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Book review: Smylie’s sad song from the shoreline

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Pescophile author Mike Smylie, who lives near Stroud, has a new offering in time for Christmas, a beautifully presented and illustrated softback title from Cheltenham-based The History Press – though Voices From the Shoreline is a work that doesn’t readily brim with Christmas cheer.

Mike, who has written so many fishing related works he must have webbed fingers, set off on a tour of Britain’s coastline, roughly from Appledore in Devon to Applecross in the Scottish Highlands – his mission, to chart “the ancient and ingenious traditions of coastal fishing”, documenting existing evidence of the work of coastal fishermen who have fished salmon and herring for generations along the fragile strand of existence between land and sea. 

And as BBC Coast presenter and maritime archaeologist Mark Horton points out in the preface, this is very much a eulogy for a disappearing heritage: “Sadly, many of the fishermen have now retired or died, and their know-how with them,” Horton writes. “Others just hang on, trying to pass on the traditions… But we all fear that the golden thread of knowledge will be lost forever and only this written record will survive.”

Horton forecasts that we have a decade left before the final vestiges of salmon will be gone. On a trail for the smoking gun, Smylie is a dogged detective on this case and, in terms of authenticity, this book will fill your nostrils with estuary and brine. Rather than rely upon a process of collating existing material, each chapter is a first-person-led journey into the subject, where the author literally wades in to dredge every tiny detail of his journeys. It’s a rich haul.

And as these metaphors suggests, our cultural investment from generations of shoreline and maritime industry has seeped into our lives and language to a degree that suggests a need for more scrutiny of this subject if we are to understand who we are as a maritime nation. 

This lavish, 323-page work is invaluable in that quest. And if you also feel a hunger for perspectives on local life (who doesn’t?), Smylie, once he’s dried his boots from some escapades with Weston-super-Mare shrimpers, spends much time rooting around obscure corners of the River Severn, engaging in what small-scale, artisanal fishing methods remain. 

Ultimately, the meditative, lachrymose work brings to life an era when humans took enough to sustain their needs, before industrial-scale operations swept in and mechanically swept up so much of the sea’s resources that the old ways were hung out to dry. Is the lesson, therein, that we should cherish the recording of past lives and past work – and if so, how? 

This isn’t a question the author goes on to fully examine. For some, it will be an entreaty to be sure to seek out hand-smoked kippers and sustainable-stamped salmon, while the broader environmental debate suggests consumption of fish, inescapably now largely a product of deep-sea industry that believes nature is an inexhaustible resource, is something simply best left off our plates.

Whatever your decision, Smylie brings depth and nuance to a story that’s literally at the fringe, yet central, to this debate.

Voices From the Shoreline is published by the History Press, at £19.99.

https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/voices-from-the-shoreline/9780750997553/

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