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Simon Codrington: Guide to Underwater Hunting

Sun Jul 27, 2014 6:48 am

Time to take down another vintage diving book from my shelf for a review, methinks. This time I've chosen an early British tome:
Codrington, Simon (1954) Guide to Underwater Hunting, Adlard Coles Ltd., in association with George Harrap & Co. Ltd, London, Toronto, Sydney, Wellington and John de Graff, Inc., New York.

My copy is a first edition, which many people will associate either with high prices or with book collectors' obsessions with the completeness of their libraries. To puncture that particular balloon, I own many first editions of diving books which never lived to see a second edition because they didn't sell well enough the first time round, and this may be true of Codrington's 80-page hardback, for all I know. From my perspective, the only thing that makes a first edition more important than a book's subsequent editions is its closeness to the author's original text. And in the case of the preface to Guide to Underwater Hunting, there are glorious misspellings that escaped the editor's eagle eye:

I feel it is almost presumptuous of me to attempt to write of the world of life and hunting under the sea, after reading those two excellent and comprehensive books by Jacques Couteau and Phillipe Diole.

Codrington doesn't tell us what the titles of these books were, but very probably they were J. Y. Cousteau's The Silent World and Philippe Diolé's The Undersea Adventure, both published in English translation from the French in 1953. Note the spelling of the authors' names and compare it with what Codrington has written in the first sentence of his book. It's easy to get the wrong double letters in "Philippe", but "Jacques Couteau" really tickled my funny bone, as it translates literally to "Jack Knife." See what I mean about first editions? Such slips of the tongue wouldn't have made it to the second edition, but little errors like this do serve to remind us that books are written by human beings, not robots with spellcheckers.

Here is a list of the book's chapters:
I The Climax
II Equipment
III Use of Equipment
IV Hunting Technique
V Hunting Big Fish
VI Terrors of the Deep?
VII Advanced Equipment
VIII A Final Word

All books carry the cultural baggage of the era in which they are written, and this particular volume is no exception. The French influence is evident not only in the homage to Cousteau and Diolé but also in the emphasis on underwater swimming as a means of hunting for the pot rather than exploration for its own sake. The chapter title "Terrors of the Deep?" reminds us that in the early 1950s the ocean was as alien an environment back then as outer space. The book, however, is completely up to date for its time (remember this is a year before the first edition of the Carriers' Dive). There's a monochrome photograph of Cressi Rondine full-foot fins, which would have been a brand-new piece of kit back in 1954. I particularly like too the description of a "breathing mask with air tube fitted to face-piece":

The other type of mask normally covers eyes, nose and mouth, and has a breathing tube built into the side (in some cases both sides of the head), while in other types only one tube is fitted, in the centre. The advantage of this kind of mask is mainly from the comfort point of view. It fits snugly to one's face, there is no mouthpiece to bite on, and one can breathe through either nose or mouth. Both types of mask work satisfactorily, though, and are appropriately the same price.

This wonderfully calm presentation of the pros and cons of a simple dive mask versus a dive mask with built-in snorkel contrasts markedly with a recent "Scaryboard" thread about a modern version of the snorkel-mask where all the contributors positively revelled in the possibility of the wearer dying a horrible death. Times change and we change with them!

In previous reviews I've made a big deal of the author's perception of his readership. Codrington is very keen to stress that his is a "beginner's book": "Let 'Guide to Underwater Hunting' simply be a guide and giver of general information to those who have never beneath the waves and seen - or lived." This said, he hopes that his brief introduction to the undersea world will inspire a nation of land-lubbers to take the plunge and discover for themselves the wonders of the world under the sea, perhaps turning their little adventure into a lifelong passion.

Finally, something about the author himself. Throughout his book, he appears to be aware of his privileged status as an early underwater swimmer. Though British, he seems to have fled these cold shores for warmer climes, more particularly the Gulf of Suez. He can clearly treat himself to the best of gear, including a pair of "new-fangled" full-foot fins, a harpoon gun and a drysuit, all of which would have been quite hard to afford, or even obtain, in the early 1950s austerity of a Britain where some war-time rationing was still in place. He remarks: "Now you will no doubt ask how much all this cost? I would say that for approximately ten pounds you can buy all the basic equipment you need, i.e. mask, knife, gun and swim fins. It is not much when you consider what pleasure and sport they bring." I have to say that for many Brits of the time, ten pounds would still have represented quite a large outlay!
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