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Things that can swim a width underwater
Probably, but not necessarily, Fish

This section deals only with freshwater swimming things. For saltwater things, consult your fishmonger. He will point silently to the chart hanging on his wall. This doesn’t mean that he wants you to buy it, though after ten minutes free study I would offer to pay a small continuation fee.


We had better get the salmon over with first, as it has the most complicated life-cycle of all forms of marine life, or at least the most crowded engagement diary. It visits more places and undergoes more changes of name than an urban terrorist; I don’t know a great deal about jackals, but I suspect that Carlos the Salmon would have been a much more accurate soubriquet.

The salmon starts life as an egg in the heart of beautiful Scotland, among the burns and heather of old Scotia (see the Oxford Book of Scottish Tourist Verse passim). When old enough to swim a few lengths, it goes downstream to the sea, being known at this stage as an elver, which is confusing, as this really is a baby eel. But everything is confusing for the salmon just now; not only must it make the transition from fresh to sea water and change altitude by several thousand feet – during its life the salmon goes higher than most birds – but it will also find that folk on the east coast of Scotland speak with a very different accent.

In the ocean it undergoes initiation ceremonies, such as buzzing oil rigs, visiting Norway and going halfway round the world, briefly becoming a herring. Then, driven by some unfathomable instinct which we do not at present fully understand, it goes all the way back up the same river, or one very like it, just in time to inaugurate the Scottish tourist season and lay its eggs (or salmon mousse) at the head of the river. It then returns to the sea for a special final farewell appearance, only to return a few months later to spend the rest of its life in a small underwater granny flat beneath a stone, where it is called upon to do lots of egg-sitting. It ends its life as a side of best Scotch smoked.

It can be easily recognised by the frantic, hunted look in its eyes which it does not lose even on the fishmonger’s slab.


The stickleback is a small educational fish which is bred in large quantities by the Department of Education and released into streams all over Britain during revision time for Biology ‘O’ Levels. It is the only fish which will stay still long enough to be drawn in good detail.


A kind of underwater snake, the eel secretes a jelly which enables it to swim smoothly through the water. It is only found in the East End of London and is quite inedible.


Variously know as dace, roach, chubb, yale, squire, etc. the coarse fish has a rough, boisterous sense of humour and likes being thrown back in the water, for which purpose it will climb again and again on to anything dangled into its habitat. It is ideal for the purpose, being made of some rough, canvas –like material, which is not only hard-wearing but waterproof, and inedible. Variously known as brill, fab, ace, gear, it is easily recognised for its bluff habits of winking at the observer, pulling faces and sticking its tongue out. Also known as smelt, kilt, whelp, skalp and fart, it is the only fish known to pick its nose.


More familiar to us as the half-submerged log in African rivers, or at least in films about African rivers, crocodiles in Britain never grow longer than six inches and resemble half-submerged twigs. With one chomp from its mighty but tiny jaws, it can draw blood from a little finger or nip a toe quite badly.

They are not native to these shores, but are escapes from British crocodile farms, from where they are bred for the manufacture of crocodile skin contact lens-holders. Marinated and baked in a slow oven they make delightful if chewy cocktail snacks. (But remember to remove the contact lenses first.)


These are not strictly speaking fish. In fact, they are not fish at all, any more than a flying fish is a bird. Still, you may very well during your underwater observations see one flash past and it is as well to remember that, however surprised you may be to see a duck or otter swim past, you are going to give him a heart-attack as well.


The trout is now an endangered and protected species, and may only be grown on a farm. Trout have taken surprisingly well to being turned out into farm fields, and may often be seen browsing contentedly all day on the wet grass, flicking with their tails to keep the flies away. Trout milk is rich, but the yield is low.


One of the three most tiresome conversations you ever hear in a restaurant, fish shops or indeed at the water’s edge is whether this thing looking like a prawn (the only creature whose moustache is the largest part of its anatomy) is actually a shrimp, langoustine, crayfish, Norwegian lobster or scampi. What does it matter? They all taste the same, thanks to the cocktail dressing or creamy sauce in which it meets its death by drowning. Personally, I’d go for the champignons à la Grecque or the smoked mackerel but not the sweetbreads.

The second most tiresome conversation in restaurants is about which animal sweetbreads come from, and from which part of that animal.

The third tiresome conversation centres on what is the singular form of the word scampi.

The singular of scampi is shrimpo.


fish finger fish

The life cycle of the fish finger is still little understood, but it seems to start as a tiny rectangle no larger than a fingernail, and coloured grey. It feeds on breadcrumbs. When it has reached its maximum length of four inches it turns into the familiar golden-orange colour and creeps into a box to breed and die.


Any fish that does not correspond to one of the above can be classified as whitebait, which is the commonest fish in Britain apart from scampi. It is scheduled to be replaced throughout the EEC before 1988 by greybait, which is already widely sold in fish and chip shops in Britain under the name of cod, rock, plaice, haddock, etc.

Nature Made Ridiculously Simple
Pub Hamish Hamilton 1983

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