Seasalt Words: Interview with Writer Lamorna Ash

Looking for a book to transport you to Cornwall? Listen to Lamorna Ash reading from her new memoir - Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish Fishing Town


Newlyn holds a special place in our hearts. A fishing town brimming with character, art and heritage, it has provided endless inspiration for our Seasalt designers over the years. So when we heard a budding new writer had penned a memoir about her time with the fishing community there, we couldn’t wait to read it.

Her book takes us along on an evocative journey of personal discovery, filled with the poetry and history of Cornwall’s fishing communities. We asked Lamorna a few questions about her time in Cornwall and the writing of her brilliant book. She even agreed to read us one of her favourite passages, which you can watch in the video below.

What led you to write Dark, Salt, Clear, your account of the Cornish fishing town of Newlyn?

I was studying for a masters in Social Anthropology at University College London. This particular masters appealed to me because at the end of your study you were required to spend a month conducting fieldwork in a place of your choosing for your thesis. Initially, I had imagined all the wonderful, far-flung places I could explore for this thesis. But since I speak no other languages, I realised I would have to ask my interviewees to translate their lives into English for me: this would mean so much detail would be lost from my study. Two weeks before I had to finalise my field site, I went on holiday to Cornwall. I was chatting to a friend in St Ives about this dilemma, when they said, ‘Why don’t you write about Cornwall?’. Suddenly it seemed so obvious to me that this southernmost county, which I had visited throughout my childhood, should be the place I wrote about. I did not intend for my research to become a book. During my masters I interned for the Times Literary Supplement and wrote an article about my voyage on a fishing boat. It just so happened that an editor, the brilliant Michael Fishwick, read this piece, invited me in to his office and asked if I would like to write a book on the subject. To this day, I feel very grateful that he happened to chance upon it.

What interested you about the fishing community?

The Cornwall I knew growing up was viewed through the eyes of a child and a tourist. It was the Cornwall of gleaming, sun-shining beaches and clotted cream ice cream. My family and I would stop only briefly in the port town of Newlyn to pick up fish. I knew nothing else about the town, none of its rich fishing history or the fishermen who live there today. It took me a day-and-a-half, staying as a lodger with a couple in Newlyn, to realise quite how extraordinary a place it is. In Newlyn’s many pubs, I would hear stories of tragedy – the number of men lost to the sea every year – of wild pranks and wild nights of drinking and of fierce devotion to your community. I was interested in the way the sea shaped the people of Newlyn, what it was like for the men to work in such unforgiving, lonely and often dangerous environments for weeks at a time, living half their lives at sea. As soon as I started going out on fishing vessels, crab boats, pilchard ring-netters and deep-sea trawlers, I found myself growing addicted to fishing. I wanted to know how to gut every kind of fish, how to mend nets, to tie complex fishing knots and how to prevent yourself from being overwhelmed by thoughts of home, miles from the coast on an eight-day fishing trip.

Lamorna on the beach at Lelant

What is your own connection to Cornwall?

My mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all grew up in Lelant, a coastal village in the bay of St Ives. Every summer and Easter we would stay in my great-grandmother’s old cottage. Every morning, my mother and I would walk up and down Lelant beach while she told me the old myths and folktales of Cornwall. My other connection to Cornwall, I suppose, is more obvious. I am named after Lamorna Cove, which is only a few miles on from Newlyn, towards Land’s End. In her decision to name me Lamorna, my mother unwittingly bound me to Cornwall. Standing on the rocks below its crumbling quay, I would look up at this foreboding cove with its precipitous granite cliffs and experience some inexpressible affinity with such an unpredictable stretch of coastline. This is how a land enters your psyche.

Photograph taken by Lamorna aboard fishing boat, Filadelfia

What are your favourite spots around Cornwall?

Though Newlyn will always be the area of Cornwall that matters most to me, there are many other places I’ve found along the way – often by accident, on long walks – that I like to return to. There is Prussia Cove just past Cudden Point, a rocky inlet where the sea seems always to be a rich, navy blue. In St Ives, I love to walk around Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture garden or visit Bernard Leach’s Pottery Studio, founded in the 1920s and where the rough-hewn pottery is still made from the same Cornish clay. I go to the Minack Theatre, the open-air theatre at Porthcurno, which was carved into the cliffs by Rowena Wade and her gardener, where the quality of the play you see barely matters, when you have the whole, glorious sea before you as a backdrop. The unpeopled lands between the north and south coastlines (especially in the region of West Penwith, which Newlyn falls under) are littered with old remains from Cornwall’s pagan past. My favourite of these is Men-an-Tol, a bronze age stone with a hole cut into it which women used to climb through to aid fertility. Finally, there is Lelant, the least frequented of all the beaches in St Ives Bay. It does not have a car park, a cafe, or toilets, but it has a wide, pale beach, quite lonely and quite lovely. At sunrise, when the sky turns pink and orange and sandpipers run in and out of the shallow waves, it is the most beautiful place I know.

What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

I started writing this book when I was twenty-two and had never written a book before. As such, it was equal parts thrilling and terrifying starting out. I did things like Google ‘How long is a book?’ and ‘How long should a chapter be?’ with, as you might imagine, very few conclusive results. Once I arrived in Newlyn, though, I couldn’t stop the words from coming. Every moment felt worth capturing; each conversation contained something that needed preserving on the page.

It took a while to learn the shape of the book: how can a place, especially one as multiple and unruly as Newlyn, be coerced into a fixed form? I would spend hours writing chapter titles on scraps of paper and then putting them into an order, before mixing them up and rearranging them again. There was one week in 2018 when I was so ill with the flu that I could not get up from bed, let alone look at a screen or book. It was during this fallow period that the structure finally came to me: I realised that I wanted my eight-day journey on the Filadelfia trawler to give the book its driving force, interspersed with various chapters about other aspects of the fishing industry and Newlyn’s residents. This structure held and eventually I couldn’t imagine it being written any other way.

View to Godrevy Lighthouse

What other books have inspired you?

Particularly in this strange time of isolation, I am more dependent on books than ever to take me away from my present circumstances and show me other ways of being. There were several books that I read while writing Dark, Salt, Clear that became ballasts for me, reminding me of the way when I was finding the process of forming a book most challenging. The authors listed below helped me understand how it might be possible to bridge life, observation and imaginative thought. Joan Didion, especially The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir about her grieving for both her husband and daughter. John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, a moving novella about a town that revolves around a canning factory on the Californian coat. The poet Elizabeth Bishop, to whom I owe the title of my book. Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, an evocative portrait of the Arctic, exploring its nature, people and mysteries. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a book I first read as a teenager, showed me how inventive and extraordinary literature can be. She stayed in St Ives every summer of her childhood, from where she would have been able to make out the thin outline of Godrevy Lighthouse, which would later become the inspiration for the Scottish lighthouse in her novel.

 

Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish Fishing Town is out now, available in hardback, audiobook and ebook.