To Sea and Back, By Richard Shelton

Reviewed by Christopher Hirst

The opening is magical. Skirting the threat of killer whales and dolphins, a cock salmon, fattened by three years of rich feeding in the Arctic seas, begins the "sequence of navigational steps that would return him to the Highland burn where his life had begun". After encountering the scent of his watery birthplace, the fish has to wait months in deep pools for the winter thaw that permits his journey upstream. Snagged by an angler's hook, he experiences "the unpleasant realisation that, for the first time... he was being led captive by powers he did not understand".

Unfortunately, the spell is broken by the appearance of an imaginary ghillie who might have stepped from the pages of John Buchan: "Fit a gran' cock fush, Colonel, he must be a' o' twenty pun'." As in his acclaimed memoir The Longshoreman, Richard Shelton imparts a host of revelations in a lively narrative of the Atlantic salmon. We learn that the salmon's lateral line contains magnetic particles that not only indicate the direction of north but could also provide "more detailed information about local variations in... the magnetic field". It is "a sort of map" of the seabed. Salmon remember "the sequence of local scents" from "the very part of the river in which they were born".

This fascinating story is, however, frequently interrupted by distracting diversions. It is intriguing to learn the whale's propulsion by flapping its tail flukes up and down is "a less efficient form of locomotion derived directly from galloping on land", but some way from the salmon's story. The eccentric Frank Buckland's diet included mice, snails, crocodile, puppy and "the desiccated heart of Louis XIV", but this Victorian omnivore played an important part in ensuring the survival of British salmon rivers.

An unexpected spiritual strain crops up occasionally: "The quality of divinity is built in to the very fabric of the universe." This handsomely illustrated volume will entertain anglers through winter nights, though they may feel that Shelton has shot a somewhat tangled line.