REVIEW: Reflections on A Summer Sea by Trevor Norton
ann at skea.com
Fri Jun 8 08:20:44 EST 2001
TITLE: Reflections on a Summer Sea
AUTHOR: Trevor Norton
PUBLISHER: Century, Random House (May 2001)
ISBN: 0 7162 7049 1 PRICE: £STG 12.99 (hardback)
Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann at skea.com)
"This is the story of a menagerie of eccentric and talented ecologists
who, as a hobby, established a privately owned field laboratory in
south-west Ireland". This promising start to Trevor Norton's book
suggests a typically quirky Irish story. And so it is, although it is as
much history, memoir and marine biology as story.
Yet to describe Norton as "Bill Bryson underwater", as the publicity
flyer does, sets up expectations in the reader which are not entirely
fulfilled. Yes, Norton's writing is often very funny and he describes
some eccentric and funny characters, but he also writes poetically and
lovingly about science.
He is exceptionally good at making such seemingly dull things as sponges
and seaweeds into objects of fascination. Sponges, as he says, "...have
a tendency to just sit there and squirt". Nothing very poetic about
that. But the crumb-of-bread sponge, which Norton acknowledges looks
like an old sock, greyish-green in colour and smelling "faintly of fish
decay" displays, for him, "the elegant simplicity of
fundamentals....ingenuity of design.... [and is] a moonscape in
miniature, graced by tiny volcanoes each emit[ting] a continuous stream
of water from the labyrinth of tunnels within".
On the subject of predators, he remarks that crabs "are assassins in pie
crusts"; that spiny sea-urchins wear hats and "rarely leave home without
donning a shell, a leaf or, for special occasions, a tuft of algae"; and
that the three common species of horse-fly "divide up our bodies between
them", but one has the "endearing quality" of becoming "so engrossed in
its dinner you always get it".
In spite of this light touch, serious science and serious scientists are
as much a part of this book as Irish characters and blarney. Trevor
Noble is, after all, a Professor of marine biology. And his main
intention in this book seems to have been to document the pioneering
work of Professors Jack Kitching and John Ebling in establishing
environmental and ecological research into marine communities. At the
same time, Noble remembers the idiosyncrasies of these two remarkable
individuals who encouraged and taught a whole generation of marine
ecologists - himself included.
Writing of a time before subsidies and grants, a time when scientists
often made their own equipment and spent more time on field work than
paper work, Norton recalls the fun and the frustrations this entailed.
Jack Kitching, for example, was the first marine biologist ever to dive
in British waters. He did so with an inverted milk-churn for a diving
helmet: it had an inserted glass window, and a garden hose to replenish
the air. Jack never lost his ability to do science on a shoe-string. In
fact, at his Irish field laboratory he hung onto his battered and
temperamental rowing boats, and to candle-light and fireside sing-songs,
long after modernization and prosperity reached that part of Ireland.
Like Jack, Ireland also retained its traditions and its character. "Ah
sure", Norton was told on one recent visit, "it has all changed now. But
even if it hadn't it would still be different.".
There is no arguing with that. And that kind of Irish logic, and the
characters who use it, are the source of much of the humour in this
book. Amongst these memorable characters there is Ernie Donelan, who
once converted his taxi into a hearse by cutting a hole in the back and
who progressed to become "Ernest Donelan & Son. Complete Funeral Service
and Car Hire Service", which who still provided unexpectedly eventful
taxi rides. There is Mrs Donovan, who lives in fear of the priest's
visits in case he accidentally despatches any more of her chickens.
There is Mrs.B., landlady of Noble's temporary lodgings, who announces
that her other lodger "travels in ladies' undergarments". And there are
the Bohane brothers, weavers of words and good friends whose practical
skills help to keep the labs going.
Norton does not always seem comfortable with dialogue, and sometimes the
details of scientific rivalry are unnecessarily personal and detailed.
But overall _Reflections on a Summer Sea_ is light, enjoyable and funny.
It is also delightfully illustrated with black-and-white sketches made
by Norton's wife, Win. It is a book which will appeal to anyone who
enjoys nature stories; anyone who loves Irish stories; and anyone who is
interested in anecdotes about the early scientific study of ecology.
Copyright © Ann Skea 2001
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For permission to reproduce this text in any form contact Dr Ann Skea.
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