James Fleming

Sweet water and bitter

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The Longshoreman: A Life at the Water’s Edge

Richard Shelton

Atlantic, pp. 335, £

‘Naturalist-in-charge’ was Shel-ton’s title as fisheries expert on board the Tellina, a research vessel. It holds good throughout this excellent memoir, which contains much pertinent information and few idle sentences. By page 30 I’d learned that apple wood makes the best catapult, about the guanine crystals in fish scales, about lampreys, the names of his grandmother’s two Rhode Island Reds, what the lower quadrant signal means to the railways, conjugated valve gear ditto, how to load a muzzle-loader (‘the flinty grains shining as they trickled from the measure at the head of the tooled copper flask’), and the weight of a Duchess class locomotive — 160 tons or about 140 mature Limousin bulls. We have a duty to learn, but few and far are the good teachers. Shelton is among them. This is an improving book in the best possible sense of the word. The author will make peanuts, but civilisation should make a million.

The sequence of events: fishing in the Grand Union as a boy; wildfowling; the Torrey Canyon and other waste-disposal problems; the biology of fish stocks and the mathematics of their exploitation, and finally salmon-farming.

There is a strong sporting interest throughout, from shooting a pigeon out of the lab window to instructions on how to kill an eel. It’s good to be told by a scientist that cormorants and grey seals ruin fisheries, that no reason exists for their continued protection, and that hard choices will soon have to be made. (We think that Hugh Grant should be seen flaunting a cormorant-skin waistcoat or that David Beckham should call for sealskin boots before taking free kicks.)

On the subject of the Torrey Canyon, the first of the great oil-spillers, Shelton tells us that time and tide usually do a better (and always a cheaper) clean-up job than man; and that Harold Wilson was photographed after an overflight of the wreck wearing his flying helmet back to front. Especially fascinating is his account of monitoring London’s sewage sludge, which has been disposed of since 1887 in the same part of the Thames Estuary, the Black and Barrow Deep.

The tidal turbulence that continues to make this operation effective is largely absent from the west coast of Scotland. It is here that most of the country’s salmon are farmed, here that their sea-lice ambush the migrating wild Atlantic salmon (only a dozen are needed to kill), and here that the ‘vile blankets of rotting ordure’ waft below the cages like purple crepe. The wild salmon is a litmus of our environmental hygiene. There are other factors contributing to its decline besides these farms. But it is antisocial of the Scottish Executive to refuse an inquiry into the effects of this gruesome industry, which goes to great financial loss to feed us fluorescent slabs of poisoned meat. If this is what happens to salmon, what of sea-bass, rainbow trout, prawns and the rest of the farmed species?

Shelton might have explored further the problems associated with industrialising our food supply — BSE, foot and mouth, avian flu, TB, swine fever, varroa destructor, with doubtless more on the way. Is it actually possible to farm ‘safely’ and keep the world fed? How should we allocate our rapidly diminishing supply of non-saline water, 70 per cent of which is presently taken up by farming? One response would be to better exploit the saline variety, the sea. But we have knackered it and if Newfoundland is anything to judge by, have done so conclusively. That leaves the air to be farmed, which brings insects to mind. Yes, there will be a problem sometime.

The publishers have spoiled this book by reducing the photographs to weeny-wee and printing them on text paper, as if trying to pass it off as a fiction by Sebald. And they have let through Shelton’s incautious remark that the curlew makes excellent eating. It’s the devil getting good subs these days.