The Poetry of Fishing

To everyone who has found their way here from my talk on February 24th for the Centre for Endangered Languages, Cultures and Ecosystems (CELCE, University of Leeds), to everyone who has come here via the 2021 FisherPoets Gathering (February 25th – 27th) – and to every other reader – a warm welcome!

The title of my talk for CELCE is ‘The Sea’s the Boss’, a quote from fisherman Charlie Douglas (1909-1995), who features in my poem ‘The Marks t’ Gan By’, and many other poems in The Lost Music (Bloodaxe Books, 1996). The talk is based on memories of a number of Northumbrian fishing families, particularly Charlie and the Douglases of Beadnell, Redford Armstrong (1919-2000) and his sister Cathy from Amble (both born in Newbiggin), and Bill Smailes of Craster (1920-2002). These people were my friends. I left the academic world in 1987 to live as a freelance writer in a Northumbrian fishing village, and all the people in my talk fully understood why I valued their way of life so highly and why I wanted to know so much. For the best part of a decade the rhythms of the fishing year were a way of life for me, too. It was never an academic study. I was closely involved with these families in a very practical way, taking turns to row the Douglas’s ‘townie’ (small boat) along the trouting nets, and helping to mend gear in their huts. My talk deals with the language spoken by their generation; how and why I have used it in my poetry; and above all why I believe that language and way of life encode important lessons for us all about sustainability.

Fisher Friends L-R: Charlie Douglas, Beadnell; Bill Smailes, Craster; Arthur, Cathy and Redford Armstrong, Amble; all c1990

I’m extremely grateful to Jon Lovett and Janet Watson at CELCE for making it possible for me to give this talk. It’s free and open to everyone, so please follow the Zoom link HERE on this page if you would like to join us live on Wednesday February 24th at 4pm (that’s 8am if you’re in the USA on PST). Of course, a short talk like this can only touch on points of interest. I still have much more work to do to write up the experiences of those precious years. In the meantime, for anyone interested in following up some of the themes of the talk, here are some further links.

For the Northumbrian Language generally, please see the two websites of the Northumbrian Language Society, HERE and HERE. The Society covers all forms of Northumbrian speech, from the rural dialects of Coquetdale and North Tyne to ‘Pitmatic’ and ‘Geordie’, and welcomes new members interested in preserving and using these local variations. Because of my long association with north Northumbrian coastal speech, I have the great honour of being their President.

For my own word-list gathered from fishing families from Holy Island to Amble 1990-96, please see Appendix 1 of Fishing and Folk by Bill Griffiths (Northumbria University Press, 2008), pp.217-246. Bill’s book contains an accessible yet scholarly account of the origins of some of the area’s coastal place names and words. His thesis suggests that the coastal language is broadly based on Anglo Saxon, but with a strong Scandinavian influence, perhaps indicating an ‘Anglo-Scandinavian’ culture with a large amount of intermingling. Bill was a polymath, scholar and poet, and Fishing and Folk, his final book, was the third in his ‘Wor Language’ trilogy.

Two different excerpts from my long poem in the fishing dialect, ‘The Wund an’ the Wetter’, accompanied by Chris Ormston on Northumbrian pipes, are available below on You Tube and HERE on the Northumbrian Language Society website. You can hear the whole poem via the audio of the eBook version of Two Countries (Bloodaxe Books, 2014). The full text appears in that book. The original IRON Press version, including a CD of a performance with Chris Ormston, is currently out of print, but may be available second hand in the usual places online.

I’ve often heard fishermen say that they find it difficult to make themselves heard by scientific advisers and policy-makers. I suspect that part of this difficulty might sometimes lie in the differences between the language used by the working community and those in policy-making positions. As a poet, involved primarily with the working community, but also coming into contact periodically with an academic audience, I have sometimes experienced something similar. It seems an important and rich exchange to try to communicate what is so very valuable in the experience of fishing families to a wider audience, in prose as well as poetry – hence my talk for CELCE, and the following earlier publications:

For more detail on the culture of fishing communities on the north Northumberland coast, including the fishermen’s visualization of the sea-floor, please see my paper Mapping the Human Landscape, for ENSUS, School of Marine Science and Technology, University of Newcastle 2005, reprinted in North East History, vol. 37, 2006, pp. 68-87.

For a general picture of life in a north Northumbrian fishing community in the late 19th to mid 20th centuries, please see my oral history, The Bonny Fisher Lad (The People’s History, 2003). Although it is now out of print, copies are usually available HERE second-hand.

For the argument about the long continuities within the Northumbrian fishing tradition – and the sustainability which this represents – please see my paper, co-authored with Dr Adrian Osler,Bednelfysch and Iseland Fish: continuity in the pre-industrial sea fishery of North Northumberland, 1300-1950‘, in Mariner’s Mirror, vol. 96, no. 1, 2010, pp. 11-25.

These days, there is not much fishing from my village – just a little potting for crabs and lobsters. The salmon fishing was finally banned in 2019, and the trouting ended with it. The last coble left the harbour over a year ago. But there is still a small active fishing community at Seahouses, and a larger one at Amble. It has been a pleasure in the last year to connect with a younger generation of the families I knew there 30 years ago, and to see the development of the Northumberland Seafood Centre and award-winning restaurants valuing sustainable locally-caught seafood. I still write poetry about fishing, too, including one about the complexities of Brexit and another about a rare encounter with a British female trawler skipper at North Shields, published in Tyne Anew, edited by Keith Armstrong and Peter Dixon, (Northern Voices Community Projects 2019). Most recently, the wonderful Mary Garvey, FisherPoet and singer from Washington state, USA, prompted me to write a new poem about Northumbrian herring lasses in the early 20th century for her forthcoming CD. More on that soon.

Above: Performing with some of the FisherPoets, Astoria, Oregon, 2014 (photo: Julian May)

One thing about fishing communities remains true: daily exposure to the sea leaves you forever aware that it’s Nature that is in control, not us. Fisher people the world over recognise one another in this knowledge. I feel especially privileged to be part of that worldwide community, and to be celebrating it again – this time via Zoom – with the FisherPoets, that fantastic brother-and-sisterhood of fishermen and women from the USA who gather every year in the Cannery town of Astoria on the Columbia River. Among them are the unforgettable Jon Broderick, Jay Speakman, Moe Bowstern, Dave Densmore, Rich King, and so many more — warmest greetings one and all! You can read and hear more about them if you follow the links from my previous blog posts, Sea Change and FisherPoets (see sidebar).

Oregon timing is not kind to a British audience, but do please join us if you can. Live performances from the FisherPoets Gathering are accessible via the links on their website. The Saturday 27th performances start at 6pm PST (2am UK time). The line-up for the final event with Holly Hughes as MC includes: Henry Hughes, Monmouth OR; Melanie Brown, Juneau AK; Maggie Bursch, Anchorage AK; Doug Rhodes, Craig AK; Katrina Peavy, Craig AK; Alana Kansaku-Sarmiento, Portland OR; Josh Wisniewski, Sitka AK; Gary Keister, Port Hadlock WA; Brad Warren, Seattle WA; Meghan Gervais, Homer AK; Joel Miller, Portland OR; Clem Starck, Dallas OR; Toby Sullivan, Kodiak AK; Katrina Porteous, Northumberland, England; Holly Hughes, Indianola WA.

It’s on Saturday Feb 27th starting at 8pm PST (4am Sunday 28th UK time), and you can live stream it HERE.