Song of the Sea by Jane Dolby Orion, book review: The true story of a fishwife and her choir

Written in an accessible rather than literary style, Song of the Sea is an original contribution to the canon of grief and recovery

Liz Hoggard
Sunday 10 May 2015 14:17
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When single mother Jane Dolby, 31, moved to Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, she fell in love with the bachelor fisherman next door. It was an unlikely union. She was used to dating flighty musicians; he was solid, serious and smelt of fish (his family have worked the Thames Estuary for 300 years). However, one night, when Colin took her out in his boat, she saw him in a new light, at one with nature.

It was a passionate romance. They moved in together, had two children. Colin worked tirelessly to provide. They lived in happy chaos. But on 10 November 2008, aged 47, he was lost at sea in a horrific storm. Colin’s 40ft trawler had overturned off the Southend coast. When the boat was dredged up three days later, there was no sign of him. The family had to wait a year to find the body. No death certificate could be issued.

Jane, as well as dealing with bereavement and looking after four children (the youngest aged seven and three), couldn’t change utility bills, claim benefits, or access his account, as the penalty fees racked up.

A keen amateur singer and part-time music PR, she lost her voice – literally – and couldn’t even sing along to the radio. The Fishermen’s Mission charity stepped in, helped her keep a roof over her head, as well as offering support and counselling.

Jane had always promised to give back to the charity. So in 2012 (inspired by Gareth Malone’s BBC programme The Choir) she founded a Fishwives Choir.

As she started publicising the idea with a Facebook page, wives, mothers and sisters of fishermen up and down the country got in touch, and last year they recorded an album. Hearing hundreds of women sing “For Those in Peril on the Sea” creates goose bumps. This postcard, from a world so much smaller and more traditional than ours, is curiously affecting and rawly authentic. Fishing – that romantic communion between man and sea – emerges as a perilous profession. One in 20 fishermen will die or be seriously injured (of the women in the choir, Jane estimates that one in four has lost someone close to them).

As well as the emotional toll, these deaths create financial hardship in a community that relies on a “hand to mouth” existence (Jane’s case was later cited in the House of Lords). Arguably the story of Jane and Colin’s tentative romance is more gripping than the endless administration of setting up a choir. But, written in an accessible rather than literary style, Song of the Sea is an original contribution to the canon of grief and recovery.

Order for £7.59 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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