Gavin Knight Talks Fishing, Journalism & Cornish Politics: Part One

By Day Lilico

Gavin Knight, author of Hood Rat will be giving us at the North Cornwall Book Festival a reading of excerpts from his latest book, The Swordfish and the Star, on Sunday night. To find out more about this talented writer and journalist, I was lucky enough to get an interview with him this week.

Gavin is currently living in Somerset with his wife and fellow journalist, and their two children. He wanted to be a writer from a very young age, as he always loved reading as a child; for him, there is “nothing as exciting as a great passage of writing”. Although he once had other jobs, he says that if you want to be a writer then you can’t do other things, and he always had a “craving for writing” in everything else he did. He lived for two years in Odessa, Ukraine, from 1998 to 2000. It was this experience that was a strong influence on him, as this is where he experienced real poverty first hand for the first time after a middle-class upbringing and an Oxbridge education. It was in 1998 that the crash of Russian financial markets caused a serious recession in Ukraine, and Gavin was living amongst it. He watched the people of Ukraine deal with the consequences, and how they pulled through with what he describes as the “great Russian Spirit”; he told me how when the power went off in a restaurant, people would applaud, he quotes Aeschylus the Greek poet; “through suffering comes great wisdom”.

When Gavin spent two years in inner cities researching his book Hood Rat, he claims he saw a great deal of similarity between places like Glasgow, and Odessa. Media, society and politicians tend to forget about these areas, but life expectancy in parts of Glasgow is the same as occupied territories in Palestine, and for some time Glasgow was the murder capital of Europe. Gavin said that he found the work of people in the Violence Prevention Unit particularly inspiring, when two-thirds of crimes go unreported and intimidation of witnesses is rife. But above all the statistics, the poverty and violence, he was most inspired by the people he met with hidden promise, despite their difficult circumstances.

After doing all this research and writing this incredible book Hood Rat why did you choose to change in what seems like quite a drastic manner to writing about Cornwall’s fishing villages?

Well it’s very interesting, because on the surface Cornwall is this amazing place with rugged landscapes that has this enormous pull for tourists and people think of sandy beaches, famous five type of holidays and family holidays. And I thought that was absolutely fascinating as I knew all about that aspect of Cornwall as my wife’s family are all from Cornwall, still live in Cornwall, I was married in Cornwall, so I know the area very well. So that’s all fascinating and when I was hearing these stories originally about some of the poverty, the tradition in the fishing industry, and I thought there was a story there that I wanted to know more about.

So your new book, The Swordfish and the Star, has been published this year, and I know with your previous book Hood Rat you spent about two years immersing yourself in inner city life to research it, but how long did you spend researching your new book?

Again it was about two years, going down there, talking to people, seeking out strong characters, strong stories. I went to Newlyn and I met a lot of people there in The Swordfish and The Star, and also The Red Lion, and I was directed to Cadgwith on the Lizard where I met families and talked to them about their lives- they were absolutely fascinating characters. The people I met were an important part of my research, I talked to them about their lives and work. So that was all fascinating, such interesting people, to hear more about Cornwall and more about life in Cornwall, really very interesting stories, it was an absolute pleasure.

Your books are non-fiction, but are there any fictional elements to it?

I use this technique called New Journalism which was started in the 60’s. Basically what it is, is I do interviews on tape, then I write up the transcript, I go through it and I do research. Then I build a theme around it so, if someone is telling me a story that happened and they’re quoting what people said- you know, he said this, they said that- then you can describe the characters in a more immersive voice, in the objective role of the author you give a real voice of the character and I am completely invisible, I’m not in the book at all. I get to give people themselves in their own setting and in their own words. New Journalism is an immersive technique where you use fictional techniques in the novel itself, but by using direct quotes of people talking to me, you get their perspective on things. I think it makes a stronger story, it brings it to life more.

What was your favourite part about writing The Swordfish and the Star?

Well it was just wonderful meeting the characters and getting insight into their lives, the prospects of the fisherman, it was really interesting to talk to them and find out about their lives and their days, hearing their stories of their battles against the sea down there in Cornwall. They’re extraordinary stories of bravado and comradery, so fascinating to speak to them. And other people, historians, who knew the stories right from the early days of when the train wasn’t allowed to pull the horn at night in case it scared the pilchards, to the modern day, the tourists right up to the referendum in May when they voted to get out of the EU. It’s fascinating, the history and the colour and seeing the side of Cornwall that isn’t seen often.

Do you think your book will rewrite the public view of Cornwall as a holiday destination?

I think there’s something for everyone in there, there are a lot of tales. I’m hoping it will raise a bit of awareness about the hardship of fishers and their families in Cornwall, and the danger and injuries they have to put up with. Hopefully that will that will make an impact.

So people will appreciate more where their fish actually comes from?

Yeah, that would be good. They do have a tough time, there are a lot of fishermen who make a lot of money, but there are also a lot that don’t. It’s tough when it’s raining and it’s dark and they have to go off fishing. So there’s that aspect, and there’s a lot of hardship and poverty in Cornwall and people don’t like to talk about the harder aspects of Cornish life, they want to think it’s all sort of magical.

A lot of the people who write about, they’re quite dangerous. Do you ever get scared or intimidated by these people?

I have had one of the fishermen in Newlyn who’s not very pleased with my portrayal, and I’ve been told that I should look out if I bump into them in the pub. But this one wasn’t really as bad as Hood Rat, but with Hood Rat, because you’re dealing with criminals and gang crime and gun crime, you always go in with someone you trust; like a social worker or a cop or a retired cop or an ex offender. You meet people off their turf, usually on a one to one, and when you meet them like that it’s very different to meeting them in groups. One time in Glasgow I rang my wife and said to her that I was meeting a guy and I told her to write down where I was going, this guy was fresh out of prison, but in actual fact it was fine and he was an interesting individual and good company. You have to go carefully, there was one guy I met in London who offered to take me to meet a gang and they had drugs and guns and he asked ‘are you ready for that?’ and I thought, ‘No, no I’m not ready for that’ and I thought he was not the best sort of guy to take me into that sort of area. You just have to be careful in that sense who you’re going in with.

Do you sometimes struggle to gain their trust in order to write about them?

The thing about trust is you meet someone, and you talk to them, and then they make a decision about you and they introduce you to someone else and that’s what’s happens, you gain their trust. We make decisions about people all the time, when we go out on dates, or at parties, you make a gut decision about someone. And I suppose it’s similar when you’re out doing research.

Your book has a lot of stories from particularly Newlyn and Cadgwith, would you say that these places are a good representation of Cornwall as a whole?

Yes because I think people get more Cornish the further you get to the land’s edge, in fact if you look at the history of the Cornish language itself it starts to die out on the Devon border, but it survives at the west end edge. People say places like St Just that are remote are pure Cornwall, in the way that they behave, and old mining towns are really Cornish. I think Cadgwith on the Lizard is similar, the relationships between people, the way they help each other out, rural justice occurs, there’s a lot of camaraderie and they’re very close knit, a very close-knit community that has a lot of pride.

Do you think fishing culture is dying, or will there still be this community in 50 year’s time?

Well Stevenson, whose family who has kept the fleet in Newlyn for about a hundred years, he thinks Newlyn is going down. But his daughter Elizabeth Stevenson, who has been running things for many years, she was quite fired up about it and said it wouldn’t, her son was involved, a very family business. There are fishermen still making good money, they were reporting good catches, and even ring-netting for pilchards is thriving. Fishermen with high-tech boats and high tech equipment are finding the shoals. So fishing itself with all this technology is surviving, but I think that for smaller boats it’s very tough, fishers with one man on a boat who don’t have the money to buy high-tech sonar. Things go wrong and sometimes crews can’t go out, and that kind of stuff is so tough. Obviously as with anything, there are big concerns about income, with fishermen hitching lifts on lorries up country, and people who run direct fish on things like twitter, they do the mark-ups that merchants do- which is a lot more than fishermen make. So there are threats to the model, and this Brexit business has got the fishermen very animated so we’ll see what happens.

Do you think Brexit will be an improvement or be a detriment for the fishermen?

Well I think you’d need to talk to the fishermen about that, but there seems to be a lot of grumbling about quotas and saying things a lot about the campaign, that other countries don’t have the same quotas from the EU. And if you look at people who voted to support Brexit, I saw something recently that a lot of them are blue collar from poor neighbourhoods, they don’t want to be governed by institutions, but it was more middle-class liberals who voted for remain. So I think it’s interesting really and I can see why the fisherman felt very animated about it.

Gavin Knight & Stamp and Go will be performing at 6pm on Sunday 23rd October in the St. Endellion church, tickets available on our website.