Paperback review: Strands, By Jean Sprackland

The poetry of marine flotsam makes a perfect beach read

Anyone heading to the beach this summer should take this surprising, enlightening, occasionally troubling book. Jean Sprackland's account of a year spent stalking a few miles of beach between Liverpool and Blackpool is as fascinating as the sea itself.

Sorted into seasons, each of the 20-odd chapters is inspired by a discovery or spectacle from footprints to foam (“like bits of ectoplasm”), sea squirts to pill packets (pharmaceuticals are a worrying marine contaminant). She starts with the biggest. The Star of Hope, wrecked in 1883 while bringing cotton from North Carolina to Liverpool, emerged from its sandy grave a few years ago; the Pegu was a passenger ship en route from Glasgow to Rangoon (the destination will be guessed by cocktail fans since the Pegu Club, a drink named after its Burmese birthplace, has enjoyed a recent revival).

Such massive flotsam are followed by mermaid's purse (egg-cases of the shark family) that have “something of the fairytale about them”. A gelatinous “gooseberry” turns out to a comb jelly, sparking a detour on jellyfish. Sprackland reports that the sting remedy of vinegar is “beneficial in some cases, disastrous in others” (it had negligible effect on this reviewer after being stung by a lion's mane jelly), while urine “may be no use at all”. I don't agree with Sprackland's description of the lion's mane as “dramatic”. To me it looked like a bit of old carpet.

We learn that the 10,000 species of seaweed are classified as algae. A plastic toothbrush leads to a gloomy discussion of oceanic litter. Fatally appealing to albatrosses, an estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic float on every square mile of ocean. One accumulation of 100 million tons is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A more cheering find is the teacup found “resting modestly on its side” that Sprackland traces to the Third Class of the Cunard vessels Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. “It may be chipped… and it still contains a few grains of sand; but I value these imperfections. They're like lines on a face.” You can tell that Sprackland is a poet.