Just Beyond Penzance

Penzance is the big place, the one with the proper harbor, and renown of Humphry Davy, the renowned chemist who invented the miner’s headlamp and, with Michael Faraday, figured out diamonds were pure carbon. Just beyond Penzance, and well within its local government authority, is the town of Mousehole, apparently a fairly dull place, but before Mousehole, there’s Newlyn. And that’s where this particular story takes place. In Newlyn, and in the water which provides Newlyn with its distinction as the largest fishing port in all of England. More than a hundred years ago, Newlyn was an artist’s colony. Now, Newlyn is popular with weekenders. There’s a healthy number of pleasure boats, some quite costly, and some pubs and restaurants cater to the upscale trade, but that’s not the interest of Lamorna Ash, a London-based writer whose unusual given name has its roots in the Newlyn region. Ms. Ash has written a very good account of her immersive adventure in the fishing life of Newlyn. It’s called Dark Salt Clear: The Life of a Fishing Town.

The book straddles a good traveler’s adventure–she spends much of her time among fisherman (rarely a fisherwoman)–but it’s also a solid bit of natural, historical, nautical and personal storytelling. This is not an easy balance to achieve, especially for a first-time author, but she has done the job well. Of course, the real fun is on the fishing boat, crammed into close quarters on the Filadelfia, first coping with the inevitable seasickness, eventually learning to gut, finding various bits of fish innards in her hair even after a good shower, and working her way up to filleting. She learns the peculiarities and challenges associated with monkfish (nasty), sole (exceedingly difficult to handle), turbot (which must be sliced just-so in order to maintain their bright white color). She manages well past the issues related to a women among men, gaining acceptance through relentless willingness to do the work. She works hard, and we’re alongside her every step of the way. Not much emotion here, not much complaining. A good sense of humor, and a wonderful sense of just how much she is attempting and the gumption required to succeed. She’s a good companion, and when you’re at sea on a fairly small vessel for days on end, that matters a lot.

Her explanations of history, economics, and geography are clear and well-informed. “In 1968, the biologist and ecologist Garrett Hardin published a paper called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons,’ in which he argued that individuals are motivated by their own sense of self-interest to overuse common property. If the seas are left unchecked as a communal resource, Hardin explains, each man will ensure he spends as much time and effort at sea as to be certain no one else can take his share. The tragedy of the commons, as with most economic theories designed to make sense of an unpredictable world, is not as simplistic as first outlined; humans cannot simply be reduced to inherently selfish agents, as they cannot be reduced to purely good or evil. Rather it seems clearer now that the rising competition over the produce of the seas is also intrinsically tied to the expansion of capitalism around Europe, the advancement of fishing technology and the more desperate conditions created by post-war austerity.”

There’s serious food here, too. Fresh fish, of course, but also elaborate meals prepared in a tiny kitchen: their fish curry, hake and onions with thyme butter, haddock on a bed of shallots (‘but not so French’) with Gruyère cheese and bacon; and “a roast with all the trimmings every other day.” Fishing is hard, physical work. The food fuels the effort.

Amidst references to Wozzeck, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, ghosts, phosphorescent fishing nets, pilchards, the dangers, the joys, the pub, the friendship, Ash finds her place among 21st-century authors with a fine first book and at least one reader who looks forward to the next. I hope she’s writing it today.

Please Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: