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The Naked Shore: of the North Sea by Tom Blass
Bloomsbury, ISBN 978-1-4088-1549-6
Country Life Magazine

Tom Blass’s The Naked Shore is subtitled ‘of the North Sea’ for it is not about the sea itself, but concerns itself with the humans who dwell on its margins. Blass chronicles the mindsets of the independent-minded men and women who work these waters. He wants to understand how they relate with this inscrutable, dangerous but also liberating element. This is a worthy task for a writer, but there are challenges on the ground. For the people that he is primarily interested in: fishermen, lifeboat captains, marsh farmers and island folk tend to be the silent sort, content to communicate through their work rather than put it down on paper.

And Blass is not a yachtsman, let alone a seaman, nor even a fisherman or a swimmer. He does not plunge like Coleridge into the frenzy of stormy waters, or imbed himself in the crew of a trawler like Redmond O’Hanlon. He is a mere passenger on ferry-boats, but one who wins our trust with his enthusiasm, attention and stamina. He also has the wit to return, in order to catch the right mood and test the different seasons, and is empowered by a journalist’s diligence to pursue the story, to hear the proper cycle of a tale until it’s end. He has a wonderfully acute eye for the telling detail, and an ear that can register silence as well as the babble at a bar.

If there was any tedium in these various North Sea journeys it has been sculpted out of his text, and if there ever was a schedule that too has been scoured clean. Instead we are treated to a series of apparently disconnected explorations of the reclusive shores that encircle the North Sea, from Heligoland to Spur Point, from the northern reaches of Jutland to the Shetlands, from the low isles of the Frisian archipelago to the Zetland Arms. And whilst being amused and entertained we also get to learn, be it about moorlog, the pyromancy of fishermen’s wives, Noahs Woods, or the prejudice against voles and the colour green.

National myths are also slowly washed away. The Romans were less invincible on the water than they liked to boast and even the Vikings are put back into their historical box. Instead the real masters of the North Sea are gradually unveiled to be the Dutch and the coastal Germans, with their canny ability to pickle herring, wind-dry cod and perch on little castles of banked-up mud. But beneath the comparatively recent historical record something dark, magnificent and primordial is also being patiently assembled.

For all the shore dwelling people of the North Sea share more than centuries of trade, intermarriage and diet. They share myths of a drowned past, a ghost memory of a hunter-gatherer’s paradise, of a real submerged Atlantis (probably centred on the Dogger Bank) that may even be the lost indigenous homeland of the Ayran people. But like the best sort of Norse saga, the story can only get worse. The Sea is now increasingly empty of fishermen and those that now work are dependent on computers and invested capital. The shoreline is dominated by grim retirement apartment blocks while local communities survive from selling ice cream to day-tripping summer tourists and the few remaining farmers exist on from grants from the European community.

But the old power of the sea is still there and destined to drown a lot more of the European and British shore. In the meanwhile we look at it with continual numbed fascination, as through a glass darkly, as we try to contemplate the infinite. Or listen like Blass, for “the wind had picked up, and the trees began to scream”. This is a beautifully written book of travels that trawls stories from all the shores of the North Sea and transmutes it into something dark, heroic and fascinating.

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