John Andrews reviews Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s ‘Silver Shoals: The Five Fish That Made Britain’, published tomorrow by Chatto & Windus. Photos from Charles’ trawling and eeling research trips accompany.
On Saturday last, in my twice yearly cameo as an auction porter, I stood holding up a fishing rod in front of a packed hall of bidders as the auctioneer, Neil Freeman of Angling Auctions, worked the room from the podium, teasing out bids, selling the past. The rod was a Hardy Wye, hand built by an apprenticed craftsman, one of many such rods in the sale, 12 1/2ft of “Palakona” steel centred split-bamboo, with a cork covered handle, “lockfast” joints, bridge intermediates, agate butt and tip rings with a button of Indian Rubber. In 1936 when it was built it would have set you back £8 16 0. Now you can buy a period one at auction in a well-preserved condition for far less than the modern equivalent. Oh, that we had looked after our rivers with as much care.
In 1936, the run of salmon for which the rod once had real purpose was over 6000, roughly 500 a month across the season. An abundance, a holy vision of a harvest. By 2002 the Wye’s catch return stood at 5% of that figure, a nightmare of only 357 fish. The salmon had all but vanished and some of the industries it supported, including the making of fishing tackle and the local tourism – and which in turn provided an abundance of jobs – had all but collapsed. Each has rejuvenated in some form since then but the run of fish is still threatened by so many human factors, from the climatic to the behavioural. Later at the same auction, whilst in conversation with fellow porter Jon Hall – a river keeper of many generations whose beat was on the nearby River Test – I learnt that this year’s hot summer had exacerbated the negative factors affecting the salmon run, and that across the season only 36 fish had been caught. At one point the water temperature in the estuarine river was so high, and the water so low, that instinctively the salmon refused to run. Many more summers like it will mean that the salmon will have yet another obstruction to its ability to reach its spawning grounds upstream by the head waters. If you walked the bank with Jon or any other keeper on any other river and gazed into a succession of empty pools, it might not be too long before you asked, ‘where have all the fishes gone?’
At face value, Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s new book Silver Shoals is a biography-come-historical-guide of five seemingly unrelated species of “British” fish: the cod, the carp, the eel, the salmon and the herring; a trip round our Isles via its harbours and high seas, its ponds, lodes, rivers and estuaries. A snapshot of the love affair between an island and the fish that have fed it and captured its imaginations for centuries. An examination of our collective identity via the lateral line. You might be tempted to file it under ‘memoir’ if you work in a bookshop, when really you should put it in the window or by the till. For it is the silver shoal of the title: an account of three years in the author’s life densely populated with wild characters, from working pair-trawler skippers Dave Milne of the ‘Adorne’ and DG, the son of ‘Captain Fuck Fuck’, brought up to speak the languages of the sea – Twa gannae fuckin’ gin nit, noo, nae fuckin’, na wha th fuck’ saw th nog bla’ fuckin’ gan fur heed fur ttawfucked fuckers, who takes his trawler the ‘Audacious’ to Norway and back in the middle of the winter storms and fills her hold with fish whilst bringing his crew home alive – to a man many consider walk on water when he writes and when he fishes, Christopher Yates. ‘In the morning there was rain. And a rainbow. Rod brought me a cup of tea. My baits were out and I was using sweetcorn. No one else used sweetcorn. And that was the key to it all, I think, I had sweetcorn because I had it with scrambled egg every morning. I’d saved a handful. So, on this morning bubbles started to appear in the middle of the central channel. Rod spotted them. When you see those bubbles it means the carp are truffling on bloodworm and disturbing the silt. It’s a wonderful giveaway. I immediately recast and placed the rod on its stick. I had the pick-up open and a little fold of silver paper on the line. Rod hurried across to the island and cast to the same patch of bubbles. I remember he was rubbing his hands, saying “I think it is going to be an historic morning” and I said back, “It is going to be an historic morning”.’
There is Gary the Eel. ‘John’s a Fen boy, like I’m a yellowbelly. Lincolnshire. Lincolnshire yellowbelly. All John’s class up that way, not so much Terry, but John and old Wally Mason, and all the rest they’re classed as your Fen Tigers. But I’m this side of the border. I couldn’t – even though I’ve fished the Fens and I’ve lived in the Fens, you know – I couldn’t class myself as a Fen Tiger. It wouldn’t be right. I’d get my balls chopped off. I’m a Lincolnshire yellowbelly and that’s it. But what Bob showed me more than anything is that eel men aren’t made. They’re born.’
There is Stephen Marsh-Smith, the man who founded the Wye-Usk Foundation with the sole aim of bringing the river’s salmon run up from 357 a season to something approaching that of the 1930’s:
‘”Bloody hell, Charles, have you got one? How the hell did you do that?”
“I don’t know exactly. But I think it’s a sign.”
I had the salmon in the shallows now and on its side. I stepped into the water and gently but firmly got hold of the wrist of its tail. The fish was officially landed. “That’s incredible”, said Stephen, as delighted as I was, “It’s twenty-six degrees for God’s sake!” I set her back in the water: a twelve-pound hen salmon that had been to Greenland and back, and was now on her way home to build the next generation.’
There is the elusive Dick Thurlow, a skipper of a herring drifter who comes and goes like a sea fret,one day rumoured to be in Hartlepool, the next off Caister:
‘Inside the incongruously landlocked hut were a dozen men of all ages. I nodded hello to the room and took a seat. The man next to me held out his hand. I shook it and asked, “Dick Thurlow, by any chance?”
“Might be. Who’s asking?” he said.
“You have no idea how hard you are to find”.’
There are ghosts, many ghosts and there is memory too, in the form of Charles’ late mother who appears in all his books in some form, a guardian angel who on this occasion keeps him from being killed aboard a trawler:
‘Jake spotted me and took a moment out of this dangerous ballet to lean in at the door of the wheelhouse and say: “You’re a Jonah, Charlie.”
“Not you too”, I said.
“Hey”, he said, checking I’d heard, “You’re a fuckin’ Jonah”.
Dave laughed after him, “They want to keel-haul you, Charlie. For saying bad words’.”
But you’ll struggle to find any bad words in this book. There are ones that are hard, there are ones that are true. This is the dispatch from the edgelands it feels as if we have been waiting for. This is the manifesto for today if you want to see fish on your plate tomorrow. A hardback catechism for twenty quid, written by a rare breed: a former art teacher turned passionate conservationist who founded both the Wild Trout Trust and the Norfolk Rivers Trust; an advisor to the World Wildlife Fund on English chalk streams; a consummate angler who can present a dry fly to a fat brown round a blind corner and be able to sense when the fish will rise: and a man with a curious mind and voracious appetite to learn. Instilled with a wealth of knowledge that is the opposite of bookish, a man compelled to go where the water is and immerse himself in it, and in his new work he does so with such commitment and zeal that you might argue that in doing so he is halfway to becoming a species himself, the saviour fish, a salt-fresh hybrid of a fen phantom, a ghost monk and a sea prophet, indeed perhaps a direct descendent of that which Nicholas Cox referred to in The Gentleman’s Recreation of 1674: ‘In the year of our Lord 1180, near Orford in Suffolk, there was a fish taken in the perfect shape of a man; he was kept by Bartholomew de Glanville in the Castle of Orford above half a year, but at length not being carefully looked to, he stole to the sea and was never seen after. He never spake, but would eat any meat that was given him, especially raw fish, when he had squeezed out the juice: He was had to church, but never shewed any signe of adoration’. So vital is the message that his book carries that it seems it can only really be delivered by such a mythical creature. In short it is this, never again eat salmon! Never again eat salmon! Eat pollack if you must or boiled wrasse but never again eat salmon! Each fish in the estuary could be one of the last returning, boycott the supermarkets who sell farmed fish pre-packed in sweating plastic, choose judiciously from your sushi bar menus, don’t let the fat cats make the station, campaign and protest against the fish farms, build fish passes, lobby the food industry, don’t trust the Environment Agency when they tell you a ditch holds no eels, catch one carp a summer to save a soul, buy the new sustainable species such as cod and haddock off the Grimsby Fish boys’ van every Thursday without fail, say grace for the drowned before you eat, boil each kettle for Rod Hutchinson, keep the songs of the herring girls alive on a Saturday evening and come Bonfire Night think of the herring men out working their net between Wells and Morston in search of ‘enough for a good feed’ and no more. Cry from the sea when you see the fireworks burst a mile off, say a prayer for Orri Vigfusson and tell the people, his disciple has a new book.