Poseidon’s steed – My friend Helen done wrote a book!

Helen Scales poses proudly

Helen poses proudly

Last week I trundled up to Cambridge – city of dreaming spires, posh shops and surprisingly good kebab vans – to go to the launch of my friend (and fellow Naked Scientist) Helen Scales’ book launch.

In a wonderful example of nominative determinism, Helen is a marine biologist, and has written an absolutely lovely book about seahorses called Poseidon’s Steed.

Seahorses are fascinating near-mythical creatures – part mermaid, part dragon, and utterly enchanting, as is Helen’s book. I started my reading my signed copy (yes I paid for it!) straight away and was captivated by Helen’s delicate and descriptive writing about these mysterious creatures.

She covers their history in human art and culture, takes a diversion through seahorse use in traditional medicine – possibly dwelling a little too long on the ins and outs and yins and yangs of Traditional Chinese medicine for my liking – and brings to life the wonderment (and mess!) of early Victorian attempts at seahorse husbandry.

The pages contain a treasure-trove of fascinating material. I had never realised how much I loved seahorses, or how little I knew about them, until I started reading. I knew the usual trivia – that the males give birth, and they form monogamous pairs – but there’s so much more to know.

For example, did you know that there is a booming black market in seahorses, and millions of tonnes of the dried creatures are shipped around the world every year? Or that seahorses can be seen off the British coast (if you’re lucky), and are even farmed for aquarium enthusiasts?

There is fabulous diversion through early underwater photography (did you know the first underwater picture was taken in 1856??), and the world’s first seahorse film – the 1934 classic L’Hippocampe ou Cheval Marin, containing plenty of sex and death.

I was struck by two things in Helen’s book. Firstly, her evocative language is a joy to read, and I devoured it. I’ve been reading Helen’s words for several years now – but always as hastily-typed emails or scrawled notes on Naked Scientist scripts. So it’s a revelation to discover that the girl can write. I swear I am not saying these nice things because she’s my friend. It’s because I am deeply impressed (and more than a small bit jealous…)

Secondly, her passion for the sea and its inhabitants burns off the pages. I’ve certainly experienced Helen’s enthusiasm for all things aquatic – and her concern for the environment – first-hand. So, as I expected, this is a book that sets out the wonders of the deep, and points out the importance of saving them. But it achieves it with charm and persuasion, rather than in a wild and hectoring way – again, entirely in keeping with the author’s personality.

Just like its subject, Poseidon’s Steed is a small but perfectly-formed book, bristling with delicate beauty. I urge you to read it – you’ll never have realised how much you wanted to discover about seahorses until you start turning the pages.

At the moment, the book is only available from the US (Amazon link), but Cambridge-dwellers can pick up a copy in Heffer’s – assuming there are any left after the signing!

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