Lamorna Ash: adventures on a Cornish trawler

For her debut book Dark, Salt, Clear, the young writer immersed herself in a Cornish fishing community, a life-changing experience that led to one of spring’s most hotly anticipated titles

Lamorna Ash has a hunch about seasickness: a conviction that there could be more than one reason why a person might feel suddenly queasy up on deck. “A fisherman told me that his cousin never used to suffer from seasickness at all,” she says. “But then he had kids, and suddenly he did. I thought this was fascinating. It made me wonder whether seasickness isn’t somehow connected to things that tie you to the land. Could it be that the more of those things there are, the more likely you are to suffer from it? Perhaps it functions a bit like homesickness in that way.” Struck by her own fancifulness, she flashes me a smile. “Well, anyway… I like that as a way of thinking about it.”

When she was 22 and studying for a master’s degree in social anthropology at University College London, seasickness was briefly Ash’s closest companion. Having decided to devote her thesis to the way that fishing shapes a community, she moved to Newlyn in Cornwall – which is where she met Don, the skipper of a rusty old trawler called the Filadelfia. Would Don consider taking her out in his boat, so that she might stand, as it were, in “the same wellies” as his crew? Somewhat to her amazement – women are supposed to bring bad luck at sea – he said that he would, and so it was that one evening in 2017 she found herself rounding Land’s End just as the sun was about to set, her stomach a tight knot of nerves, her eyes already red from the salt-licked wind. “I’m someone who doesn’t think too hard about things before I do them,” she says. “I seem not to be very cautious; I get overexcited. But that day, yes, I was nervous. I was very scared of seasickness. Not so much of being sick itself, but of it being so bad that I would be useless and they would have to take me home. I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardise their trip; I knew that would cost them a lot of money.”

don the skipper of the filadelfia
Don, skipper of the Filadelfia. Photograph: Lamorna Ash

In the end, she was sick, but only once. “You start yawning,” she says. “And that’s when you know you’re going to go, and you don’t want the men to see because it’s such a sign of weakness.” Most of the time, however, she was able to manage her constant, raging nausea with a combination of seasickness pills and hard work; among other things, she learned to gut every kind of fish, holding the gasping, flapping creatures tight in her hands even as she struggled properly to stand upright. Life on a trawler is hard, the days long and tough and extremely cold, and thanks to this she found that she was always hungry for the vast meals the crew cooked and ate down below, sickness or no sickness.

As for the things that tied her to the land – her parents, her friends – she learned not to think of them. It embarrasses her now to remember the moment when, not long after they had set sail, she asked Don for the Filadelfia’s wifi code. (“Do you know how much that costs at sea?” he told her, with a laugh.) Her phone useless in the pocket of her oilskins, she found that time deepened at sea. She learned to speak a new language, one at once both more reticent than the English spoken on land and yet, in some ways, more open, too. In the wheelhouse, talking to Don or one of the other men while they were on watch – on a trawler, you’re potentially only ever seconds from catastrophe; hit an old anchor or some submarine cables, and the vessel can easily capsize – she learned to listen to the long, meditative gaps between sentences, spaces that allowed words to “expand and drift” in ways that rendered them altogether more meaningful.

lamorna ash on board the newlyn trawler
Filadelfia freedom: Lamorna Ash on board the Newlyn trawler. Photograph: Lamorna Ash

Did the world of the Filadelfia feel very male? Was it unnerving to sleep in her bunk – its size and shape made her think of a coffin – alongside all those snoring, hairy, briny men? “I didn’t especially experience it like that, no,” she says. “They were older than me; they’re family guys, and their women are very strong. The biggest fishing family in Newlyn, the Stevensons, has a matriarch at the head of it. I never felt unsafe, though now and then I would ask one of them: would you say that to a man? But I did want to prove myself a bit. I was never going just to sit there and make notes and take photographs.” Ash studied English at Oxford, and Don made her think of Singleton, the old sailor on Joseph Conrad’s Narcissus: the men who could understand Singleton’s silences were, she recalled, those mariners who “knew how to exist beyond the pale of life”. Staring out into the blue-black, she realised on that first night aboard the Filadelfia that she and its crew had now themselves moved beyond the pale: a confined, almost monastic existence, and yet an unencumbered, roaming one, too – and so began what she thinks of today as the richest and most vast experience of her life so far.

Ash’s eight-day stint on the Filadelfia forms the spine of her first book, Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish Fishing Town; artfully, she returns to it again and again, to the point where you come to believe she must always have known she would one day put the experience between hard covers. But this was, she insists, never her plan. Her thesis complete, she was interning at the Times Literary Supplement when a publisher spotted a piece she had written about a trip she took on another trawler, the Crystal Sea – that publisher asked to meet her, and duly gave her a book deal (she now works for an educational charity). And in person, it’s impossible not to take her at her word. I’m amazed and slightly shocked when she reveals that she spent, in total, just three and a half months in Newlyn; something about her book – the intimacy of the encounters it describes; the epic quality of her account of life on the Filadelfia – leads you to imagine that she must have lived there for a year at least, and possibly much longer.

catch of the day on the filadelfia
Catch of the day on the Filadelfia. Photograph: Lamorna Ash

She and I meet in Penzance. She has been in Newlyn all weekend, seeing old friends and mooching around, and when I get off the train on a bright Monday afternoon, she pitches up in a long coat and with a ravishing new pixie haircut looking like someone who is slightly drunk on fresh air. For both of us, London and Covid-19 suddenly seem very far away. We can breathe. St Michael’s Mount casts its usual spell out in the bay (24 hours later, the National Trust will announce that it is now closed to the public). The Jubilee Pool, Penzance’s celebrated art deco saltwater lido, looks strangely inviting even in mid-March. The people, mostly retired, that we pass as we walk along the promenade are unhurried and smiling.

Still, it’s important not to take things at face value. Ash has a family connection to this part of Cornwall; she spent her childhood holidays in Lelant, near St Ives, where her mother’s side of the family has lived for generations. But if those times were idyllic – her mother, a former actor who once appeared in Poldark, was always encouraging her to let her imagination run wild as they walked on the beach – Cornwall has, of course, a darker side: chiaroscuro shades that she learned to see (“another way of looking”) more clearly during her time in Newlyn.

Though the town is one of the most profitable fishing ports in Britain, it is also poor. In 2015, the mean gross annual salary in Penzance, of which Newlyn is a part (the two merge almost seamlessly together nowadays), was £26,788, compared with £34,265 in the rest of the country. Penzance is literally the end of the line, as anyone who has travelled there by train will know, and Newlyn sits at the far side of a county that in 2017 had the 10th highest numbers of homeless people in the country, and the third highest suicide rate in the UK. Cornwall is the only county poor enough to have qualified for EU emergency funding – a sad fact that did very little to change its implacable determination to vote for Brexit (the leave vote in the county was 56.5%).

In Newlyn, Ash carefully points out the sights to me. Here is the fish market, where she once spent a morning unpacking catch after catch, her fingers so cold she could not feel them (stored in ice, the lemon sole were the hardest to break apart); here is the Swordfish Inn, AKA the Swordy, where she used to drink with her new fishermen friends (it was once ranked second in a TV documentary entitled The Toughest Pubs in Britain); and here is the little house where she lodged with a couple she came to think of as her guardian angels, Denise and Lofty (Denise worked in a fishmongers; Lofty is a ship chandler). Finally, we go past Newlyn’s lifeboat station and out on to the pontoons in the harbour to look at the boats. The creaking Filadelfia has, she says, finally given up the ghost, but there are two trawlers here that look just like it: rough, industrial vessels with huge derricks from which their nets drag. In her book, she likens these boats to prehistoric birds with skeletal wings, and as we gaze at them, clanking and inhospitable, it isn’t hard to see why.

the swordfish inn at newlyn
The Swordfish Inn, Newlyn. Photograph: Steve Hawkins Photography/Alamy Stock Photo

Newlyn has the largest number of vessels in its administration of any port in the UK, 88% of which are “10 metres and under” inshore fishing boats – and the harbour looks busy to me, if not exactly bustling. And yet, as Ash writes in Dark, Salt, Clear, over the years “the pontoons’ leaves have become sparser – a deciduous tree living a perpetual winter”. The number of fishing vessels nationally has fallen by 29% since 1996. The money needed to buy and maintain a boat, and the cost of fuel, grows ever higher; combined with expensive struggles over quotas, these things have worked to put off a new generation from following their parents into the industry (though a trawler man can earn a good living, depending on the type of boat he has, and how good the fishing is in his waters). Does she feel Newlyn could survive a future without fishing? She shakes her head. “You know what they say: for every man at sea, there are three people [connected to the industry] on land. The guys I was with in the pub last night: one was a filleter, one works at the auctions.”

The men’s relationship with their work, as she learned over the course of many late-night conversations, is complicated. They’re extremely proud of what they do; their sense of identity is entirely bound up with it. But many of them seem to hate it, too. “They take a kind of misanthropic pleasure in telling you how awful it is,” she says. “But it’s also addictive, I think. They can’t give it up.” She understands this: “Even now, I still love to go on to the AIS system [the automatic identification system that tracks the movements of boats out at sea] on my laptop.” Do the men want their children to follow them into fishing? “It’s a mixture. A lot don’t. There is a sense of it being a hard life, but there’s also sadness when a boat that has been in a family for generations suddenly isn’t any more. It can be heart-wrenching [for a young person] to say: I can’t live here, I can’t do what my dad did, my education will take me elsewhere.

“I met a guy who, when he was 12, used to run off on a boat. ‘See you in a week, Mum,’ he would say, once it was too late for her to do anything about it. It was a brilliant escape, a rite of passage. The older men were heroes for him, and he wanted to be like them. Fishing comes with many frustrations. The men hate throwing fish off the boat [to stay within EU quotas], and there have been low points when there was very little money in it. It’s very precarious. What if you can’t go out? You’re dependent on the weather, especially if you’re a small boat: a crabber, say. But on the other hand, there are not many industries where you can rise up so high.” Is being a skipper a bit like being a king? Or a God? She laughs. “Yes, maybe it is.”

Brexit is mentioned only rarely in her book; its politics are deliberately oblique. But the subject came up a lot while she was in Newlyn. The first trawler she went on, the Crystal Sea, was part of the Brexit flotilla that sailed into London in 2016 (organised by Fishing for Leave, it sailed from Ramsgate to Westminster, demanding that Britain take back control of its waters; under the common fisheries policy, European fleets are given equal access to EU waters and fishing grounds up to 12 nautical miles from the coasts of member states). “Its crew spoke about ‘our seas’, which always felt bonkers to me. Fish migrate, and when you’re out there… the sea is vast. It feels as though it belongs to everyone. But we had good debates. They were kind of vital for me. They made me see that arguments about waters are very complicated; I stopped assuming that a certain point of view was right.”

seaview from the deck of the filadelfia
View from the deck… Photograph: Lamorna Ash

But the fishermen aren’t dumb; they’re not, by her telling, particularly hopeful that Brexit, even now it is agreed, will necessarily work to their benefit. After all, the fishing industry makes up only about 0.05% of the UK’s GDP, and employs fewer than 12,000 people. “I think they’re preparing for disappointment,” she says. “They have the sense that they are always sold down the river. Politicians use them for a cause, and then they drop them. It’s a long way [from London] down here, and you feel that rage a lot: their awareness that the debate is never about their place.” What about the money the EU has long pumped into Cornwall? (It received some £80m a year in EU funding, money that went into jobs, training and local infrastructure.) Did she ever point this out to them? “Yes, but they just ignore certain things. It’s territorial for them.”

And what about her? In what ways did her experiences at sea change her? She isn’t, she says, a particularly squeamish person; apart from when she was dealing with rays, a fish that seemed to be somehow more fiercely alive than the sole and the monkfish, and which could only be killed with a stab to the heart, she didn’t mind the gutting and the filleting. She was learning new skills, and there was something so unexpectedly beautiful, she thinks, even about their arrabbiata-sauce coloured insides: “The brilliant thing is that every time I have fish now, I think about the supply chain. It has made me more appreciative, knowing that men are out there, risking their lives.” Most people are, she thinks, very distant from their shrink-wrapped food: far too distant: “I have the sense, living in London, of so rarely being involved in real things.”

Her time in Newlyn also taught her to think, both as a city person and one determined to be more green, in a more nuanced way about the environmental issues around fishing. “People say we have got to get rid of the trawlers, because of the damage they do to the seabed. But I know that doing so will affect the lives of a whole community – though it’s a relief when you hear about the smaller boats: there is a future that could be greener.” British people need to start eating more hake, she thinks: “We catch so much of it.” (The fishermen of St Ives, incidentally, refer to themselves as Hakes, while the Newlyn men, with whom they are fiercely rivalrous, like to call the north coasters the Scaly Backs.)

But she does not want to romanticise. As her book makes plain, fishing takes its effects on mental health; some men come to have issues with alcohol (though it is strictly forbidden at sea), and depression is a problem, too. “I hope that I show the limits of close community, as well as its benefits,” she says. “I’ve had my own problems with depression in the past, and it was good to talk to the fishermen about their mental health. I recognised the disassociation they sometimes felt – it’s how they survive – and how scary it can sometimes be.” A fisherman’s life is one of extremes: his sense of jeopardy swiftly replaced by one of celebration when he arrives home safely and hits the pub. As one of the men, Nathan, once told her: when a fisherman is at home, he’s always counting the days until he leaves; and when he’s at sea, he’s always counting the days until he’ll be back.

on board the filadelfia
On board the Filadelfia. Photograph: Lamorna Ash

On her last night on the Filadelfia, Don cooked (how on earth did he do it?) one of the best meals she has ever eaten – a huge roast dinner of potatoes, mashed swede, Yorkshire puddings, cauliflower cheese, parsnips and beef – after which the crew, in spite of their bloated bellies, landed the best catch of their trip, the derricks moaning loudly as they pulled up the immense haul of prized turbot and cuttlefish (“like waiting for lottery numbers to come up,” Ash thought, as she waited to see what the nets had brought). But after this, the mood changed. No one slept much on that last night.

Fishermen call it “channelling”: when thoughts of home, and all the people in it, swim through your mind all night, waking you repeatedly. One of the men tells her that the term is drawn from the word “channel” in its spiritual sense: the conveying of a spirit from another world to this one. (The link between these two worlds is the boat.) And she came to understand that it’s a necessary process. The next morning, as the Filadelfia approached the harbour and a mobile phone signal was once again possible, the boat became simply another place of work rather than, as it was just moments before, the only world that mattered. And now it was the land that seemed suddenly mysterious: a single, unbroken entity she had found herself unable to imagine while she was at sea. Arrival was at once both exhilarating, and anticlimactic. Only when she came face to face with Lofty again did she realise how rancid she smelled – and how little her stench had mattered to her until that moment.

Ash’s book comes into the world garlanded with praise. William Dalrymple has called her a new star of nonfiction: “precise, perceptive, humane and sensitive”. What will she do next? Does she have a plan? What, for her, could ever top Newlyn? “I always have lots of plans,” she says. “I want to go to Texas for a year, and write about my family on my father’s side: my grandfather was from Dallas, and after the war he set up the Marxist Leninist Society of London. For me, Cornwall is very blue, and I want to look at redness…” She thinks for a moment. “Or perhaps I’ll do a PhD about coastal communities. I need to wait for the pull.” In the meantime, though, of one thing she is certain: that she must go back to using an old-fashioned “brick” phone. “I enjoyed listening to the men at sea. Out there, I realised how our phones are stopping us from listening, and I want to get back really to listening to people.” Her eyes, which today are precisely the same colour as the English channel, meet my own, and hold them for a long minute.

  • Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish Fishing Town is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

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Rachel Cooke

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