The Longshoreman, Richard Shelton

The Longshoreman is a treasure. It is one of those rare books that transcends classification: a sport of nature, a singular success. It is in part boyhood memoir, told with astonishingly clear recall of the horrors and delights of small children (the author was terrified of foxes). It is an informative book of natural history, written with the easy charm of the great Victorian classics. It is also the story of a long, happy and successful career in environmental research and the fishing industry.

But, above all, it is a song of praise to the wonders of fish. Richard Shelton writes of fish with the pen of a poet. Ted Hughes himself could not equal some of these descriptions. The beauties and oddities of the shoreline and the marine world are brought before our eyes in vivid colour and with scientific precision. There are also some fine accounts of shooting wildfowl, and some loving appreciations of guns and steam engines-both forms of machinery treated as though they were living beings. But the fish are best.

Dr Shelton re-creates the wonder of the child’s-eye view, and shows how it grew into an adult obsession. His fishing experiences began in the chalk- streams of the lower Thames, searching with his brothers for crayfish, minnows, perch and trout. On one of these excursions, he had what he calls the ‘Damascene moment’ that determined his choice of career: in a gravelly stretch of the River Chess, he came across lampreys. His account of his first sight of three of ‘these slender forms lifting the stones with their sucker mouths’ is magical. The lampreys – not true fish, but primitive vertebrates with a curious life cycle – are ‘battleship grey above and a pearly white below’, and they entranced him.

Why? Perhaps, he speculates, because of their unexpectedness. In the middle of England, surrounded by familiar plants and fishes, he had come across a scene that was several hundred million years old. And he was hooked.

His life as a marine biologist took him east, to Essex and Norfolk, and north, to Scotland, where he is now settled. As a student, he investigated the legs of lobsters at St Andrews, where he thought, in another Damascene but ultimately disappointing moment, that he had found out how to win the Nobel Prize. He preferred the outdoors life to the lab, and roamed the Atlantic in trawlers and research vessels, checking the fish population and seeking new fish for chip shops.

He explored the Thames estuary and the Tyne to establish the environmental effects of sewage or ash-dumping. He caught, cooked and ate strange fish – he is very good on why certain fish taste as they do.

The whole of this short and delightful book is full of the most fascinating gobbets of information. I had no idea that it is impossible to date or age a wild lobster. It had never occurred to me that artificial pearls might be made from the sage-green and silver scales of a fish called bleak. I knew something of the lives of salmon, but he brings a new romance to their mating habits and their various violet, smelted and orange-spotted hues.

Most fascinating of all, and most brilliantly described, is the sinister hagfish, Myxine glutinosa L., cousin of the lamprey: ‘Not for hagfish the smart slate above and pearl below of our Chess lampreys: somehow the uniform livery of the hags combines muddy grey with hearing aid beige in a hue for which the English language has no exact name…’ Oh lucky, gifted man, and how I long to see a hagfish.