Hellfire And Herring, by Christopher Rush,

Vivid childhood memories filled with silver fish and golden ghosts
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The Independent Culture

Christopher Rush's latest memoir takes us back to his childhood in the Fife fishing village of St Monans. It's a story of the sea, where the Firth of Forth is the constant backdrop. The silver hoards of herring give life, and the paraphernalia of fishing, from boatyards to oilskins to drying nets, are strewn everywhere.

Rush's intention is to "return to my spawning place, throwing out the net of words, hoping to catch something of my beginning and my end". He is linked to the sea at his baptism; the font in the unheated church is frozen solid and a resourceful church officer nips out to collect seawater to use instead.

Rush's beautifully detailed descriptions of his mother's family and the other people of St Monans are the life and music of the book, although Rush's father - an incomer, a seaman rather than a fisherman - is a shadowy figure, and a brutal one.

If Rush does recount heavy beatings by his father, it's worth stressing this is not a Pelzer-esque volume of personal growth through ill-treatment.

The opposite danger of such a memoir is the rose-tinted spyglass of hindsight. Rush might seem to court this danger when musing about his childhood home, where "nobody ever came to harm in this place of open doors and wild, free fields, roamed by children who had never heard of paedophiles".

Of course, he is not recreating some bygone Eden, merely stating a truth. But there were plenty of other horrors - poverty and hunger, cold and bereavement by the unforgiving sea - to ensure that Rush does not romanticise.

The detail of lives observed - of uncles and aunts, fisherfolk and eccentrics, the wheel of the fishing year - is meticulous and vivid, recounted in a lush, fluid prose that piles image upon image. Catches of fish are "stilled shining legions", while hanging yellow oilskins in his grandfather's house become "the drowned fisherfolk of the family past, floating in the night-sea of my dreams like golden ghosts".

Occasionally, Rush rather loses the understanding that gives warmth and integrity to his memoir.

To dismiss the bulk of his primary-school teachers as "bespectacled old battleaxes... hired assassins, paid to kill creativity" seems a little harsh. For the most part, though, this blend of memory, myth and story keeps on the right track, making live again a community whose insecure way of life is long gone, even if not so very distant in time.