to share some background for those who didn’t know of him, haven’t met him, or have started collecting since his demise.

We both started in the tackle business at around the same time. Jamie visited country estates and I traversed junk shops or antique fairs. Our paths crossed almost immediately when he bought my Hardy brass-faced Perfect reel. I found it in a junk shop but at the time wanted wood, brass, and ebonite reels! I know we have all done it in the beginning.

I considered Jamie a friend, as is his son Robert, who infrequently gets in touch to tackle and stuff. Jamie was the first global vintage tackle dealer. No stranger to adventure, he had many and varied short career encounters prior to fishing tackle: farming on his father’s estate in Perthshire, journalism in America, and as a stowaway onboard a ship bound for Bermuda writing travel articles.  He brazenly joined the on-deck clay shooting competition, which he had to lose to prevent being spotted and so reach Bermuda. Taking cookery courses, he excelled and opened Scotland’s smallest restaurant The Thirty Nine Steps in Peebles.  In the front room of his house, there was one round table seating seven or eight, if you knew each other really well.  Jamie would often dress in a nightgown and cap and answer the door with a lit candle, looking sleepy and confused, as were the customers, all just for a laugh prior to seating them.

Twice married, twice divorced, his mother Jan Struther penned the best seller Mrs Minivar. A signed copy I have from Jamie is still treasured today. His father Tony Maxtone-Graham was a Lloyd’s broker and son of a Perthshire Laird. From Eton to Gordonstoun, Jamie’s education was fragmented and his life chaos as the best. A lover of opera music, with his brother being an operative singer, he often greeted you as you entered his tackle room to find your reel bucket.

Only the famous had a bucket. With your name on the side, he filled it with things he thought you should have. A pre-typed invoice by his secretary Cathy was there and you had to fight with him to remove any items you didn’t want. Smoked salmon and red wine for lunch, a Devon minnow on the toilet light pull, it all seemed to make sense back then. Often frequenting the game fair with his stall he wore a Hardy brass faced Perfect as a neck chain, his Amadou hat, and leaflets stating “I pay with glorious Scottish red £100 notes.”

I remember Jamie’s wrist watch, set to 12 noon and 6pm. On the sound of the buzzer, red wine or gin was poured. I recall seeing a special dashboard fitting to hold the glass while driving, which was alarming when in the passenger seat. His Romahome defied gravity on the Scottish lowland single track roads, I’m not sure who needed the alcohol more!

He was feared and respected by most auctioneers. Sitting in the front row in HIS seat, woe betide any auctioneer who started the sale late or mixed up lot numbers. Correcting them constantly he was not one to be trifled with.

Covering tens of thousands of miles in his camper van, he would occasionally appear at night on my drive at home. Armed with a large bottle of red wine he would join us for a meal at home, retiring at 7 pm in the van on the drive. He had a small-size replica of his famous Amadou hat made for my son Jon and took great delight when he wore it during one of Jamie’s many visits. Up at dawn, dealing done, and off to his next client visit of the day. He was the first UK vintage tackle mail order dealer to travel to Japan and explore the Abu collector market, selling to 29 countries way back when.

The three books he wrote are all must-haves for any collector. I’m unsure whether he intended to educate collectors or entice them into buying his stock but either way, it’s a great job well done.

The Best of Hardy Anglers Guides 1982 gives snapshots extracts over 100 years of Hardy catalogues and is an instant reference guide for collectors.

To Catch a Fisherman was published in 1984 and this is the quick reference bible to UK fishing tackle with Patents over a 150+ year period. 

Finally in 1989 Fishing Tackle of Yesterday brings a comprehensive fully illustrated reference guide. Most of the important UK makers are here showing rods, reels, accessories, and flies.

I still constantly refer to his books on a weekly basis. It brings a wry smile when reading them as one of Jamie’s exploits comes through in a flashback.