As often as not, the subtitles now obligatory for all non-fiction books seem calculated as much to irritate through hyperbole, absurdity or prolixity as to inform a potential buyer what the book is about and whether it is worth the trouble of reading. But with Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s Silver Shoals, I am not so much irritated as baffled. I get the five fish: cod, herring, salmon, eel and carp. But the five fish ‘that made Britain’? What on earth does that mean? I suspect the hand of some keen publicity person trying to give this literate and passionate narrative some extra oomph. It doesn’t need it; it carries enough conviction on its own.
Of its two main themes, one – the inability of the human race to exploit a natural resource without wrecking it – is familiar enough. The other is more original. It concerns the cultural loss that inevitably occurs when the way of life sustained by that exploitation withers and dies. The story of the collapse of the North Sea herring industry has been told many times but retains its power to shock. In 1913 more than two thousand steam vessels were plundering the vast shoals off the east coast of England. No one believed that such abundance could be exhausted, until it happened. As Rangeley-Wilson puts it, ‘A vibrant industry that shaped an entire coastal community collided fatally with history, greed, mismanagement, politics and environmental change.’