The Longshoreman, by Richard Shelton

A happy life with the denizens of the deep
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The Independent Culture

Though Redmond O'Hanlon rightly describes this memoir as "a classic", you would be mistaken to expect much in the way of personal disclosure. One of the very few times that Richard Shelton touches on intimate matters is a brief reference to his wife's tardy accouchement just as he was about to depart on a research voyage. "At that time, the modern absurdity of paternity leave had not been thought of. My sea kit was packed and, birth or no birth, I would be joining the ship's company. My wife did not let me down." Bluff, genial, modest, Shelton is one of the old school.

In a life refreshingly free of angst, his enthusiasm for game shooting and ichthyology - in particular, a "long-standing interest in lampreys and the hagfish" - would have been appreciated by the Victorians. This account of a career in fishery research is a different league to most fusty memoirs of working life. The tides surge through the pages. If you have any appetite, either literal or intellectual, for the mysterious creatures that surround our coast, there is much of interest here.

If you have ever wondered why brown shrimps are so tasty, Shelton explains that this is due to the muscles they use to bury themselves in muddy sand when danger approaches. The reason that cockles taste so wonderful (and recently acted as a deadly lure) is trace quantities of a compound found in plankton.

Shelton is particularly informative about lobsters. It takes seven years for a lobster to achieve even the luncheon size of three-quarters of a pound. A two-foot giant caught in Yorkshire (they grow big up there) was over 70 years old. Receptors on the small claws attached to the lobster's first two pairs of walking legs enable it to tell whether food is worth passing to its mouth parts. "I wonder," Shelton ponders, "how much junk food we would eat if we could first taste it with our fingers and thumbs."

Described with enjoyable humour, his researches ranged from investigating a sewage dumping spot in the Thames Estuary (its confines marked by "tomato pips that had braved many a Cockney colon") to a futile attempt at devising artificial bait: "an olfactory system honed by over 100 million years of evolution cannot be fooled by a simple combination of chemicals." Shelton explains the unexpected sophistication of trawl nets, but admits that the "gloomy tryst" of eels in the Sargasso Sea is "as mysterious as the coupling of Barbara Cartland's heroines".

Shelton's final years in the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory at Pitlochry were devoted to the "heroic life-cycle" of the wild salmon. No longer a civil servant, he can now speak out about the thoughtless absurdity of encouraging large-scale salmon farming, which "makes neither biological nor economic sense". He castigates the Common Fishery Policy for "irresolution and compromise", characterised by a "cruel and wasteful" quota system. Despite this disconsolate conclusion, Shelton has produced an uplifting book about a happy life.

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