Gutting fish is a messy business. Doing so aboard a 79ft beam trawler while bobbing up and down on the high seas off the coast of Cornwall is messier still. For the inexpert hand, emerging covered in gooey intestines is almost a dead cert.
Lamorna Ash, a 22-year-old Londoner, learns this the hard way. After eight days on board the Filadelfia, however, she is decapitating monkfish and slicing open leopard rays with a “horrifying kind of satisfaction”. The crew even assign her a nickname, “Raymundo”, which she accepts with unbridled pride.
Part coming-of-age memoir, part anthropological study, Dark, Salt, Clear glistens with deftly told snippets and character-rich stories: about the habits of fish and the art of catching them; about the bifurcating life of sea and shore; about “salt-licked winds” and squawking seabirds; and, perhaps most poignantly, about Lamorna Ash herself, the “emmet” or outsider, who so desperately desires to belong.
Ash may be a plummy-voiced product of St Paul’s Girls’ School and Oxford university, but she holds her own. Day one in her chosen field site of Newlyn, a busy Cornish fishing village of some 4,400 residents and five pubs, and we find her swept up on a boozy bar crawl. What started out as a research trip for a graduate thesis then morphs into a longer sojourn. In the months that follow, she gamely throws herself into community life; chatting away to pensioners, visiting the quayside fish market, cadging trips on fishing vessels.
This is no travel-lite romp, however. Ash is not only too sensitive for that, she is also too vested. Her very name (Lamorna is a cove just around the headland) evokes the county where her mother was born and where Ash’s imagined identity lies. Indeed, it is her gradual disabusing of this privately concocted “creation myth” that gives the book much of its bite and poignancy.
In one telling incident, she bounces enthusiastically up to a local shopkeeper after a short stint away, only for the woman to look at her blankly: “No, sorry, I can’t place you, my love.” This is Ash learning, like we all must, that we are but a “blip” and that places go on without us.
So, if not to Ash, then to whom does this corner of coastal Cornwall belong? The question cuts to the core of this acutely observed account of its hard-pressed fishermen. Hit by rising costs and restrictive EU quotas (“bloody Frenchies”), the UK fishing industry has struggled in recent decades.
Ash’s focus is only tangentially on the politics and economics of modern-day fisheries. Instead, what catches her eye — and what she writes about in often scintillating prose — are the individual lives of Cornwall’s fishermen. Men such as Don, the Filadelfia’s barrel-chested skipper, whose onshore vivacity evaporates into sombre silence once in his wheelhouse. Or the crabber James, who digitally tags his pots as with an “x” on a treasure map. Or the “left-field” Kyle, who once went to Manchester but was confounded by the absence of the sea.
When she turns to issues such as quota revisions or Brexit (which has near-universal support in fishing communities), Ash does so not in facts and figures but via the lived realities of the fishermen. Embedded among them, she absorbs their frustration at “continuously feeling unheard” — about gentrification and youth unemployment, about the loss of village ways and possible betrayal by UK trade negotiators.
Cornwall’s harbourside cottages and ragged cliffs may look picturesque, but they hide an unsettling “anger and insularity”, she argues. With graceful lyricism and endearing humility, Ash gives this rage both voice and face. Instinct will warn many of her subjects to be distrustful of an “emmet” writing about them and their turf. She isn’t one of them nor ever will be. Yet for those in Newlyn who got to know her — as Lamorna, Raymundo, my love — she more than earns her Cornish stripes.
Dark, Salt, Clear, by Lamorna Ash, Bloomsbury Press, RRP£15, 336 pages
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