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St Ives. Stefan described how fishing was all he wanted to do when growing up and he could not wait to leave school and follow this passion. He acknowledged that his family background is not the typical story of intergenerational fishing, but he said what in fact happens ‘when sons follow fathers, is that they starve’. In his experience many of the indigenous Cornish fishermen he has encountered have been resistant to change. Stefan on the other hand (and he has gone away and done other things apart from fishing) has always striven for innovation. For example he introduced the practice of placing freshly caught fish in slush ice rather than hard ice. Hard ice freezes the fish from the outside, but in slush ice fish breathe the cold right into their bodies. The fish is more quickly and thoroughly preserved and the rate of rotting slowed. One of a handful of fishermen now targeting pilchards he is known to be particularly successful. Understanding that the arrival of the shoals in July and August is influenced by water temperature and plankton levels, he gets all the information he can from meteorological and other scientific reports to predict when and where they will come. One merchant told me that fishermen watch to see what he does, and will follow his lead one year and expect the fish to arrive on the same date the following year (‘as if there is some kind of fish calendar!’ he joked).
We almost certainly distort Squanto’s advice, as the colonists perhaps did, by reducing it to a single observation’ (311-312).
Undoubtedly, Stefan has been influenced by his father, but perhaps what is being transmitted in this case is drive and adaptability, which stimulates and/or arises from experiences of migration and hardship. This theme comes up again in the following life histories. In my comparison of two recorded accounts, I focus on particular extracts that I group under the headings ‘Beginnings’, ‘Learning’ and ‘Innovation’.
Beginnings (1) Peter Pearman, retired inshore fisherman Peter was introduced to me as ‘the last fisherman in Hayle’ – not actually true, but certainly he was one of a few full-time, professional fishermen operating from that port. At the time of our interview he had recently retired and sold his boat. He was glad to have someone interested in hearing and recording his stories. He died just over a year later, eighty years of age. An obituary in a local newspaper reported that it was only in his seventy-ninth year that ill-health stopped him working nineteenhour days at sea. We recorded the interview at Marazion beach, looking out towards St Michael’s Mount with the panorama of Mount’s Bay before us. We watched the
waves breaking on the beach as he told his story which began at that same spot, fiftythree years before:
I was in the army, motor mechanic; come out the army, went back in the garage.
Couldn’t settle. I used to go camping every weekend to get away from everything, and eventually I came camping in Cornwall. And I had a tent and a car and just here is where I sat, on that beach against this wall, looking out there and thought “cor, I’d love to live here...and I got to find a way”. So that’s where it all starts from, and it starts with me.
This was 1956. Anyway, I’d always snorkelled, I went out off to Mousehole Island and saw sea urchins, came in and said to the harbour-master, well I won’t get any fish around here with all those prickly things everywhere. “You mean the buzzers!” That’s their name for them. I said, “No sea urchins”. “They’re buzzers”. He said, “we sell them two bob to the visitors you know. Why don’t you do it? Just scrape the insides out, scrape the hooks off them”, and that was it. So that’s my first little site selling sea urchins [showed me a photo].
Here are the first indications that Peter was consciously seeking an ideal way of life that he associated with Cornwall, beginning with a journey from London to the countryside and the sea. With the images of the friendly harbour-master and ‘the visitors’ in the small fishing port I was immediately transported to the enduring scene of the urban outsider arriving in the seemingly cosy and parochial world of the sunny seaside village at the end of the line. There is a contrast with the beginning of the Stevens’ story that begins as a family story (rather than the story of an outsider), but also begins with a journey.
Beginnings (2) David Stevens and son, trawlermen David Stevens and his son (also David Stevens) wove a story that reached from their family past in and amongst the cottages of the fishing quarter in St Ives town and meandered to their present lives and residence sharing a complex of converted farm buildings in an isolated rural setting. The encircled lives of the closely-knit fishing quarter had now become the encirclement of three stout farmhouses. When I arrived I found father and son chopping and stacking wood beside a big hanger-style barn. ‘What’s changed more than anything’, David (Senior) began, as I understood referring broadly to British and/or ‘modern’ society, ‘is we’ve lost that sense of family, supporting one another’. He felt that in some ways they were still living like he and his family had in St Ives, sharing home space, work and family responsibilities, adding ‘Only we’ve got more space now for fishing gear and that’, and they agreed the farm setting probably suited them better now.
The family story they shared with me began in the early 1900s and with the stark statement ‘the fishing was dying in St Ives’. At that time the pilchard fishery was going into decline and David (Senior’s) great-grandparents moved the whole family to Lancashire to work in the cotton mills. After a time, most of the family returned to St Ives and David’s grandfather and his brothers started buying fishing boats. Two of the brothers drowned when their boat was run down. His grandfather had the Sweet Promise built at St Ives after the war and following that the Rose of Sharon built in 1952 at Mevagissey. David senior’s father also worked on that boat for most of his life: ‘...Mostly pilchard nets, mackerel nets, and what we call great lines or long lines. And then in the winter months when there was not a lot doing over here, they used to go to Dunmore, Southern Ireland on the herring’. Observing Scotchmen using ring-nets worked between two boats, they experimented and started using ‘one of the first purse-nets in Great Britain. They worked it single boat, and they used to work the tide and the wind’. Eventually all the Cornish boats that fitted out with the purse-net ended up doing it the same way as David’s grandfather and father.
Learning (1) Peter Pearman In Peter’s interview I was given further evidence that he was highly inventive and determined to make his way in Cornwall, turning whatever chance encounter he had to his advantage. He and his co-divers were gradually making their way down the coast, now with an aqua-lung and a rubber inner-tyre tube trailing on the surface with a bag for dropping the sea urchins into. A chance encounter with a diving equipment retailer on a wreck diving holiday helped them to discover the rich cray fishing grounds.
‘Lamorna’, ‘Penberth’, ‘Porthgwarra’ – through gradually extending the range of their still novice enterprise, Peter and his diving buddies were becoming familiar with the small fishing coves of the rugged south coast of the Penwith Peninsular.
These are coves known for their difficult entry for boats with rough seas, and no harbour protection. At Penberth there is a large capstan wheel that was used to help pull the boats up the shore. At this stage in Peter’s tale, Peter was still strictly a diver and an outsider and was not yet regarded as a fisherman. It would take the bureaucracy of the welfare system to presage a shift in the way he and the local fishermen regarded his enterprise. Down at the labour exchange the official registered them as fishermen-divers, and classified as fishermen they could now claim ‘bad weather money’ for days when they couldn’t be at sea and they could also get insurance. They started to classify themselves as fishermen and Peter was also
able to earn some additional respect through an unexpected benefit:
You went into the Labour Exchange, they gave you a form with the days of the week on, you put on all your details onto it, and then you put on the days you went to sea and the days you didn’t. And like I was telling you about the Cornish then, because they got to know me by then, they used to wait back till I walked in, they used to say, “You got a pen there? Will you fill mine in for me Peter?” Poor buggers didn’t know how. And they were good fishermen, but they didn’t have that knowledge...
However there was still some hostility towards the divers. They were selling to the local fish merchant, Harvey’s, who exported the catch to France, ‘and robbed us’, as Peter put it. ‘That’s the story of fishing’, he added, ‘and we have to be honest, he was as fair as he could be. There was a lot of prejudice against us, from the ordinary traditional fishermen, and of course he was buying from both sources, and he didn’t want to fall out with anybody’. The divers shared their fishing grounds with the local fishermen. They could only dive when the tides were slack, which was also the same time the fishermen’s marker buoys came up. So when the buoys popped up, the divers went in over the side and the fishermen naturally assumed that the divers were robbing their pots.
During this period, Peter and his fellow divers only had the bad weather money to live off in the winter when the conditions were too rough to dive. They would take a winter let in Mousehole or Penberth and split the rent four-ways. Peter’s formal occupational status shifted when they began claiming their ‘bad weather money’, but the main reason Peter began to find acceptance with the local fishermen was through gaining respect for his expertise, especially in diving hazardous but rich fishing grounds. They had started to find they were getting too old to dive. Using a primitive black and white echo sounder, which was uncommon in Cornwall at that time, they found ‘the right-shaped ground’ where they believed they were likely to find crayfish. Peter’s first fishing boat was called the Olive Branch.
We didn’t have any mechanical aids in those days, and we didn’t have any GPS. We did have a hydraulic winch, but to start with we pulled everything by hand. It hadn’t been done since pre-war. To find the knowledge of it, you had to go around and find the old men who were still alive who’d done it. And now we were accepted.... They realised we weren’t cowboys - that we’d dived in the Longships, we’d dived in the Runnelstone, we’d dived at Pendeen, which were all the vicious holes, but we’d worked the tides out and we were doing it, and had done it. So the old boys started to say well, I don’t see the point in you going down there when you can send a lobster pot to do it. But they started to appreciate the skills that we developed. And they opened up.
The knowledge that Peter and his crew were missing was how to set the crayfish nets – a kind of tangle or ground net, each about five hundred yards long, that lay on the sea bed.
To learn to set them we had to find the old boys. And one of them, who was called Conger Dick, was one of the best there’d ever been. And I went to ask him... and he wouldn’t tell me anything. “I’ll tell you what I will do Peter”. “What’s that?” He said, “I’ve got one tier of nets up in my loft. They’re tarred, they’re old, they’re probably rotten. I’m going to sell them to you for two pound fifty a net. There’s six of them.
And you’ll have everything I ever knew. And I realized he was telling me the truth. So I paid the money, took them home, hung them up and copied them. So that’s where it came from... And the other one was a man down at Penberth called Tommy Thomas.
Well he’d been a young lad when the war broke out, but he’d been out with the netters, out of the cove, he had a bad heart that he came back from the war with, and...
Tommy taught me a lot. When I was diving, we got along... I told you I lived down there... we got along very well. He said, “Don’t talk to me about fish, don’t talk to me about tides. I won’t tell you”. When I turned fisherman, I went and saw him and he said “all right then Peter, what you want to know”. And I asked him about the net setting and the knots and that... Now the joke of it is he died. His son... he didn’t have a son until, it was quite late in life. So when he died his son was twelve. Say ten years after, eight years after... Knock on my door. It’s the son. [Talking low, quietly] “Peter you’re using cray nets are you?” I said “yes”. “Will you show us how to set them?” And I laughed. I said “here’s the connecting link that’s missing between your Dad, cray-nets, and you. Your Dad taught me...” And I took him down to the big fish-loft in Penberth and showed him how to set nets. He ended up the skipper of the lifeboat, and became very successful. He’s called Kenny Thomas.