I woke up this morning listening to horses passing. Their hooves were sounding on the cobbles outside, except they weren’t because it didn’t take long to realize that these horses were big clots of rain falling from the blocked gutter into the yard below. We’re staying in an old net-loft, once used as an artist’s studio, and the gutters in the building opposite (so close you could reach out and touch it) are completely clogged with a wonderful array of grass and ferns – very Cornish! I’d been having one of those dreams that you can chase down to an event during the previous day. My dream concerned a pair of wellington boots – black and very ordinary looking – but which I knew were known as “recording boots” – and which I desperately wanted to own. They were (needless to say) very expensive. At this point, amateur Freudians, Jungians and my properly professional therapist would be saying – “What were you supposed to be recording?” I’d gone to bed after reading from John Wright’s new book on foraging, so the obvious (but wrong) answer would have been that I wanted to record plants.
As I often do, when Madame and I sit in bed with a cup of early morning tea, I mentioned the dream to her in the knowledge that it would be hard for her to find any sinister interpretation in my harmless desires. We chatted for a bit and then there was one of those therapeutic silences and it occurred to me that I had spent an amount of time on the bus stop outside the old fishermen’s institute in Newlyn yesterday, regarding a young man – or more precisely – regarding his wellingtons. I promise that this is not some homoerotic/rubber confession, at least not mine.
And so, with a bit of clarity beginning to dawn, I explained the origin of the dream and Madame launched into one of her revelatory discourses. Our conversations often seem to possess unexpected emergent qualities. Suddenly we were back on the quayside in a Newlyn harbour some time between 1880 and 1900. The young man I observed yesterday, the one with the slightly too large, green, steel toecapped safety boots was obviously a fisherman returning from a spell at sea. He looked tired out. On his back was a rucksack that contained very little – I could see a bottle of shower gel, so probably his work had taken him away for several days.
“It hasn’t changed very much”, Madame said. “Not from the Stanhope Ford paintings.” And it was true. With a different set of clothes he could have been one of the eponymous “Jack” models from the paintings, which were revolutionary at the time, with their focus on a rather romanticised view of working lives. The fishermen, smokng their pipes as they mended their nets and their wives, sometimes grieving wives, gutting fish or hauling them off in huge baskets to sell. The beautiful young girls not yet eroded by the weather of a harsh life – all there then, and all still here now. Stanhope Forbes, Walter Langley and the others had found their recording boots. The herring and pilchard have gone, long since but the young men still put to sea. In the pub a group of older men came in – down fishing, but not local men – among them one from the Shetlands, one from Ireland. We eavesdropped on their conversation. They were talking about boats and about the cost of gear. One remained silent, keeping his counsel and sipping his single pint where two of the others were downing them.
Out on the street there was a lot of ordinary life going on. Young mothers out with their children in pushchairs, a couple of men outside another of the pubs, one saying to another – “She’s not speaking to me so I might as well ….”. There’s work, but it’s often poorly paid and seasonal just like it always was. Nowadays the catch goes off in lorries while the remaining boats play cat and mouse games with the Spanish and Dutch factory ships out there hoovering up everything including the sea-bed. The fishwives have morphed into an army of cleaners who look after the holiday cottages whose owners live elsewhere. Not much of the money comes into Cornwall.
The Newlyn School painters, if they were able to come back, would find plenty of familiar scenes to paint. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of their original models are probably still here somewhere. They’d be able to buy their favourite French cheeses in the upmarket shops and get some sourdough bread too – that would have pleased them, no doubt. They never lost their London ways. But here, life’s a gamble – only the bookmakers get rich, and hardly anyone can afford a pair of recording boots.