Lamorna Ash’s Dark, Salt, Clear: The Life of a Fishing Village, is published this month. She shares five books about the sea.
The Aran Islands by J.M. Synge
When the playwright J.M. Synge was struggling to find his next writing subject, his friend, the poet W.B. Yeats, suggested he go to the Aran Islands, three remote islands off Ireland’s west coast, and seek inspiration there. Between the years 1898 and 1901, he would travel back and forth between the islands, living amongst the islanders and recording the stories they told him in pubs and out on boats. The Aran Islands continues to be one of the most brilliant, illuminating and empathetic pieces of embedded anthropological research I have encountered.
Jane Ciabattari: Synge sat around a peat fireside in a cottage listening to the folks of the south island recite poems from Love Songs of Connaught, as a “terrible gale was howling and shrieking over the island.” His narrative is detailed, and illuminating. “I am in the north island again, looking out with a singular sensation to the cliffs across the sound. It is hard to believe that those hovels I see in the south are filled with people whose lives are filled with the strange quality found in the oldest poetry and legend. Compared with them the falling off that has come with the increased prosperity of this island is full of discouragement. The charm which the people over there share with birds and flowers has been replaced here by the anxiety of men who are eager for gain.” What inspiration might these stories have for writers today? For you?
Lamorna Ash: What could be more appealing to a writer than imagining many months spent with a particular community, listening to its people reciting the poems and songs they have grown up with? What better way through to a place’s psyche? The thing that inspired me most, when I first read The Aran Islands, was the way Synge presents the islanders’ stories verbatim—sometimes allowing them to take up several pages of the book —without judgment or interjection. Similarly, in Dark, Salt, Clear, I wanted to give room to the narratives of the people of Newlyn, whose lives were also “filled with the strange quality found in the oldest poetry,” without my own preconceptions about them intruding on the page. I wanted to take the town of Newlyn’s stories seriously, in the way Synge does with the Aran Islanders.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
As a writer, you want to be able to cite a book that, as a young person, revealed to you the immense possibilities of literature or oriented you towards a life of writing. Perhaps there is a level of poetic license in these stories of literary discovery, but I will never forget how it felt to read To The Lighthouse for the first time as a melancholy teenager, looking out at the same lighthouse that Woolf herself would have seen each night when staying in St Ives during her childhood summers. When I got to “Time Passes,” it was as if what I had believed to be the floor of the book gave away, and I found myself in freefall.
JC: In her diary, Woolf describes the challenge of writing “Time Passes”: “Here is the most difficult abstract piece of writing—I have to give an empty house, no people’s characters, the passage of time, all eyeless and featureless with nothing to cling to.” What did you take away from this passage to use in your own work?
LA: Wow, I hadn’t come across that quotation before. It makes “Time Passes” seem even more miraculous to me—that something which appears so effortless, so gliding in its style and rhythms, might have been so difficult to write. I wanted every chapter in Dark, Salt, Clear to have its own particular mood and time signature. The chapter in which I most wanted to replicate the feeling of “Time Passes” was the shortest one in the book, titled “Smoke”—essentially a vignette about a fisherman and his friend. The memory of meeting these two figures in the pub felt especially eerie, or mournful to me. I wanted the chapter to act as a hinge between the previous, upbeat chapter and the following chapter, which was more sombre in tone, in the same way that “Time Passes” acts as a door between the time before and after Mrs Ramsay’s death, before and after the First World War.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems
In the hundred or so poems published by the poet Elizabeth Bishop, the word “sea” returns sixty times, rarely just as a geographical backdrop, more often than not providing the mood of the poem or offered as a tool with which to contemplate larger ideas. My friend Andrew gave me a copy of her collected poems the second time I went to stay in Cornwall. The poem I returned to again and again while I was there was “At the Fishhouses,” in which the speaker looks out at the sea, “the same sea” that she has seen over and over, and declares, “It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free.”
JC: So your book’s title came from this Bishop poem, written after her trip to her homeland, Nova Scotia, the first visit after her mother’s death. Why?
LA: I struggled so much with naming my book. I didn’t understand how one could contract the story of a place, itself comprised of so many things, so many people and experiences, into just a few words. One night during the process of writing my book, I couldn’t sleep and so decided to read Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems again, which I always found soothing. I turned straight to “At the Fishhouses,” my favorite of her poems. She describes passing through a fishing harbour on a cold evening: “the small old buildings with an emerald moss/ growing on their shoreward walls./ The big fish tubs are completely lined/ with layers of beautiful herring scales/ and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered/ with creamy iridescent coats of mail,/ with small iridescent flies crawling on them.” Each aspect of this industrial scene is raised to a kind of splendor—fish scales “iridescent coats of mail,” moss turned “emerald.” And yet, the image does not lose its everyday working quality. The speaker watches an old man accept “a Lucky Strike” and then scrape away the last of the fish scales—which, to him, need not represent anything more than fish scales—with “that black old knife, / the blade of which is almost worn away.” It felt, to me, like the clearest evocation of the fishing industry, showing how it vacillates between the beautiful and the mundane. I knew I wanted a line from that poem for my title.
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck articulates the life of places better than any other writer I know, especially in his novella Cannery Row, set during the Great Depression. I first read it on the advice of a good friend from Cornwall, who suggested Steinbeck had achieved in it what I was trying to do in my own writing. The novella tells of the men and women who pass through this one waterfront street, Cannery Row, in Monterey California, which is lined by sardine canning factories.
JC: Bishop’s descriptions of herring scales, her detailed landscape of the fishing village, find a parallel in fiction in Cannery Row. Steinbeck knew this country well; he grew up near Monterey, and in the 1930s and 1940s befriended a marine biologist, Ed Ricketts, who worked out of the Pacific Biological Laboratory at 800 Cannery Row and became the character “Doc” in the novel. In 1940 they voyaged together from Monterey to the waterway in Baja California where whales mate, to study tideland species, and wrote a book together, Sea of Cortez. The authentic portrait of Cannery Row is now an archive of a place long past. Do you sense that happening to the fishing town you portray?
LA: Ah, yes, I love the way Cannery Row is infused with the scientific terminology Steinbeck learnt from Ricketts. For example, in the prologue, the narrator questions how one can tell the story of a place without losing the contradictory spirit of it. His answer is, since “a marine flat worm breaks and falls apart when you try to catch it whole,” you must instead “let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water.” So too, in the telling of place, he advises, can you only “open the page” and hope “the stories crawl in by themselves.” I like that so much.
I suppose places are always changing. So, of course, already Newlyn does not exist in the same way I saw it, just as the Cannery Row that Steinbeck knew is long gone. But, I am hopeful that the spirit of Newlyn will continue to pervade the place and it will remain a working fishing town for many years to come. I know those who live there currently are working hard to ensure their way of life is preserved.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
In the opening pages of Moby-Dick, that most famous of fishing narratives, Herman Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, imagines that on any “dreamy Sabbath afternoon, posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.” I love this image: that harbored within all men is an inexpressible desire to be near water. It is the smallest moments in Moby-Dick that I like most, especially “The Pipe,” a chapter less than a page long that describes Captain Ahab sitting on an ivory stool, smoking on the dark deck, before tossing his pipe into the water.
JC: I wonder how many men are “fixed in ocean reveries” today? More than before the COVID pandemic?
LA: I am pretty much always fixed in an ocean reverie, that’s for sure. During the first lockdown, I spent a lot of my time on Google Maps’ street view, wandering up and down Newlyn’s Sea Road, wishing I could be there. If we extend the meaning of “ocean reverie” to any kind of nostalgic looking outwards, beyond one’s present circumstances, then I’m sure more people than ever are fixed in some sort of “ocean reverie” right now. It just so happens that the sea is an especially good medium to fix your desires upon, it being so vast, so filled with meanings.