Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Swordfish And The Star, by Gavin Knight

9781784740153Without being planned, this has turned into a two-thirds complete Cornish theme week. Which is brilliant, as the insights into being inspired as a writer by Cornwall in Bookfox Moira’s Monday interview with Liz Fenwick are resonant and relevant as I dive into the latest addition to my Cornish bookshelf.

The Swordfish And The Star, subtitled Life on Cornwall’s most treacherous stretch of coast, with its gorgeous, evocative cover, is a documentary, yet just as much a work of imaginative shaping as the fiction that is inspired by the uniqueness of Cornwall. It is a book by a skilled storyteller, made of the vivid life stories that the people of West Cornwall tell of themselves and their fellows, written with a story-teller’s truth. Cornwall with Issues (pace Liz Fenwick on Monday) writ larger than life (… drinking and drugs with seaspray, moonlit beaches and shattering storms, myth and urban myth, we are promised).

The Swordfish and The Star of the title are harbour-side pubs in Newlyn, the gamey ‘locals’ of the fishermen whose reckless bravery and outlaw ways make them the countercultural heroes of this book. Their lives have challenges and priorities that are not shared by the newcomers, second-homers and visitors who inhabit the parallel Cornwall that we see on holiday.

This book is just as much a page-turning read as any novel, full of individual voices in anecdote and dialogue. A thread that runs through its fabric is the life and experience of Martin Ellis, aka ‘Nutty Noah’, a fisherman-turned-artist from Cadgwith on the Lizard, who even in a world of non-conformists stands out for his single-minded pursuit of his goals. Learning from his elders, he is the inspiration for a minor revival of the Cornish fishing industry, rediscovering the forgotten technique of ring-netting for pilchards. In conjunction with maverick Newlyn fish merchant Nick Howell (only in a book about Cornwall could you find a maverick fish merchant), they created from scratch a new life for this humble fish as the ‘Cornish Sardine’, sold fresh in high-class fishmongers and in Harrods Food Hall in tins decorated with paintings of the Newlyn School, bringing a burst of prosperity to a local industry being slowly strangled by factory fishing boats. (I have tried, heaven knows how I’ve tried, but they still taste like pilchards to me).

Knight’s stage is crowded with characters – in the foreground are the fishermen living on the outer edge of prosperity, rich on one day of success, poor the next. He records without judgement the criminality and rough justice that goes with such dangerous lives. His scene moves from Cadgwith to Newlyn, to St Ives, to St Just and places in-between. All within about 20 miles of each other, these places have their own distinct community bonds. Wherever there is fishing or mining there is extreme danger – the depiction of the toll on body and mind is graphic, to say nothing of the broken relationships and scattered families. Life for the independent skipper and his crew is made even harder by the stranglehold that one family has on Newlyn’s market and infrastructure, and they are part of this story. It is overwhelmingly a world of men on the boats (though Martin Ellis’s daughter does go out fishing with him). The women are portrayed as equally resilient in their own sphere – Elizabeth Stevenson, boat owner and fish merchant, enduring the disgrace of her family caught cheating on quotas; the all-knowing landladies of the eponymous pubs; the wives and partners who survive the rigours of the life of the men they are with and those who don’t.

The working lives of Cornish people used to be built on fishing, mining (metal and clay) and farming. Among them were engineers and innovators who transformed their industries and spread their skills across the world. Bit by bit, these certainties have been knocked away, with tourism and the creative arts filling some of the gaps in the economy. This book presents us with a curious Venn diagram of fishing and seafaring with art and creativity, with tourism and property development. Fishermen turn artists, maverick fish merchants turn gallerists, town worthies turn property developers. These lives are not so much chalk and cheese as one would expect. There is no particular hierarchy of virtue here. All are depicted as hard and brave, yet it was a slight weakness of the book for me that the author gives a sort of narrative equivalence to the fishermen of Cadgwith and Newlyn and to the artists and the property kings of St Ives. I suffer pity and fear at the insane risks of the lives of the fishermen, but I found something slightly Python-esque about the same tone of voice applied to life in St Ives. A buccaneering property developer is a somewhat different proposition from the ruthless skipper of a tiny fishing boat. So I find the narrative sags a bit in the middle. Local colour is supplied by artists such as the incomers Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, and indigenous Alfred Wallis and Peter Lanyon. I take an interest in this particular part of the artistic world, and so I raised a somewhat quizzical eyebrow at some of the yarn-spinning of the drama of their lives. On the other hand the tragic story of Jude Le Grice, scion of Trereife and talented singer, now only known to the outside world for his obsessive pursuit of a fellow-singer, is given tactful low key treatment.

Cornwall hosts millions of visitors every year, drawn by its beauty, and even those who head straight for the beaches with their buckets and spades cannot be immune to the dangerous quality of its coast with its rocks and reefs and the sense of being on the edge of the known world. However, there is a tedious truism that we are unaware of just how different Cornwall is underneath the holiday surface – and with the marketing of this book here we are again. On the cover flap: The result is an arresting tapestry of a place we thought we knew; the precarious reality of life in Cornwall today emerges from behind our idyllic holiday snaps and picture postcards. I am never quite sure how I’m supposed to react to this, but some irritation is generally in the mix. So many people, me included, have enjoyed idyllic holidays in Cornwall. We are drawn here by its difference, or else we’d stick to Hunstanton. We walk the coast, stare at the sea, wonder at its dangerous beauty, eat the fish, watch the boats. Our photos are gorgeous. We read avidly about Cornwall, in fiction and non-fiction, its sea-soaked history, peopled by larger than life characters whose reckless bravery often goes hand in hand with opportunistic villainy. The best writing about Cornwall, whether the sunniest romantic novel or the most serious traveller’s tale, is always that which is pervaded by the extremes of Cornwall, its exposure to the ocean and the weather, its ancient culture and language, the primitive durability of the landscape and the people who live with and by it. The Swordfish and The Star has all this in spades, but is hardly unique.

The frisson for me of this book is the extremity of risk that sea-going Cornishmen run, whether in fishing boats or lifeboats. They are nervelessly skilful navigators and harvesters of the sea, but in the worst of Atlantic weather, or sudden equipment failure, this will not save them. Their greatest danger lies in the sort of penury that forces them to go out when prudence would advise them to stay at home; or where lives are at risk and they by instinct go out to save them (a heart-rending passage concerned the loss of the Penlee Lifeboat Solomon Browne, never to be forgotten).

For some readers, this may be the book that parts the curtains and shows them the real Cornwall for the first time. For so many others it will be a moving addition to the Cornish bookshelf, telling the sort of tall but true tales that, if you are brave enough to venture in, you might overhear told in The Swordfish, or The Star, by the heroes of the stories themselves.

Gavin Knight: The Swordfish And The Star. Life on Cornwall’s most treacherous stretch of coast. London: Chatto & Windus, 2016. 244pp
ISBN: 9781784740153

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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