I found myself reading a lot (well, a lot more than usual) about herring and the North Sea last month because I'd promised to review some Shetland themed books to a very tight deadline (there's more to Shetland, and the North Sea, than herring but that's what came quickly to hand.) The history of the herring trade is genuinely fascinating but the book that really stood out as special was 'The Naked Shore'.
'The Naked Shore' is the result of a journey that the author, Tom Blass sets out on "...to write a book about this sea and its world, too often snubbed by writers, derided for its moody lugubriousness, it's inclination towards inclemency, damp chilly sands, and a decidedly utilitarian aspect when glanced at from a certain angle." Because as he knows "...both the sea and shores it beats upon possess their own allure. Just as the sparkle of the Mediterranean out-twinkles a multitude of vices, do not the mists, miasmas, and surliness of the North Sea cloak a multitude of gems?"
They do indeed, and Blass neatly proceeds to reveal some of them. In doing so he joins a growing group of travel writers exploring not exotic, but known landscapes, places that might seem too peripheral, obscure, or mundane, to bother with in the ordinary way - but which do nonetheless have things to offer. Will Self called it psychogeography (the study of how places make us feel) when he was describing Mallachy Tallack's excellent 60 Degrees North and it's hard to come up with a better description.
I expected to find this a reasonably interesting book, knew I'd love it from those first descriptions of the North Sea and it's sometimes well hidden charms, but had no idea just how rich and wonderful an array of stuff Blass would present. Each chapter could easily be expanded into a book of its own, so what we get is an overview; the gems are bits of history, superstition, legend, and encounters (planned or by chance), that he has along the way.
My favourite (though favourite isn't really the right word) because it was so unexpected, was a chance encounter in 1904 between the hull fishing fleet and the Russian navy, who mistook them for an aggressive Japanese navy and opened fire. It's a terrible incident which resulted in 2 men being decapitated and a ship being lost. It seems no proper apology was made until 2005. It's a piece of history I assume was all but forgotten outside of Hull's Hessle road, but here it is both shocking and riveting. There is a chapter on Shetland which focuses on the impact oil and gas have had on the islands which is why I was reading it in the first place, but also chapters on the other North Sea countries too.
The common thread throughout the book is, (to loosely quote) a communality of experience that binds together North Sea peoples, almost regardless of nationality. This is our sea, a sea that's shaped us as a people quite as much as anything else has, and something that will continue to both define and reshape our islands. It's a point of view that I totally buy into which is another reason I loved this book, but mainly I loved it for being an unexpected page turner.