Hellfire and Herring by Christopher Rush
|Hellfire and Herring by Christopher Rush|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: A lyrical description of a harsh childhood in a Scottish fishing village in the nineteen forties and fifties is one of Bookbag's best reads for a long time and is highly recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 320||Date: February 2008|
|Publisher: Profile Books Ltd|
On that curve of coastline just north of Edinburgh there sits the village of St Monans, looking out over the Firth of Forth to the Bass Rock and the Isle of May. These days the area of East Neuk is probably best known for its golf courses and holiday homes but just before the end of the Second World War St Monans was the birthplace of Christopher Rush and Hellfire and Herring is the story of his childhood. It's also the best autobiographical work that I've read for a long time.
In the nineteen forties and fifties St Monans was dominated by religion and fishing. There were ten churches in a village of a thousand people, all for the glory of a seemingly vengeful and unloving God intent on extracting obedience from his flock. In equal command of the village was the herring as the shoals moved down the North Sea over the course of the spring and summer. The men's lives were hard and ruled by the conditions which would allow them to catch the fish. The village motto - 'We Live by the Sea' - neatly illustrates geographical location and economic dependency and at times virtually every able-bodied man would be away from the village with the fishing fleet.
This book isn't a quick read. I found myself stopping every few pages simply to think about what I'd read, to mull it over. Sometimes I would go back and read a passage again simply for the pleasure of savouring the imagery. It's writing which repays rereading. Few writers can paint so vivid a picture with a few words. Rush has the ability to observe the everyday and humdrum and illustrate it with colourful images which so characterised Dylan Thomas. Words, pictures stay in your mind long after you've read them.
There are two chapters - Winter Drifting and Spring Lines and Summer Hunt and South Harvest which tell the story of how the land, the sea and activities change throughout the year. The writing is exquisite, with Rush's lyrical prose finely balanced by his grandfather's down-to-earth views on religion, the beauty of the sea as it changes colour throughout the year contrasted with the fact that men will almost certainly die in the act of extracting the fish. I've read these two chapters - the 'wheel of the year' - several times now and I discover some new gem with each reading.
For all the beauty of the writing this is not a view of childhood through rose-coloured glasses by any stretch of the imagination. The life was hard. Money was scarce and made scarcer by Rush's drunken bully of a father, but the village was a community which looked after its own, even those whose problems were mainly in the mind. Rush looks at them, at himself with a wry good humour and honesty as we watch him change from baby, to child, to adolescent. It's not a sanitised view of the village either: people, animals and fish die, are killed and some go more easily than others.
There is one chapter where Rush's style changes and becomes more measured and restrained and that's when he writes about his father. I suspect demons there that have not been completely exorcised but he does the man more justice than he would seem to have deserved. Children were treated differently is those days and it's difficult when looking back to decide whether you were treated as other children were, or if you were simply unfortunate in your choice of parent. Rush was very unfortunate - a relative on his mother's side of the family pointed out that a man who would beat his wife would not shrink from stealing from his child.
We could all tell tales of our childhood, but few people do it with such style and verve as Christopher Rush. If you're interested in the genre Bookbag can also recommend Roald Dahl's Boy: Tales of Childhood and Nigel Slater's Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger.
My thanks to the publishers, Profile Books, for sending me this wonderful book.
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I think you might have sold me a copy in the New Year.