You could easily be put off reading The Longshoreman. The title, which instantly brings to mind a New York dock-worker, does not fit the text. The subtitle – A Life at the Water’s Edge – is also misleading, for the author has spent most of his life working in research establishments. The illustrations are ridiculously small. The text skips without break or warning from one subject to another.
And yet, such is its author’s charm, that he has made his life-story thoroughly engaging. Part of his secret is that he writes most attractively, part that he does not worry for a moment whether or not he may be boring his reader: he simply fires off his enthusiasms like blasts from one of his beloved black-powder shotguns, taking it for granted that everyone will be interested.
The Longshoreman is the story of an obsession with fish, beginning when, as a boy in the 1940s, Richard Shelton explored the streams around his home in Buckinghamshire, and continuing right through the twenty years he spent as head of the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory at Pitlochry, in Scotland, from 1982 to 2001.
Together with his brother Peter, he developed an early fascination with the natural world, but also with steam engines, awestruck at the thunderous impression created by the mighty, 160-ton ‘Duchess’ Pacific class at the head of the Royal Scot. He found it ‘tempting to imagine that our distant ancestors felt a similar thrill in the presence of a mammoth’. Moreover, he maintains that the comparison between a steam locomotive and a large herbivorous animal is by no means superficial: ‘Both derive their energy through the oxidation of plant material, fresh in the case of the mammal and fossil in the case of the locomotive.’
Outbursts of piscine science, always expressed with perfect clarity, and often with a few good jokes, recur throughout the book. So too does Dr Shelton’s incorrigible love of guns and shooting. The hunter’s
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