Fishing for Memories: the Material Consequences of Nostalgia

I recently gave a lecture on a ‘Sources and Methods in Heritage Studies’ course at Aarhus University on a theme of doing interviews and oral histories. It is a research approach that I have used quite often in my work; something that I enjoy and something that I feel has a lot of potential, both in terms of having analytical power in providing material through which to understand the world better, and also something that has a great deal of ‘traction’. Interview and oral history material can be exciting! People are always interested in conversational material as a lens in to a field of research – and people always enjoy hearing some interesting stories in class.

My task of putting the lecture together, one might think therefore, should have been easy. And I have plenty of really nice material to draw from as case studies in order to illustrate the lecture. However, I was also keen to get across to the students the importance of having a strict ethical code of conduct; of ensuring that such material should be collected fairly and the use of the material should be carefully thought through, so that interviewees should provide ‘informed consent’ for the material that a researcher collects. This provided me with a problem – I had lots of nice material (lots of juicy stories), but I have never done an interview with anyone in which I asked an additional question: Is it OK if I use some of the juicy bits for my teaching?” … I can hardly instruct all my students to adhere to strict ethical guidelines about the use of interview data if I cannot stick with the instructions myself! And so, despite having a lot of really nice oral history and interview material, I felt that I couldn’t directly use this material in my lecture.

Upon realising my dilemma, I was reminded by all those automated telephone messages I have sat through, which talk about how “this conversation will be recorded and used for training purposes”. Such phrases always annoy me, and I am not about to start asking such a question in my research interviews – nor go back and check with old interviewees whether it would be OK to use their material! So, what should I do?

I decided upon conducting an imaginary interview with my Gran (1912-2002), together with some commentary from my Grandad (1913-1967), who actually died before I was born. And since they were both born in the small fishing community of Mousehole, near Penzance in West Cornwall, then the subject of ‘fishing communities before the War’ was an obvious choice.

Mousehole2

Mousehole – a ‘typical’ Cornish fishing village

I guess this is a sort of auto-ethnography, since the interview narratives derive from my memory of stories that my Gran used to tell me, but there are also some archival materials. In practice, the exercise ended up being a strange personal monologue involving an intergenerational narrative stretching back over five generations of my family to the 1880s. The narrative contains several statements of ‘factual truth’ (some interesting and more widely relevant, and some banal and of interest only to a few people). As a whole, however, the power of the narrative lies in between the lines of what is said; within the margins of the ‘factual account’ produced from my memory of my Gran’s stories, and perhaps within what is not said – or remembered by me.

I did actually try to do an oral history with my Gran once. It must have been in about 1989 or 1990. I was an undergraduate student who had just done ‘oral histories’ in a University Methods course, and probably saw my Gran as an important ‘research resource’; a subject to be exploited for the sake of my course assignment. I wanted to ask her about her memories of the fishing industry in Cornwall during the 1920s and 1930s – but she wouldn’t tell me anything (and I don’t blame her!). Over the years, however, her stories gave me a lens into the history and cultures of fishing in West Cornwall, from the 1880s to the Second World War. …. Specific stories about the time that a whale got caught in the nets, which had to be cut loose and abandoned, or when my Great Grandfather’s boat got blown off course in a storm and nearly wrecked on the Isle of Ushant (Ouessant, in Brittany). These were the exciting stories for a small boy to remember. But the central narrative about the whole period, which remains with me today is this:

Gran: “In my grandfather’s day, [i.e. 1870s-1890s] all the fishing would be for pilchards…. Our boat was The Activity – that’s the boat in that painting [over the mantle-piece] He had that painting done after The Activity won the Mount’s Bay Cup, [in 1887] as the fastest boat in Mount’s Bay”

Me: [gesturing to the painting] “Is that your Grandad on the boat?”

Gran: “No, that’s my father as a boy – my Grandfather was ill when they ran the Mount’s Bay cup, so couldn’t go, so he made his son the ‘skipper’, even though he was only a boy, and made sure that the artist painted him in the picture as the ‘skipper’. They had the picture painted the following season, by an artist in Sunderland… the artist made sketches one year, and they collected the painting the following season, as they followed the shoals around the coast”

Activity_1885

‘The Activity’

I have always thought that The Activity was a good name for a fishing boat; the ‘Matthews’ family fishing boat, sailing out of Mousehole, owned by my great-great grandfather, skippered for the day by my great grandfather, Thomas James (TJ) Matthews. Intermixed with the family saga, is a story of pilchard fishing, not as an isolated and ‘placed’ activity, located within the fishing harbours of West Cornwall, but as a mobile – almost nomadic – industrial experience, taking place around the coasts of Britain. I asked my Gran about the pilchards, and she told me that they were mostly salted and sold to Italy, and so, while Mousehole (and west Cornwall) today can sometimes be packaged up and marketed to tourists as an inward-focussed and strongly ‘local’ place, it seems that it was built upon pilchard fishing as an international trade, and nomadic experience. And it is also slightly ironic that a fiercely proud and strongly Methodist sea fishing community was dependent on the fish consumption habits of Catholic Europe. But my Gran didn’t seem to know much more about the pilchards.

Gran: The Pilchards all went away before the Great War. When I was young [1910s and 1920s], all the fishing was for herring – that’s what my father caught in the Hopeful, and my Uncle caught in the William.

While The Activity is a good name for a fishing boat, I have always thought that The Hopeful is an absolutely splendid name for a fishing boat! We have several pictures and photos of The Hopeful – indeed, I always look out for it (PZ 634) in early photos of Mousehole Harbour, which can be purchased in postcard or print form today from ice cream and souvenir shops on the Cliff. My Gran’s recollections of the 1920s and 1930s are direct, lively, and supported by photographs that my Grandfather took. My Grandfather trained as a carpenter, became a schoolteacher, but died before I was born. He wrote a thesis about fishing in West Cornwall for his teaching qualifications, and was obviously a keen photographer, who actually took several photos while out on fishing trips.

Researchers nowadays talk about IK or TEK (Indigenous Knowledge, or Traditional Ecological Knowledge), to refer to the practices of a preindustrial way of life, in which sustainable human activities formed part of a harmonious relationship between cultures and natures, in which the landscape (and seas) were cared for and traditional communities were resilient. Reaching beyond the tangible heritage of wooden fishing boats and solid stone harbours, these photos speak of a more intangible heritage of skill, experience and knowhow. In the form of ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’, perhaps these heritage narratives can provide instruction for policy makers today?

Within these photographs is a story that my Gran could illustrate from her memory, recognising faces, skills and practices – but it is largely a memory of how the herring fishery collapsed. The herring ‘went away’! Many boats went longlining and mackerel increasingly took over as the more important catch. But eventually, of course, the mackerel ‘went away’ as well.

Me: But Gran, you keep saying that these fish ‘went away’ … that the pilchards ‘went away’; that the herring ‘went away’; that the mackerel ‘went away’ – like they went away on holiday or something. But this is all just from over-fishing!

You have to remember that I was an arrogant and unthinking teenager (destined, it seems, to be a vegetarian animal rights campaigner) who was not very well trained or experienced in showing sensitivity during interviews, even to my own grandmother! (I went vegetarian in October 1989, and took up hunt sabbing in the 1990s!) Insensitive or not, the nostalgic story of ‘traditional fishing’ is actually a narrative of how fishing declined; a heritage of a community under stress, as fishing catches diminished, and as boats were decommissioned – even the perennially optimistic Hopeful was scrapped.

Pilchard catch-bad year Newlyn 1936

My grandfather’s notes describe this photo as ‘a bad catch’

This heritage of decline, of hardship, and of a fishing community struggling to cope and to comprehend is also marked within my Grandad’s photographs. A boat landing fish labelled as a ‘poor catch’, or accusatory suggestions of culprits to blame as fishermen look for answers to why stocks were declining – the sharks are to blame, or perhaps it is the French!?

This is the heritage of a community struggling with change – and a changing relationship between cultural practices and natural resources. It is also a heritage narrative that acts as a warning – that we shouldn’t over-romanticise them, or reify them as a salvation in the form of ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’.

This is the heritage of a community that is struggling and slowly dying – but it is in that form that it perhaps becomes evermore powerful; not as a guide towards ecological resilience, but as a ready-made sense of injustice that can be tapped in to.

Skip forward to 2016: As a marginal, relatively deprived and under-developed region, Cornwall had a special status within the EU allowing it to receive all sorts of extra funding streams, through ‘Objective One’, or ‘Convergence Funding’. Such regional development aid helped to build roads, public facilities, business parks, and a large University campus. Indeed, the ‘heritage industry’ of Cornwall has been one of the region’s largest beneficiaries, in the form of the Geevor Tin Mining Museum in Penwith and the Heartlands Industrial Museum-Park between Camborne and Redruth. And during the EU Referendum in June 2016, yet Cornwall as a whole voted strongly to leave!

brexit-cornish-fisherman_Mousehole

Building roads, industrial parks, museums, a university (etc. etc.) is all very well, but the story that mattered in June 2016 was a heritage of fishing, articulated as a heritage of loss and injustice. The Cornish used to fish for pilchards (until the pilchards ‘went away’); the Cornish used to fish for herring (until the herring ‘went away’); the Cornish used to fish for mackerel (until the mackerel ‘went away’). The romantic sense of place (so carefully nurtured by the tourism industry) trumped any understanding of late 19th and early 20th century fishing as an (international and nomadic) ‘industry’, and the temptation to blame formed the core of the narrative: the fault lies with the ‘French’ (or Spanish etc.).

So: here is a ‘heritage story’, of surface facts and information – about fishing boats and harbours as well as more intangible elements about experiences, skills and techniques. Reading in the margins, however, it is a story of communities under pressure – struggling to survive, and struggling to comprehend changes that are taking place beyond their control. Further than this, however, this is also a story of how heritage narratives themselves circulate and travel – and what they do today, whether they are ‘true’ or not.

For more on the history of Cornish fishing, see: http://www.cornwallgoodseafoodguide.org.uk/cornish-fishing/history-of-the-cornish-fishing-industry.php

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