Friday Book – Dark, Salt, Clear – Life in a Cornish Fishing Town by Lamorna Ash

Dear Readers, as we know I’m currently reading my way through the shortlist for the Wainwright Prize, and Dark, Salt, Clear by Lamorna Ash  was a good, cooling read for the middle of a heatwave. The author spent about three months in Newlyn in Cornwall, a week on a trawler, and some time on the other fishing boats. Admittedly her mother is Cornish, and Ash had spent time on holiday in Cornwall as a child, but was this enough time to really get to know an area, and to write about it? Plus Ash is young, a Londoner, by her own definition ‘posh’. In truth, I was prepared to hate the book – I was worried that it was yet another example of someone who drops in on a culture, harvests a few pages and moves on.

However, several things save it. One is that Ash recognises herself as a ‘fish out of water’ when she first joins the trawler, and her greatest fear is that her seasickness will be so bad that she won’t be able to continue. She is brutally honest about her naivety – she asks the Captain of the Filadelfia for the wifi code, and he laughs, asking her if she knows how much it costs at sea? She is determined not to just sit around writing and taking photos and joins in the fish gutting, graduating from lemon sole to monkfish to rays, and eventually the highest skill of all, filleting. She desperately wants, at first, to belong, but gradually realises that this is impossible, and also that it’s ok, that there are many ways of relating to a place:

‘Though the town felt a huge experience for me, I was a blip, barely even that, in the long lives of most of its residents: a kid with a smart London accent who stuck out like a sore thumb, who asked a few questions and then left again’.

Secondly, she sees both the good things about Newlyn, and the things that are problematic, both its tight-knit, celebratory culture and the alcoholism, depression and insularity.

Sat there in the backroom office amongst half-inflated lifeboats, Lofty provides me with a list of some of his favourite ‘Newlyn’ phrases. ‘Good as gold’ is one he uses all the time to describe other members of the community, the goodness in this case simply meaning kindness and not needing to mean anything more than that. I can’t believe so many people in one place can be good as gold. One of my friends back home suggested that calling someone nice is practically an insult; when any of us gives a person a compliment, it is always that they are interesting, or smart, or cool, in recognition of some external factor rather than an innate quality or the way they treat others.

‘When I tell people I’m from London, I often get responses like:’There’s too many people. It’s filthy. And no one speaks to you; no one speaks English, even’. 

More than anything, though, Ash can write. I had a real sense of what it might be like to be at sea on a trawler, and I enjoyed some of the images she conjures up immensely.

Every time they come across small sharks wriggling out of the pile and snapping their strong jaws, they fire them back into the sea like shot-puts. I lock eyes with one and see across its face an expression of utter disbelief as it flies right past the wheelhouse window’.

From a birds-eye view the pontoons look like slender trees whose leaves are the boats that colour and animate them, blowing slightly in the wind’. 

The crabs themselves look to me like old leather purses, the kind you find in boxes at the back of charity shops or swinging from the arms of grannies.’

One moment really captured my attention. On the way home from her week at sea, one of the crewmen tell her that as soon as the ship comes within five miles of the land and gets a mobile signal again, everyone will pick up their phones and stop talking to one another. And so it proves:

‘Our fingers caress the smooth, clean surfaces of our virtual lives and in each of our eyes shines a reflected blue oblong. And, like that, the community of the past eight days fractures.’

And so, I enjoyed this book much more than I expected to. I learned a lot about Cornwall, and about Newlyn and its fishing community. I found I was sympathetic to the author as she tried to fit in, to make herself useful and to understand how things worked.  I liked that she knew that she had only scratched the surface of the community that had welcomed her, and that she would never truly get to the bottom of what made them how they were. It will be interesting to see what she writes next, and I would love to hear the opinions of my West Country readers.


6 thoughts on “Friday Book – Dark, Salt, Clear – Life in a Cornish Fishing Town by Lamorna Ash

  1. Liz Norbury

    When I was a young newspaper reporter here in West Cornwall, I was sent to Newlyn on several occasions, to interview the families and friends of fisherman who had been lost at sea. As a community, Newlyn reminded me of the Cornish mining town where all four of my grandparents were born – resilient and uncompromising, but with a tradition of exuberant singing and storytelling.

    I’d heard about Dark, Salt, Clear, of course, and my reaction to the idea of the book was similar to yours: I have a particular dislike for prosperous London writers who fly to Cornwall for the weekend and then produce pages of patronising, badly-researched guff. But you have inspired me to give the book a chance. And I need to remember that although I am Cornish, I am also a Londoner!

    1. Bug Woman

      Ah, I really hoped you’d see this, Liz! Let me know what you think. Certainly the Cornish people who reviewed it on Amazon (if such they were) seemed to like it. Ash talks about the tradition of ‘yarning’ (storytelling) and the way that people who can tell a good tale are held in high esteem.

      1. Andrea Stephenson

        I finished Landfill recently, but I have to be honest it didn’t really grab me – it wasn’t quite what I was expecting (though I can’t really tell you what that was!) and I found it a bit of a struggle to get through.

  2. Bug Woman

    Ah, I really liked Landfill, but it is an odd book that goes all over the place. I think a lot depends on what mood I’m in – sometimes I’m up for something discursive and other times I just want the author to get on with it 🙂


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