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Lamorna Ash on Her Return to the Cornish Coast

Posted on 30th March 2020 by Mark Skinner

One of the year's most eagerly anticipated non-fiction books, Dark Salt Clear recounts Lamorna Ash's return to Newlyn in Cornwall and how time and circumstance have wrought change to the coastal town whilst preserving many of its traditional practices. In this exclusive essay, Lamorna discusses her motivation for writing the book and how the richly evocative narrative threads came together.

Dark, Salt, Clear is my account of the months I spent living in a Cornish fishing town called Newlyn. Writing this book felt like trying to capture the image of a person you knew would only stay still for so long. I was afraid my memories would not hold, and so, like trapping a Palaeolithic insect in amber, wrote to get it fixed on the page before the whole adventure faded. 

When I turned up in Newlyn, fresh from university, it felt like the most significant thing that had ever happened to me. I wanted to discover more about the county my mother had grown up in, where both my grandmother and great-grandmother had lived out the final years of their lives. I could never have imagined I would find a place that felt so much like home, yet so different from anything I’d experienced before, where people would narrate such rich, poignant stories about lives lived beside and upon the sea.

I took up lodging with a couple called Denise and Lofty, a fishmonger and ship’s chandler, who allowed me access to Newlyn’s fiercely loyal community, a community that at all times kept one eye on the mercurial seas just beyond their doorsteps. You have to look after each other in a place like this, they would tell me, where every year multiple loved ones are lost to the sea.

The months I stayed in Newlyn were crammed full with experience: long hours passed in The Swordfish pub surrounded by tower blocks of empty pint glasses; heading to the harbour at dawn to jump on-board crabbing vessels and spending the day drawing up heavy crab pots from the seafloor; whole weeks away from the land working on fishing trawlers, hauling up mountains of fish to gut on the open deck.

It was out on the water, twenty-seven miles from the coast where I learned how to twist cords of ropes into fishing knots so strong they would never unloosen unless cut with a knife, how to gut fish – lemon sole, turbot, monkfish, hake and rays – and how to prevent my homesickness and seasickness from becoming so overwhelming that I could think of little else.

I filled several books worth of notes and sketches of anything from the gannets circling our boat seeking fish they could thieve, to instructive diagrams of where to make the incision in a lemon sole in order to pull the guts from its delicate, scaled body. I recorded every moment as it happened – not just interviews with fishermen, but the sound of the waves lashing against the trawlers, the quiet hush of the harbour at first light, the scuff of pebbles as I walked back to Newlyn along the rocky beach after nights out in Penzance. It would take the next two years of my life to decode and transcribe these events, dividing them into paragraphs and chapters.

This did not come in an orderly fashion. There was no organising principle. Rather, like a song that opens with every instrument clashing and crashing at once, the words arrived as if in a single instant. Each day I woke early before the sun rose, the street lamp outside my window still flickering on and off, its red glare barely diluted by those thin blinds that adorn most London rental properties. And then I’d write all day, the words flowing out of me with urgency. Sometimes I’d imagine it to be over – I had surely exhausted every possible unit of language at my disposal – only to find, as soon as I’d collapse onto my bed to stare again at those regular pulses of the street lamp beyond my window, that the last few words of the day were still clamouring to get out of my head. I thought it couldn’t possibly end; there would be no way of drawing a line in the sand under the story of such a fiercely alive place.

But then it did. It was in October 2019 that I finally let my book go. I’d returned to Newlyn for the funeral of someone I’d known and loved like a second parent while staying in the town, one of those to whom my book is dedicated. As I cried together with the many residents of the town, all of us crowded into a church by the sea to pay tribute to her life, I felt something slowing down in my body and finally stop altogether. I stayed in the village for a single night. On the train back to London, I did not once feel my fingers drawn towards the keyboard. And by the time I got back to Paddington, my body felt lighter. Whether it was due to a weight being lifted or the hollowness of a thing newly missing, I am still unsure, but the whirring sensation in my chest that impelled me to spend days and months glued to a screen typing had at last left me. There was nothing left to say, not in this particular story at least.

 

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