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I was frankly a little bit surprised by this view Keith and Tony were giving me. I had expected them as persons in local public office with community concerns to have emphasised the needs of the community, not its excesses. In fact they were challenging my naive assumption that the problems facing fishing communities were problems between ‘the community’ (as a relatively homogenous entity) and external structural constraints. Rather, their jobs have entailed grappling with the complex structural inequalities that run right through the fishing industry. In April 2010 I went back to visit Keith to ask him more about his views on social and economic stratification in fishing in Newlyn in order further to understand how fishing society changed between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. I include extracts below from the interview which are valuable as the views of someone with a unique position of being very involved in the social side of the fisheries and having experience of working in both Scottish and Cornish fishing communities. However Keith asked me to stress that they are his own subjective and personal views, and not necessarily the views of the Fishermen’s Mission.
Keith felt that ‘there is a real stratification in the fishing industry and wherever
you go pretty much’:
At the bottom of the food chain is your deckies, the people that work for the Stevensons, the people that work on all the boats. They have no... nothing other than what they earn. Ok? Now in days gone by, even on certain boats there is now, that’s a jolly good wage. A deckie in Mallaig in the 70s, when the herring and everything were plentiful were making a thousand pounds in their hand – a week. Ok, at that point they didn’t pay tax, they didn’t declare it you know, but a thousand pounds is a fair whack of cash in the seventies, and Mallaig was an extremely affluent place.
He recalled, (figuratively speaking) ‘three day millionaires at Lowestoft’:
...the guys that did the deep sea fishing before the Cod War, would go to sea for a month, come in for three days, and they too would be pulling in a thousand pounds plus. And like the Mallaig people this boom time was seen to be a constant – it would always be the same, it would never change. You know, herring would never stop landing in Mallaig, like we’d never stop fishing up near the Arctic Circle.
However these periodic high earnings were also spent just as quickly:
I mean, people would land, three day millionaires, spend their money in the pub you know, maybe see the wife, give them fifty quid, down the pub, you know come next Monday they’re sailing, they’re going up to ask for a sub to get ciggies for going on the boat. In Mallaig these guys would go to Fort William, Inverness, and they would buy a sheepskin jacket, you know one of the big flying jackets, two or three hundred pounds, they would get to the boat on a Monday, and they would wear it on board the boat as working gear. Right, do you see that kind of idea? The “cash, splash cash, who cares?” So that kind of culture for the deckies very much evolved.
In Keith’s experience, this ‘deckie culture’ has persisted today, although the high earnings are less consistent. It is this strata that mainly call on the services of the
mission when in need:
... The people who don’t have an investment in the boats themselves spend money.
That’s a generalisation, and it’s a huge generalisation, but it’s generally true. Ok so they’ll spend their money in ‘The Star’, or ‘The Dolphin’, or wherever, ‘Swordfish’, without necessarily saving for tomorrow. And the people that come to the mission, more often than not, is that strata. The strata that have the money coming in, I mean they still make a living wage... they can still afford to go on holiday; they can afford to drink in ‘The Star’ and ‘The Fish’. You know, so they’re earning a reasonable amount of money, but they’re spending it as quickly. And then when that stops, because of bad weather, because of illness, whatever, there is nothing... there’s nothing in the bank, there’s no fall back. So they come to the mission. So we have a lot of contact with those deckies. You know and a lot of those are from, not indigenous fishermen, maybe they’ve been here a long time, but from Lowestoft, Grimsby, Hull, you know, all those kind of places that were the deep water ports, the blue water ports, with the North Atlantic and the Arctic Circle. So that as I see it, is one strata, but within that not all deckies are the same. Some deckies are very astute, they’ll save their money... and we don’t see those few so much.
The next strata Keith identified were skipper-owners:
And they made a lot of money. I mean, because they not only got their share for doing the voyage, they got the boat share. And they’ve got investment. They’ve got the boat itself. And they on the whole, we don’t have a huge amount of contact with because they have assets. They will tell you they’re poor, but I tell you what, they got ten, fifteen thousand pounds in the bank. And they go on holidays, and maybe they’ve got a house in Spain... you know, they have assets. And we don’t see them an awful lot at all, unless it’s more the pastoral and emotional side of the job. You know, and they’ve, the boat’s money comes out first and it’s the biggest share. You know, so they’ve always got, even if it’s a bad trip, the boat’s paid for itself, they get their share and they’ll get the money on top of that. So they’ve always got a pretty good income coming in...
And finally, Keith identified a third top strata:
...The ones that made the big, big money, like the Stevenson’s, you know, they own multiple boats. At the height of the harbour, in the eighties and such like, they couldn’t find enough to spend their money on. I’ve been told that the last time their assets (before current slump), the last time they were assessed, they were worth about a hundred and thirty million pounds. And that money that came in, they just spent it, they brought everything they could see. So they own half a dozen farms, they own houses everywhere. So they’ve got quite a diversification into different areas. And they just made money hand over fist... just a huge amount of money that they made...
The people that make money consistently, even in the bad times, are your buyers and sellers. You know, the people that own the companies, maybe not the smaller companies, but they still make a reasonable income. But your biggest companies they make huge marks up on fish. I mean, I’ve seen fish, mackerel, go for fifty pence on the market, and they’re five pounds in Stevenson’s shop. I mean come on, there’s no legitimate business argument you can make for that mark up. And they make money hand over fist. And that’s how I see, how it stratifies down.
The boat owners involved in the Newlyn court case would fit into Keith’s idea of the middle tier of boat owners who he identified as having a reasonable level of income and holding assets. The image this conveys contrasts with the image that was portrayed by some of the media and the defendants themselves, of hard-up, struggling fishing families, beholden both to an absolute dependence on nature and the constraints of the regulatory system. Out of all the strata, Keith’s portrayal of the deckhands most fits the historical image of the itinerant, impoverished fisherman, who holds nothing in the world but the ability to ply his trade; except that the life of the deckhands of the modern-day era has been distinguished by periods of conspicuous wealth (as in earnings quickly disposed of, rather than assets). Keith emphasises conspicuous markers of status in describing the different stratum – lifestyle, holidays, and multiple home ownership – suggesting cultural values relating to consumption as a marker of identity. This is maybe one feature common across the modern day fishing community (and society as a whole) and distinct from earlier periods – a change from having an identity drawn from belonging to a community bound by occupation and necessity to a more materialistic and lifestyleorientated culture, seeking freedom from necessity, and looking outward to the dominant cultural ideals and fashions of market-led society.
This shift is partly a result of broad changes in society over the last one hundred and fifty years, however it is also a consequence of vast increases in capital in the fishing industry within the context of a declining labour force. Fisheries are on the whole wealthier, but there are far fewer people fishing, as capital has become more and more concentrated. It is this concentration of capital and contraction of labour that distinguishes fishing in the twentieth century onwards from earlier periods.
Otherwise, the basic organisational structure would be essentially the same: a share system in ownership and profit distribution and a three-tiered social and economic stratification. In the earlier period the top tier was occupied by merchants and the landowning class who had interests in mining and the seine fishery. The drift fishery was the pursuit of the lower two tiers of fishermen and boat-owners. During the twentieth century, certain fishing families and merchants accumulated more and more capital, moving up the economic ladder. But there was another radical change which was both an outcome and a facilitator of increasing capital in the fisheries and directly linked to the transition to diesel-engine boats – a change in the share-system.
This change was explained to me by Tony Pawlyn, maritime historian and, for a time in his youth, apprentice in the Stevenson’s firm. Fundamentally this comes down to the fact that with the transition to diesel-engine fishing boats and bigger nets, the capital input of the fisheries was so high that the boat-owners took steps to protect and guarantee a return on their investments. At some time during the early days of the Stevenson’s firm, the share-system changed. No longer were the boat’s share and the crew share equally dependent on the outcome of the fishing trip. From then on, the boat’s share was subtracted no matter what the outcome of the fishing trip was. The remainder was divided between the crew. The effect of this was to guarantee at least the security of the boat-owners investment and transfer all the risk to the crew. As Tony Pawlyn explained, the changes began when steam-powered winches came into use for hauling the nets. An extra share was allocated to cover the expense of the winch, which became known as ‘the iron man’. Then the boat share, originally a variable proportion of the catch, gradually became a fixed-cost to cover the engine and fuel expenses. And whilst ‘officially’ (in Tony’s words) Cornish fishermen were supposed to be free adventurers with the skippers dividing the shares on board, ‘unofficially’ fishermen on the Stevensons’ boats were collecting their share in the form of a pay-packet from the company offices. An additional change to the share system was also made in that the body share was no longer split equally, with the engineer, the mate and the skipper taking higher percentages.
In my interview with Keith, he expressed his view that relationships between deckhands and skipper-owners has changed for the worse, with deck-hands more and more being treated as an expendable commodity – again, challenging the image of the co-operative family fishing enterprise evoked in the Newlyn court-case and a radical departure from images of solidarity and camaraderie from earlier eras. Keith painted a picture which shows how changes in the economy of fishing, has had direct consequences not only for employment and inequality in wealth, but also relationships within fishing enterprises, crew morale, welfare and safety.
The same day I interviewed Keith he had been talking to a skipper and his wife about one of their crew members who had died recently and whose body has just been discovered in the harbour. They had been very concerned about their crew member and Keith found this to be rare in his experience, especially his recent experience. For example the centre had supported a crew after their boat was swamped. One crew-member ran up quite a lot of debt. Keith approached the skipper about this and the skipper denied any responsibility for his crew member.
Now that’s a far more common problem amongst skippers, that deckies are disposable, no, expendable assets, than the skipper and his wife this morning who were really concerned about this crew member who died, getting an appropriate send off and is remembered. That’s very unusual. In my experience, and again it’s purely subjective – and that’s my experience and maybe I’ve just hit that 5% that are right pains in the necks, and the rest you know... So, you know, deckies are expendable, or have been in the past, expendable. ‘Cause there’s always someone waiting at the end of the quay who wants a job. And I think as long as it’s that, that there’s deckies waiting at the end of a quay they’ll still be expendable assets. I mean there’s one guy who, went over the side, got caught in a net, miraculously survived, transpired that he hadn’t done any of the safety courses, at all – shouldn’t have been at sea, completely illegal. Skipper got him back in the boat before he’d done all the courses... he goes over the side again. So what? Skipper did nothing. As far as I’m aware the skipper didn’t actually contact him between him going over the side, and when weeks later that guy contacted him to say “Can I come back on the boat?” Keith felt the one of the consequences of increased economic stratification therefore was the direct impacts on the risk levels fishermen face at sea. He gave the example of life raft certificates being falsified in order to save a bit of money and highlighted also the poor safety records of some of the company owned vessels which have regularly broken down and had to be towed back to harbour.