The gentlest of giants - John Keay on Alan Davidson, Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos - Slightly Foxed Issue 6

On Matters Mekong

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Scrolling idly through the SOAS Library’s subject catalogue, I must have brushed an unusual combination of keys, so activating a random function not mentioned on the options bar nor widely known to researchers. The feat has since proved impossible to repeat. But I keep trying; for it was thanks to this truly serendipitous action that up flashed a title which, for its crystal candour, can seldom have been bettered. Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos was so specific it had to be just that – a handbook and culinary guide to the fish to be found in landlocked Laos. The author was Alan Davidson, the publisher Prospect Books, the category ‘Long Loan’, and the status ‘Available’. Like a minnow into the reeds, I darted to the stacks.

There are not many books on Laos. If that is your subject area, you soon become familiar with most of them and hanker after other company. I had already gutted the histories, trudged through the forest with the travellers, taken a turn among the hill tribes with the social anthropologists, and become entangled in the government’s statistical reports. Fish, though, were something different. A whole book on the fish of a country whose natural history has largely escaped scientific scrutiny and which possesses neither a fishing fleet nor a coastline was worth inspection.

Whatever the merits of the book itself, I was intrigued by its genesis. I wondered, for instance, what could have recommended the subject to the presumably non-Lao Davidson; who had he supposed would read such a work; and with the prospect of only a minimal sale, what on earth had prompted Prospect Books of Totnes to publish it? The SOAS copy ran to about 200 pages, one per fish, each with a line drawing. It hadn’t been out on loan for eight years. Perhaps it was the only copy in existence. I cushioned it in my backpack and headed home for a leisurely appraisal.

There then began a process of revelation and acquaintance so rewarding that I now feel no shame at all in confessing my prior ignorance of Davidson and all his great works. In fact I pi

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About the contributor

John Keay’s Mad about the Mekong was published in February 2005. He and Julia Keay are currently at large in London preparing a new edition of The London Encyclopaedia.

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