Intro. [Recording date: January 20th, 2021.]
Russ Roberts: Today is January 20th, 2021 and my guest is author Lamorna Ash. She is the author of Dark, Salt, Clear: The Life of a Fishing Town.
I want to thank Plantronics for providing today's guest with the Plantronics 5220 headset.
Lamorna, welcome to EconTalk.
Lamorna Ash: Thank you so much for having me.
Russ Roberts: This is a beautiful, evocative, eloquently written book. It's the story of your time in a Cornish fishing village in the southwest corner of England in the town of Newlyn. How long were you there and did you go there with a plan of what you wanted to experience while being there? And, why did you go?
Lamorna Ash: So, I went there twice and the first time was for one month. The first time I went there, it was purely for academic purposes. So, I was 22 and I was doing a Master's in anthropology, which was not a subject I'd studied before. And, the best part about doing anthropology was that your dissertation was based on fieldwork. So, you actually got to go and have lived experience and get to know people.
And, I had a million different grand ideas about where I wanted to go. I wanted to travel the world, go to a rain forest because so much of anthropology monographs do discuss that kind of thing. But, then there's the real problem, which is something that anthropologists talk about now, which is a language problem. So, if I was going to another country and then ask them to translate into English, that would be already such a block between what I was understanding about them and their reality.
And I went to Cornwall where I go a lot because it's where my mother's from. My friend was saying, he was, like, 'Well, why don't you come here? I mean, there's so much interesting stuff to write about about Cornwall.' I thought, 'Oh my God, yeah.' I hadn't thought about somewhere close to home. So, I packed my bags and I went for a month to find out the way that fishing intersected with community or how fishing shaped community in this fishing port town called Newlyn.
Russ Roberts: So, that was the first trip. And then?
Lamorna Ash: And then I came back. I was incredibly moved by my experience of being there. I'm a city kid. I grew up in London. I hadn't seen the way that community could be so tight and close and so connected to an industry. I made incredible friends even just within that month and it felt--in a way, I felt like I was in the midst of a coming of age novel. It felt kind of transformative.
And I got back and I was writing for a literary magazine called the Times Literary Supplement. The editor at the time, Mr. Gable, was brilliant in that he always let young writers just have a go and write articles. He said, 'You said you were on a trawler for about five days. You should write about that.' And, I thought, 'Oh my God, brilliant,' because I'd written this diary whilst I was on board the trawler and had so many strange notes and that I wanted to pull together. And so, I wrote this piece about being on a trawler, and weaved in[inaudible 00:03:16] quite a bit of literature that I've been reading whilst I was on the trawler.
And, it just so happened, I was very lucky that a publisher happened to read this piece and he invited me into his office and said, 'Do you want to write a book about fishing?' I was shocked. I kind of thought, 'How on earth do you write a book?' And, then I spent the next three years trying to work out how to write a book; and I still obviously have no coherent answers or definitive answers about that. But, it was the most extraordinary process of going back to this place and having said I'm here just for academic reasons, to come back and say actually I'm about to write a book this time, and the way that shifted the relationships I had with some of the people I was writing about, because it suddenly became something that become a public artifact rather than something that a few people in my university would read.
And it was difficult, and I think I really struggled whilst returning of thinking, this is going to be, maybe, for a lot of people and how do I tell these stories truthfully and honestly and without taking advantage of them at all?
Russ Roberts: A trawler is a fishing boat. That's what you spent five days on?
Russ Roberts: Was that the--didn't you spend longer on the Filadephia?
Lamorna Ash: Yes. So, the first trawler I went on was only for five days, which felt like a really long time, at the time--
Russ Roberts: Only.
Lamorna Ash: Yeah, only. In relation. But that was also a very smart boat skippered by fishermen from St. Ives, which is another port town in Cornwall that is thought to be a bit more uppity and a bit more posh compared to this other port town. And, I had my own mini cabin. There was Wi-Fi on board. It was very deluxe, as trawlers go. I mean, it still stank of fish but it was pretty deluxe.
And then I came back and I thought, actually: I really think that I need to go on a trawler again because it's such a fundamental part of being a fisherman, and so many fishermen cut their teeth by being trawlermen.
So, I asked a friend from the pub, Don, if I could go on his trawler. And, I really--I got what I wanted in terms of it being as authentic and Cornish and rough a fishing experience as you can have with four guys. And, we all shared--we had banks together all alongside one another. And, it had no Wi-Fi and it was built in 1969, so it was this very old, rusting hulk of a machine to ride out on the season.
Russ Roberts: By smart, you don't mean like smart in 'smartphone.' You mean, like--that's a British term for fancy and pleasant, correct?
Russ Roberts: Yeah, posh.
Russ Roberts: So, the Filadephia is more of a working exotic, old-school trawler.
Russ Roberts: Now you structure the book around that trip. Did you say how long it was?
Lamorna Ash: That was eight days, seven nights.
Russ Roberts: Eight days and seven nights, sharing a bunk with four people and hauling in fish constantly, it felt like. So, give us the flavor. You were not a journalist--only--on that trip. You were a working member of that team. Talk about how--what happens when the derrick on the boat--the crane--pulls up a netload of fish and what happens to those fish from that moment going forward.
Lamorna Ash: Okay, so there's a phrase that fishermen say which is: Keep the gear wet, never miss a tow. So, there's this sense in fishing that when you're a trawler, the derrick, which is sort of almost big cranes and they--underneath them, the nets travel, and they travel right along the bottom of the sea.
So, they're really pulling up kind of any fish that's there and they get stuck inside the net. And, so, anytime the trawler is in motion, those nets are scraping along. And, then the moment--so after about three hours when they've been done, they're pulled up and kind of hoisted onto the deck.
Then the fishermen on this boat--every boat has its own idiosyncrasies and some of them are more modern than others--but, on the Filadephia, you had to get inside the net pretty much and open up the cod-end which is the net that holds the net in place--
Russ Roberts: The cod end, right?
Lamorna Ash: The cod-end which is the rope that holds the net in place closed. And, then once that opens, all these fish cascade on top of the fishermen and then down onto the deck.
And, then the fishermen get out big buckets for each species of fish, and they spend about 30 minutes on their knees, tossing fish in particular baskets. Throwing small sharks back into the sea and any fish that they don't have quota for--meaning that they're not allowed to catch or that there isn't a market for, anyway.
So, then once the fish are all collected up, they're pulled to the back of the deck. And this is again--this process is happening on a very slippery deck where in bigger waves, you're sliding from one side to the other. And, then you gut the fish at that moment. So, there's this long silver table, kind of like an operating table. And, each person has their knife, and they go through each of the different types of fish and they pull out the guts from them.
Part of my--what I find so useful about having come to write a book from trying to be an anthropologist first was that I'd learnt things about things like phenomenology. So, this idea that, like, by practicing--by actually being an active participant with the thing you're trying to learn about--you're going to have so much a better understanding than if you're just passively observing.
Plus also the other side of things was wanting to prove my worth--wanting not to just be a passenger on this boat but wanting to help. And, also I'd have been bored if I didn't do this.
So, I said--immediately, got my boots on and then my oilskins and said, 'Can I help as well?' I was given a very small, very blunt knife, which I think was a sign of them recognizing in me perhaps a very clumsy, chaotic-looking person. I was slowly taught over the week how to gut each type of fish. And I have in my diary, all these little handwritten notes of where to make the incision on different kinds of fish and how to complete[?] them out in different ways. So, we'd spend maybe an hour chatting away, laughing, on the deck, pulling out these fish guts, chucking the fish then back into the boxes.
Then we'd climb down into a really icy area in the belly of the boat called the fish room, where they have this massive hunk of ice that they would hack off each day. And, you layer the fish in boxes with the ice. So, by the end of the week, this once-empty room, suddenly has all these skyscrapers of fish in boxes and I'd always end up climbing on top of the different boxes and then managing to put the fish box on the top. So, over the course of the week that became a much more difficult task; but it was also quite extraordinary to see itemized how many fish we'd caught seeing these towers of fish.
Russ Roberts: And, you acquired a nickname by the end of the trip. Tell us what that nickname was and why you got it.
Lamorna Ash: So, a lot of the fishermen do have nicknames in Cornwall. So, one of the people I lived with who is the most incredible man, is a guy called Lofty. He's called Lofty because he's very tall. Someone called Cod, not because he catches lots of cod but because he once went to Cape Cod and came back with a jumper saying Cape Cod.
Russ Roberts: That's a sweatshirt or a sweater. Right?
Lamorna Ash: A sweatshirt. I forget about some of these language things.
Russ Roberts: It's all right.
Lamorna Ash: So, yeah--I was really interested in the fact that all the fishermen had nicknames. I was quite jealous, as well. The fish that I found--it was such a double of both being amazed and enjoying gutting this particular fish but also horrified because for some reason, to me, it seemed the most human of the fish was the rays. They were three different kinds of rays, and most of them get exported to Japan because people in England don't eat ray at all, really. And, they're so massive and they have these quite strange human lips that kind of pucker, and these big wings. And, as you're trying to gut it, it's like trying to close its wings in on you as a sort of defense mechanism. And it was--I don't know--it's really hard to put myself in the feeling of it now, because I feel so urban at the moment, but I would end up being told to stab this ray in the heart.
I think the fishermen watched my gleeful look and thought it was quite amusing. And, they started calling me Raymundo. And I was so chuffed to have acquired a fishing nickname that I think I called myself Raymundo more than they called me Raymundo. I wanted it to stick. It hasn't stuck.
Russ Roberts: Well, it's a relief of some, perhaps your mom. You said you were chuffed, right? That means excited?
Lamorna Ash: Yep. Pleased, thrilled. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: So, I was struck--I don't know if this is generally true--but I was struck by how manual the work on the boat was, in terms of the gutting and the storing and the packing off, pieces of ice. I feel like on some fishing boats, some of that's more--I don't know, more of an assembly line and less hand done.
But, basically, this is all--this is no different than when I've gone fishing and we bring back seven fish and the guy cleans up at the--the mate cleans up at the end of the trip with a knife. There's nothing automated about it. It's not a freezer room; it's just an ice room. I love that name, the fish room. There's nothing subtle about it. How many fish are we talking about here in a typical haul? Is there a number you might want to give us? Is it dozens? Hundreds?
Lamorna Ash: Oh, no, it's more than that. Hundreds of fish. Huge amount of fish each time. And some of those are unfortunately being thrown over as waste if it's more fish than they're allowed of a particular species.
But, I think the number that kind of blew me away was, the week I was on that trawler, they made 45 grand [1 grand, in U.S., = $1000. Could be 1000 British pounds in this instance?--Econlib Ed.] in that week. So, it's a huge amount of money, actually; And that was a particularly good trip. It was a lot more than I was expecting.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about your skill set. When you started, it must have been--I mean, I've cleaned a few fish in my time--not many, but a few. You've probably eaten a fish before--or not, maybe--I don't know. But, the first time you took a knife to a fish--with time pressure; it's not like, 'I'll just clean a few'--I assume there's a lot of eagerness to move quickly because in three hours, another haul is coming? Or six hours. How often? How many hauls a day?
Lamorna Ash: It was three hours. I mean, I guess--how many is that a day? Like, seven?
Russ Roberts: Seven. Well, you got to sleep--
Lamorna Ash: Yeah. Well, you do but actually the fishermen don't have normal sleeping patterns. So, someone will be off each haul and that means that they'll get slightly longer sleep then--but they continue on through the night. It doesn't stop at nighttime at all. You just have the floodlights on. Everybody has that sense about whilst you're out there. You're just trying to make as much money as you possibly can. There's like a real urgency to it.
Part of that is because when you come back to land, you never know what storms are going to come up. If there's going to be a problem with the boat. So, it really is: Whilst you're out there, make the most of it.
Russ Roberts: So, at night--and you talk about this a little bit in the book--but tell us about what it's like to be on the sea at night, dark. If you're lucky, maybe there are stars to add some romance to it. But, the boat is moving. And it's not just moving forward. It's side to side and sometimes the waves are larger than others. What was that like?
Lamorna Ash: I actually don't think I've ever slept better than I have on a trawler. And that's partly to do with, at the beginning of a trip, I often take quite intense seasick medication--because, my biggest fear actually going out to sea was that I would get really sick, which sometimes happens. And, then the men would have to take me back in. And I'd feel like an idiot. I'd also think a lot about how much money they would have lost because of me. So, I think I was very nervous about that.
So, when you're on this seasick medication, I tend to--I find it really hard to wake up. And I actually think--you're basically lying in this coffin-like cabin in your sleeping bag. Usually, I wouldn't change out of my clothes because I'd be exhausted. So, I just--everything stunk, and by that point, it doesn't matter because you will smell the same; you barely notice. But, I actually had to fall asleep immediately and would find it so hard to wake. And, I had this sense of sometimes waking up in the night and feeling again this embarrassment that actually the men were still working and they were having just a couple of hours sleep whilst I was getting this whole night's sleep. So I tried: I got better and better at trying to wake up at some of the hours that they were so that I was also again participating.
But, definitely--and I looked at this maybe through an anthropological lens--of the fact that: different moods spring up on the boat, both at different times and in different spaces.
So, at nighttime, there was, maybe, like, the humor was darker or certain things felt more mystical because it would just be this floodlights and the way that it lit up the whites of the fish, the sort of white bellies of the fish. And it did, it just felt--it felt more dramatic and more like you really were in absolutely the middle of nowhere. And, then during the daytime, we'd be watching something on the news and it felt like we were more in sync with the time occurring back on shore.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I have a friend who is a listener to this program, generally, who grew up--his family owned an egg farm. A place where--I don't know if this is the right word--in a processing plant where eggs are collected and put into cartons. And, I went and visited him there. And, of course, the first thing you notice is the overwhelming smell of sulfur and egg. And I said, 'Boy, you know, it smells strong here.' And he said, 'What are you talking about?'
He didn't smell it.
So, I'm sure after a while the smell on board was kind of standard and everybody had the same smell. You had a lot of guts in your hair, your clothes. You write about that. It's kind of somewhat challenging, I suppose at first, but I assume you do get used to it.
Lamorna Ash: I actually indulged in that. I really liked the fact that I didn't have to think about my appearance and that I wasn't showering at all really and barely brushing my teeth. I got quite into it.
And, then I did--there was one very small, quite broken mirror. And I looked at myself about halfway through the trip and truly didn't recognize the person who did have all these unspecified guts in her hair--and so flecks of cutting fish juice all over me.
And then when I got back, I found it really strange going back onto the land. But I was lucky that the couple that I'd been staying with, they'd been watching my boat on--there's a system called the AIS system [Automatic Identification System] that looks--you can spot where all the boats are and see when they're going back into harbor. And, families of fishermen often will watch those quite obsessively while they're out and then come down onto the harbor walls when they're returning.
And, I saw this couple, and I was really moved because they did feel a bit like family whilst I was there. And I got off the boat and went to hug them. And they're like, 'Ohh, God, no. You smell so bad. You can have a shower and then we'll hug you.'
Russ Roberts: That was Lofty and Denise, right?
Lamorna Ash: That was Lofty and Denise. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Now, it's interesting because you write about it, and it's a classic trope in fishing villages that the people on land would go up to a high point and watch for the ship coming over the curve of the horizon. And, now we've got technology to make that a little less--it's just different. Right? But, it must be comforting to be able to see the boat on the screen and to know that it's okay.
Lamorna Ash: Yeah. I think definitely. I think a lot of fishermen will--when they can't fish, for instance--so, you said earlier about the [inaudible 00:19:32] is very manual. A lot of fishermen have a lot of injuries. Things can go wrong quite a lot and there's--it just repeated stress and injuries. And, when they're holed up at home, they'll often watch their boats going out at sea and spend all their time on their system as well. Just to kind of any way to stay connected to what's going out on the water.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, it's like the injured athlete watching the game. Sort of.
Russ Roberts: You mentioned seasickness. One of the most fascinating things in the book was this idea that I'd never heard of: that seasickness is more psychological than physical. It depends on what you call "the relationship to the world you left behind." Talk about that and how you strategized in trying to minimize the risk of you being taken home?
Lamorna Ash: Well, this is definitely not a scientifically proven thing but I loved so many of the stories I was told by fishermen. That--some of them you can feel that maybe they're half-fabricating it as well but they're still there, so it well-told.
A fisherman called Kyle who was on the trawler with me, who was the only other fishermen in his 1920s--he was exactly the same age as me, I think, but definitely seemed a lot older because he'd been working full time since he was 16.
And, he said that when him and his cousin had first started going fishing together on a big trawler, both of them were jumping about the deck and they didn't get at all seasick. And a lot of the older men did get seasick particularly in those rougher days which sometimes happen in big, sort of, [?] gales or something like that. And, as soon as his cousin had a child, he started becoming seasick. So, Kyle's hypothesis was that seasickness is related to the way you're thinking about the land, your conception of the land.
So, the more things that you have that are tied you to the land, then the more seasick you become because it's almost like your body rejecting being at sea.
And, obviously, I don't think that that's something you can prove. But, certainly, it must shift your relationship with the see a lot more when you're young and you don't really care and it's just an exciting adventure.
So, I haven't got badly seasick at all. I just throw up a couple of times one day and then I'm pretty much done with it. Which is okay as it goes. Some people got a lot worse.
I wondered if that was also because at this point in my life, I have less things that do tie me to the land as well.
Russ Roberts: That's so cool. Yeah--I don't care if it's true or not. I like the poetry of it.
There's no alcohol on the boat, correct?
Lamorna Ash: No, they call it either seahab or seatox because--
Russ Roberts: seahub?
Lamorna Ash: As opposed to rehab, so seahub or seetox, detox. There's a lot of drink on the land--
Russ Roberts: Yes, there is--
Lamorna Ash: It's a very small town. I don't actually know how many people it is but in thousands, single digit 1000s. But, there's four to five pubs in that small stretch of town. And they've all got different purposes. One pub seems to be for the older people. One pub is for the youngsters. One pub is for the tourists. One pub is for the fishermen. And, the fisherman's pub is called the Swordfish or the Swordi. And as soon as the men are on land--meaning still in their wellies--they'll go straight into the Swordi to have a few pints. So, there is this not very healthy balance between absolute, and--what do you call it?
Russ Roberts: Abstinence.
Lamorna Ash: That's the one: absolute abstinence at sea. And then a huge amount of drinking when you get back on land with your pay packet.
Russ Roberts: Your pay packet.
Now, you were worried about seasickness. Were you worried about your ability to hold your liquor on land in those pubs? Because, you did a reasonable amount of drinking alongside your mates?
Lamorna Ash: Yeah, I feel grateful for those times for teaching me how to be a better drinker. I definitely got my tolerance up. I also had just finished university so I suppose I'd just come out at the time when you're drinking maybe the most in your life anyway.
But, I--it was pints only. And, I would sit down often to interview fishermen in the pubs--because, where else? And, I'd have my recorder. I think they found it quite funny that I'd have to match them. So, each time they get a pint, they get me a pint I'd be like, 'Oh, God.' And, when Denise was in the pub, I'd often hand her the beers so that she could drink them instead of me.
But, I did notice that sometimes I'd go back, I'd be doing my transcriptions of these interviews, and I'd make less and less sense and be asking, 'Where did you guys fish?' by about 10:00 PM in the pub. Which is not good. It's not very good journalistic practice for sure.
Russ Roberts: I just want to alert readers who might be interested in this book that although Lamorna has invoked the word 'anthropology,' there's nothing academic about the book. It is a very evocative portrait of the town, its people, her experiences. It's jargon free. Just want to reassure people.
Russ Roberts: Did you want to say something?
Lamorna Ash: I was going to say that I found that such a freeing process because my--I think anthropology is one of the most jargony subjects in terms of a mixture of philosophy, really kind of technical philosophy and kind of new terms on things about ontologies. And it felt really nice to be able to strip all those down.
But, also, even though that doesn't exist within the book, it was kind of amazing to have had this almost like skeletal structure of anthropology to start with, and then to lose all that. And, my--more naturally anyway, I've done some great[?] playwriting and fiction. So, it made more sense to write in that style for me [inaudible 00:25:04].
Russ Roberts: When you were interviewing people, they knew you were writing a book. Some of them must have been excited because they thought, 'I'll be in a book.' Others must have thought, 'I don't want to be part of that. I don't want my name used.' So, how did you handle that? And then, what reaction have you gotten from your friends in the town when the book's come out?
Lamorna Ash: I think this is the most important thing, and it's something I still do a fair amount of [?] in nonfiction writing. It feels such an important thing to navigate is to make sure that people are so conscious of what's happening with the things that you're writing about them. To make sure to keep checking. You can't check in too many times about consent with that kind of thing.
Definitely some fishermen, particularly hearing--I have, like, a very posh London accent. One merely thinking, 'Here's another person who's going to come to this town and paint a stereotypical portrait of us and then leave again.' So, there was real resistance. There been another book that I actually haven't read, called the Swordfish and the Star that was vaguely about Newlyn, written a couple of years before mine. It paints--which is definitely possible to do--a portrait of Newlyn as there's quite a lot of illicit activity. They can come across as some really rough guys with these wild stories, some of which aren't true.
And, I think that's what that guy went to get as a journalist and that's the story that he got. A lot of fishermen are really against it. I don't necessarily think that means that many of them have read it but certainly--
Russ Roberts: Heard about it.
Lamorna Ash: They've heard about it; and in a way that, say, as a community, they'll vote almost as a group [inaudible 00:26:39]: if someone has said this thing is bad, they all are like, 'Okay, we've heard this book is really bad. And, if this guy comes back to our town, we're going to throw him over the harbor walls.' Jokingly maybe half, but I got told that as well a lot about this book, that it had got them wrong. So, I think in some ways, that was quite a good thing for me to be conscious of not wanting to do. And, quite a lot of the fisherman were so happy to talk, and are used to share in their lives in this way, because fishing definitely in Britain is something that is--it's always garnered a lot of interest from people who don't live in that area. There's sort of myriad documentaries about fishing lives and going out to sea and what that's like. So, I think people were comfortable with that.
And, then my other thing that I had a real--a fortunate thing was that I lived with this couple who were incredible and were very much at the center of the town. So, everyone knew Denise and Lofty. Denise worked in the fishmonger's, and Lofty worked in Survitec which is they sell things like rope and life jackets, and that kind of thing.
And, we got on so well and there was a lot of trust between us. It meant that I often got access to people I probably wouldn't have otherwise because Denise or Lofty would say, 'This is Lamorna; she's writing about this. She lives with us. She's all right.' So, that was amazing for me because that just doesn't happen otherwise.
And, then in terms of the feedback from the fishermen, I've been really lucky. A lot of them have really enjoyed the book. Don, who's the skipper of the trawler--he's kind of a hero on the Filadephia definitely--he said he hasn't read it, but he's very happy that he is acknowledged in it. And he said that his daughter says that he's the hero of the book. So, I think chuffed or he's pleased by that.
And, then, yeah--now and then I'll get a message from someone in the town who is a fisherman who will say, 'I think you got our lives right.' Which is, as a writer, often you think about who are you writing for. And that's what you're asked as a young writer to think about. I was writing for that town. So, when I hear from them that they think I did them justice, that's kind of like--that's all the praise I could ask for, really.
Russ Roberts: I tend to think of fishermen as--the word I would use his laconic, taciturn. These are all good SAT [Standardized Achievement Test] words here in the United States. Strong silent type, would be another way to describe it. But, a lot of them of course, to use a bad phrase, spill their guts. Told these things about themselves and opened up to you--which must have been interesting and required a sense of trust on your part and their part--that some of the things you told them I'm sure didn't make it into the book for a variety of reasons. But, they did--we do get a portrait of their lives and of their--I'd say even more importantly--their identities. I want you to talk about--you mention that a fisherman might get injured and follow[?][inaudible 00:29:43] the boat that he regularly used on AIS, this navigation system.
There's something much more--that's fascinating--but there's a more poignant story in the book, runs through the book, of these fishermen who--they get old. And it's a physical experience. You can't do it for your whole life. They're forced to retire: they hurt their leg, their hip, whatever it is, their back. And, now they're on land and they can't really tear themselves away from the fishing industry. So, they're not fishing anymore. That very specific set of skills of using a knife and hauling up the ropes and tying knots--all those things are gone. They can't use those anymore. But, instead of trying something new, they stay in the world that they know, at least. Talk about what that experience was like and what you observed about that.
Lamorna Ash: Well, I think because fishing is not just your job at all, by any stretch of imagination, because your parents might have been fishermen as well. You started doing it, say, when you were 16. You spend as much time at sea as you do on land. It means that it's like a really significant part of your identity. It's how you see yourself. It's how other people see you. Your relationships are based on the fact that you are gone for a week at a time. Some wives would say that they really notice, if the boat is having repairs, that it's actually hellish to have your husband there for two weeks, because then he's just lying on the sofa; and they're [inaudible 00:31:09] when they used to this constant oscillation between--
Russ Roberts: Cycle.
Lamorna Ash: Yeah, cycle between being there and not being there. So, definitely the older fishermen, for loads of reasons--I think one thing as well is that when you're on land all the time, that temptation of the pub--there is a lot of alcohol addiction--is stronger because that's the place that you go to associate with fishermen. It's like an extension of the boat in some ways. So, a lot of guys get quite lost under that, under drinking.
Also, your whole conversation: Everyone in every cafe and every pub is talking about the industry. And if you're on the boat, that means you're the center of that conversation. It's really hard to lose that. I think also fishing is not a career that transfers over to many. It's not a skill that is shared with many other industries. I think for a lot of the men who have this real sense of being quite an important member of the community, then to suddenly work in Tescos or whatever would feel like, I don't know, maybe they feel like they lost some sort of degree of standing [?]. I'm not explaining this really well. But, they are losing their status.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, and a sense of identity.
Tesco's is a food store, a department store?
Lamorna Ash: Yes. Sorry, Tesco's is like a 7-11.
Russ Roberts: So, at one point you'd quote someone which I--very poignant--who is still doing something in the industry or actually it was someone who fishes who doesn't, quote, "like" it. I think, if you think about fishing in the abstract, it's easy to romanticize. If you think about it in the reality of it, which you do in the book a great deal describe the reality of it, it's pretty hard. Besides the physical work and the sleep patterns and the challenge of have that weird, surreal world of being out at sea--there's no WiFi, there's no connection to home--and then all of a sudden, you're back at home and trying to deal with that. You're back seeing your children, you're back seeing your wife; and it's a man's world, so, it's--usually you're back seeing your wife.
It's a hard world. And one of them was saying--one of the people you quoted said, 'Well, it's horrible. I don't like it.' And you said, 'Well, why don't you do something else?' And he said, 'What else would I do?' Right? It just--just talk about that feeling.
Lamorna Ash: Yeah, I think it is that sense where you get stuck within it. I think that particular fisherman, his story is even more interesting and complicated in that his father had been lost at sea, in a boat with--the Margarita Maria--and all that--they never found the boat. He had been planning to quit the industry and he always told the son--
Russ Roberts: The father--
Lamorna Ash: The father, yeah. He always told his son Nathan, 'You're not to play by the shore. I don't want you becoming a fisherman. I don't want you sliding into this industry. It is hard and difficult and uncertain and precarious.'
And then, after he died, Nathan then ended up being a fishermen. He ended up skippering a boat--so, he was in charge of a trawler. And, I was asking him, 'What is that like? How can you go out and face the same sea every single day that you know is the thing that led to your father's death?'
And, he was--in this way he was saying it was iconic[?], but I want to fit as a philosophical outlook to the fishermen as well, because they do spend so much time sitting staring at the sea in the middle of nowhere. And that definitely affects the way you think about the world.
And he said, you know, 'I had to check that my dad wasn't behind the horizon. Or something stupid like that.' And he immediately dismissed it.
But, I thought, that's such an extraordinary thing to say: Like, that there is this sense of supernatural there, or maybe he's following in his father's footsteps and therefore getting to stay close to him.
So, I think it's such a, like, push-and-pull of wanting to be part of this. And, knowing it's beautiful, and you can have these extraordinary moments out there. And, it gives you identity. But also that it is very hard and that you won't see your kids very often. And it might put strains on your relationship. And there are a lot of fishermen who get divorced and whose children are kind of resentful of the fact that they never see their father.
So, I think that there's so many complexities. And I couldn't kind of come up with an eventual understanding exactly why fishermen become fishermen or why they tussle with what it means to be a fisherman. But, there are just so many different aspects of it.
Russ Roberts: I found that very powerful. I lost my father about a year ago. And, the idea of staying close to your father or a parent, by re-experiencing their experiences, is just incredibly poignant. And just sad and beautiful and everything at once.
Russ Roberts: The other part of the book that is striking to me--so, that first part we just talked about is the sense of self and the way one's work infuses your identity--which, most of us have some piece of it in our lives. Like, I'm sure you see yourself as a writer and that has certain impacts on how you go through the day.
But, a fisherman, it's just different. It's more pervasive, at least, in a certain--you can't avoid it, because it's there all the time. When you're home, you can see the sea. It's not like--the work/life balance is inevitably, psychologically rich that way.
But, also the other part of your book, which of course is profound, is the sense of place. And I want to read a quote from one of the people you write about. Her name is Pat. She, at 17, I think it was during the War--World War II--her father passes away in a terrible accident in his own bar. He's the owner of the Fisherman's Arms. A drunk hits him and he falls badly, and he snaps his spinal cord, and he dies. It's an incredible tragedy.
So, the 17-year-old girl and her mom inherit this pub. And, sweet footnote, you write about the women in the town. Their men are off at war. They start coming to the pub for socializing. Which is really beautiful. But, she stays there. She ends up spending the rest of her life in this little town and has run this pub for a long, long time. And, she gets known as the Duchess of Newlyn. Her name is Pat. You write the following about her, and it's really beautiful:
Pat has been all the way around the world on her cruises, but she always comes back to Newlyn in the end, to the cottage where her mother died, next door to the pub she grew up in. I asked her if she's ever thought about moving, about living somewhere else for a while, maybe where her parents came from.
'You tell me,' she says. 'What more could you want than this place?' The Duchess of Newlyn looks out over the harbour. 'I see the sun come up there and then the moon climbs out from the sea there each night. I see the men head out through there and then steam back in with their fish each evening. What more could I want?'
Of course, you're a London girl, London woman. You could think of a lot of things that you could want other than watching the fishermen come in and out. The sun and the moon are beautiful. But there's a lot to life that's not in Newlyn. And yet for her, what more could you want? And, it felt like a lot of people are tied to place in a way that many of us in the modern world, especially highly educated people are not. I thought about Chris Anarde, guest on EconTalk in his book Dignity, and he writes about front row and back rows [?] people.
So, the front row people are the kids who sit in the front of the class. There ambitious, they want to move on, they want to achieve, they want to go to the best graduate school, they want to go to the best job they can get. They don't care whether they're close to their parents or not because they're going to forge their own identity. And I was one of those people. I was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Spent a year there. My brother and sister both went back there even though they weren't born there. Never lived there as children, but went back as adults because my parents are from there; and we have connections there.
So, I don't have that sense of home. I lived all over the place. And it doesn't bother me, because I don't know what I'm missing. But, for these folks, and in Chris's case--Chris is a front row person: he goes and gets a physics degree. The back row people stay in Florida in many of the poorer towns that they grew up in, and certainly in the places that Chris surveys his book in West Virginia and other parts of America that have not proceeded in terms of economic growth the way the rest of, say, the urban areas have.
They stay in these places and people say, 'Well, why don't you move?' And we talk a lot in this program about reasons that people might not move because of public policy that makes it hard to find an apartment in an urban area that's got restrictions on building and the jobs might--they don't have the skill set. They maybe got a lousy education and it's hard for them to find work in those places.
But, the other part is, which is hard for us front-row people to remember is that: They like living there. They like being where their parents grew up. They like growing up next to the--staying in the house they grew up in or near it and seeing their mom often.
So, I just think that that portrait of life is something that I think educated people are unaware of. They find Brexit and populism around the world inexplicable--because, we, who are more globally oriented, don't have that sense of place.
Your book captures that sense of place. That's not the only example. I think most--a lot of people are torn. Some of the younger people you write about are unsure whether they want to come back or not. They come back sporadically. But others just stay. They do what their parents did: They become fishermen, they work in the industry.
And, having gone through this experience, as an educated person thrown back into that world, what are your thoughts on the role place plays in, say, their lives versus your life?
Lamorna Ash: Mmm. That's so interesting. I think just giving a spatial idea of front row and back row feels really useful for me to think about that because that's something I think about a lot. There's so many parts of it. I think maybe if I start with myself. I've actually always lived pretty much in London. But, for some reason, to me that didn't feel like a place. Like, I didn't feel like it meant anything to say I came from London because it's built--I guess like someone says somewhere like New York--it's built of so many different kinds of people, there's so many different parts to it.
And, only now do I actually understand that my identity is so closely linked to being from London but I somehow failed to see that. And I also had that young person thing--again, a front row thing--of wanting to go everywhere and tie myself to lots of different places.
And so, when I went to Newlyn, I was age 22, feeling very dislocated and feeling like I didn't have a sense of self. And I thought, 'Okay, well my mum's from Cornwall.' And in London, I used the fact that I'm a bit Cornish as a grounding thing that differentiates me from other children. So, I thought, 'I'm going to go to Cornwall and I'm going to stay there. And that's going to be where I'm from.'
That part of the book really is the gradual realization that you can't force a place to be yours. You can't just go somewhere and say, 'This is going to be me, now.'
I know that this is something that in Britain and I think America is, I think, class-based as well. But, in terms of things like accent in the United Kingdom, it's--so, you guys can work out so quickly if someone has been low upper class or working class. So, the fact that I'm posh, I'm middle upper class, was immediately obvious. And, I was always going to stick out from the people in Newlyn.
And, to begin with, I was really kind of devastated that I couldn't make this place mine. And then I sort of realized that actually, you can make a place your friend and you can try and understand it. And that's an amazing end goal rather than trying to force yourself into somewhere else.
There's a lot of gentrification in Cornwall. Young people don't tend to move there. Young people go to cities. But a lot of people in their 50s and 1960s, post-retirement, move to Cornwall. So, they're not adding anything to the economy. But, they are making those--they are shifting the way those areas work because suddenly it costs a lot more to live in these places and the posh coffee shops and whole food star places will come in as well and push out other businesses. So, there's a town next to Newlyn, or village next to Newlyn called Mousehole. In Mousehole it used to be--
Russ Roberts: It's spelled Mousehole for those of you keeping score at home. It's pronounced 'mouzal'. Okay. Go ahead.
Lamorna Ash: Yeah, Mousehole. Okay. That used to be another fishing port, a smaller one. But, again, [inaudible 00:44:12] worked in the industry. And, slowly, slowly, people were being pushed out because it was becoming so expensive. And, now every single cottage there is pretty much empty during the winter times because they're all holiday homes or Airbnbs or whatever. And, one fisherman was telling me that his parents when they moved out of there, his dad couldn't speak for about a month because he had had to sell to a London holiday maker. And he was so devastated that he was complicit in a way because he had to be part of this system, and there was no way out of it.
So, I think it's interesting that other people have this impulse to say. 'This is beautiful. I'd like to make it my home.' But, without a recognition of by going somewhere you're ultimately always going to be changing it.
And I think that's part of the reason a lot of people in Cornwall feel really angry and hostile towards those in cities as well, because there is no mutual looking after one another.
There's often resentment in Cornwall about the cities--about, particularly, London where that's where all of the politics happens. And, often decisions that are been made there aren't benefiting those in smaller coastal places.
There's also hostility towards cities. There's a kind of xenophobia about--I'd often be told, 'London sounds horrible. It sounds so busy and smelly. There's people from all over the world there.' And, to begin with, I think I found it hard to express my opinion about it. And then, when I went back, which I do go back quite often--obviously not now because of the pandemic, but previous to that--I would make sure I was louder in saying that actually, probably what I love about London most is the fact that, like, it's very diverse, in my area [inaudible 00:45:55] Harringay. It's a Turkish community and it means that you can learn about Turkish politics whilst living there.
And, it's exciting to feel that it's built up with so many disparate[?] parts and that somehow works.
And, I think--so, part of the strange thing about place in Cornwall, it's about trying to retain the place as it is and there's less room for different political stances. Sometimes. Sometimes that's not the case. Often if people actually move there, people can be really accepting.
But, I think it's a lot of that has really tangled up within it about identity.
But, I think I struggled. Probably one of the reasons that I left was that I think I did feel that maybe I would get bored if I stayed somewhere that small and I'd get frustrated that all my neighbors were right next to me and there was sort of no escape and there was no anonymity at all.
Whereas I think for a lot of young people who stay there, that's part of the pleasure there. That's not fear of looking elsewhere. That's like how amazing to have some stability in an unstable world and to be with other people I love and I've always loved and to get to be there for the rest of my life.
Russ Roberts: I think about the movie, It's A Wonderful Life, which I'm a sucker for. Probably seen it 8 or 10 times. I have a good cry every time and know a lot of it by heart, of course.
But, It's A Wonderful Life is a very romantic vision of small-town life. And it leaves out the fact that everybody knows your business. It's true, everyone will take care of you--but they also know your business. Not much changes. And there's a trade-off and attention that I've thought about a lot as an economist. Creative destruction, technological change. All these things that lead to a higher standard of living, international trade, also affect your sense of self, your sense of place. It's disruptive.
I've spent most of my writing talking about the upside of that because I think the upside is often hard to see. The downside is very visible. But, we shouldn't forget the downside, either. I think there's a--it's easy to romanticize small town life but it's also important not to forget what is deeply human I think and comforting for some people. Not everybody's the same, by the way. Some people feel very differently about these trade offs between, say, economic opportunity and a feeling of place that doesn't change, that is eternal.
Some of your book in the background I would call it is about this fact that, Newlyn--it's doing pretty well but it's also dying because that industry, young people, not as many young people want to be fishermen. We talked about the ones who want to do what their father did. But, a lot of them don't. They want to leave, and they want to go to the big city, and they want to explore other things. There's a tension there that I think economists have ignored for a long time. This one has; and I've been forced to think about it because of the political consequences that those changes have wrought. That's also part of what you're writing about. So, I think it's not a simple thing. I think there's a lot going on there and I think it's important to keep a rich and nuanced vision of what those trade offs are.
Lamorna Ash: Definitely. I think a lot of the people I met who are my age, I guess the amazing benefit of education is that a lot of people would go to universities that are in other parts of the country. But, that does mean that suddenly you have this debt you've accrued and this qualification you've got and you need to do something with that. There really aren't places to do that, particularly in Newlyn which is right at the end of Cornwall, the very sort of toe-bit of the United Kingdom.
And, I think there's been that real wrenching feeling of being like, 'I want to be providing for my family and I want to be enriching the place that I've come from. But, how do I do that?' One of my close friends from Cornwall who I wrote about in the book called--he's called Isaac and his dad's a fisherman and his granddad's a fisherman, and he studied English at Oxford and he's an incredible writer. I think his family were like, 'Okay, amazing. We've now got this writer in our family. He's going to make millions because he studied English.' And, English doesn't really make you any money unfortunately.
Russ Roberts: They don't know much about writing.
Lamorna Ash: Yeah, exactly. But, he then came back home and a lot of people in the village were like, 'What are you doing back here? You're meant to be in the big city making money now.' I think he really struggled with that. It's like: what to do with all this knowledge that he'd accrued? Now he's gone back to Newyln after traveling all over the place actually to become a secondary school teacher, in, I think, the school that he went to when he was a child as well. So there are ways that you can come back and use those things you're learning.
But, I think it's difficult for a lot of people and that sense of--often we're told this narrative as you grew up: 'You have to move away. That's part of maturation.' And, then that does mean that, yeah, sometimes places are left with--if the industry is--the only thing they've caught is fishing and tourism, that's a really hard thing to depend on and there's so many other factors that make that a difficult thing. And, yeah, this sense of the capitalization of fishing, the fact that now there's massive companies that own a lot of quota.
And it means it is harder as a young guy to go into industry. It's going to change what that space looks like when actually, a lot of the fishermen, for instance, are from European countries like Eastern European like Latvia or are Thai. And, the way that they work is they'll come to England for six months and be a fisherman for those six months, basically living on the boat; and then they'll go back home with that money to their country of origin.
So, that means that they're not participating in community, even if they are participating in the economy. And so, it means that as there's less people who are living in the area where they're fishing. That's also going to affect what that town looks like as well.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, and I think at the individual level, there's a tension between using one's gifts--which often requires moving--and staying close to people you love or people who raised you or the place that you grew up in. As I said, many of us walk away from that. And something's lost there. Something's gained. But, I think there is a tension. I think a lot about Sebastian Junger's book, Tribe, when he describes the people who were captured--kidnapped, often--in war by Native Americans in combat. And their slaves or hostages were prisoners.
Then after a while, they're integrated into the community that they're in. They marry a Native American woman. And, they get rescued sometimes: they don't want to leave. The people who are rescuing them are like, 'What's wrong with you? This is so primitive.' And, it is primitive relative--in terms of certain dimensions. In other dimensions, it's deeply advanced because of that sense of community that is so missing, I think, in modern life in many ways.
So, the other thing I think about is the musical, Come from Away, which is about an insular community that is forced to accept a bunch of strangers. And, because their culture is helping--because that's what you do in a small town. You help everybody who's there; and you write about that beautifully in a chapter. In Come from Away in this town of Gander, thousands of people descend on it on 9-11 because American airspace has been closed and they land in Nova Scotia and this town has to deal with it.
And they deal with it magnificently, in a way that might be challenging for other locations, but the sense of place is so strong. There's this tension between the self and the other. Right? So, often in those places of strong physical identity, they have trouble dealing with the other. They're asking--all those different kinds of people.
And yet, the power of that when there's a crisis is extraordinary. There's nothing that we--there's hardly anything like it. Wartime does that, obviously. Wartime, we rally behind or we have historically behind a sense of national identity. National identity can be really destructive. When it's self-preservation, it's pretty powerful.
So, anyway, all these issues are in your book and you write about them in very thoughtful ways. You want to say anything in response to that?
Lamorna Ash: Yeah, well it just made me think. One of my really close friends is studying political economy at the moment, doing a Master's. I've just been proofreading an essay she was writing about integration versus segregation. In the sense of, in America, areas that are say predominately poor, mainly often black community areas versus the richer white areas in places like Chicago.
And often those projects that are physical integration where people from the poor communities are moved into these richer areas--because we know that segregation can have a negative impact. But, then that's often on the terms of the privileged people that are like that, then, 'You have to get moved; and you have to change yourself to become like this other person who society says are living in a way that's better.'
She writes about the fact that: what does integration look like if it's not spatial.? If it is just understanding other communities better? So, that doesn't necessitate natural movement. But, how can you make sure that people have shared values or at least awareness of other people's values whilst being spatially apart?
And, I thought that was such an interesting thought of how it is that--how do we make it so that London is more aware of the shifts that are happening in Cornwall? And how Cornwall can feel more aware of the benefits of integration or just multiculturalism in London. I just think it's a cool thing that writing can do sometimes is to show those different worlds without forcing them together.
Russ Roberts: That's a beautiful thought. The challenge, of course, is that they're different worlds. The challenge I think we have in modern times, I think, the challenge of 2021 in so many places around the world, is that our national narratives have become--they've diverged. There's a group of people who have one narrative, and it doesn't interweave very well, doesn't intertwine with that other narrative the way it feels like it used to.
I had Michael Blastland on the program recently, where he was talking about somebody in a relatively rural area was being told that Brexit would be a mistake because it would hurt GDP [Gross Domestic Product]. She said, 'Well, it'll hurt your bloody GDP, not mine.'
That's a modern--somewhat modern phenomenon. I think it's exaggerated, this idea that we have divergent economic paths from economic change. But, there's some truth to it, too. I think that is really the modern challenge right now for cultural cohesion that we don't have. How we're going to overcome those different narratives and the other--those differences.
I think the other piece of this is that the attempt to force integration from the top down is a very unhelpful way to solve the problem. Because, all of our connections--physically, emotionally, work-wise--come from the bottom up. They're emergent. They're not--and, the reason that's important isn't because, 'Oh, well top-down often doesn't work well and bottom-up is better.' The reason it's important is that bottom-up change--when people choose to move or choose to change careers--there's a whole bunch of other stuff that comes along the way or that has to be there in place to make that imaginable. And if you try to just take one piece of it and shove it in into the rest of the puzzle, it doesn't integrate well. That's not very well said, but it's hard to think about that. But, I think it's an important lesson.
In economics, the mistake that gets made is that, 'Well, market use prices, so we'll use prices from the top down. We'll just incentivize things. The right things and the things that are better.' And they forget that markets don't just use prices, they have other things that go with them--norms, habits--and to impose just the price part often is very ineffective and destructive.
Lamorna Ash: That's so interesting. I hadn't really thought about that. I was wondering how that--thinking about that in terms of fishing.
Russ Roberts: One other thing that's interesting--I want to talk about this that--you mentioned a couple of times the quota. Fishing quotas are a way to avoid the tragedy of the commons, the incentive that people have to over-fish--keep smaller fish because if you throw it back, you're not going to be the one that catches it, so you may as well keep it and get some economic benefit from it. And that incentive system--those feedback loops--can lead to incredibly destructive things.
A top-down solution there can be very effective. There are bottom-up solutions: in smaller communities, norms develop about not overfishing and what I found--and then get enforced through not just norms but through people saying, 'Hey, that person took too many fish. I'm going to burn his house down.' An extreme example, but the threat of bad is not trivial. They'll take your boat if you violate the norms.
But, now we've typically used law--legislation, more accurately--rather than the law of norms. The legislation of: you have this amount of quota and if you over-fish that, you're fined.
But, what I found interesting about your book is the feeling on the part of many of the younger fishermen that sustainability and not overfishing is a value that they've embraced even though it may not be incentivized for themselves. They understand that if everyone acts selfishly, they'll destroy this way of life. Do you think that's a realistic effect? Do you think it's plausible that that will help sustain that norm, that feeling of responsibility, or do you think that's just them just talking to you and feeling virtuous?
Lamorna Ash: Yeah. I mean, it's so hard to tell. And, I'm sure--also, the other side of things is my bias of wanting to hear that, as well. So, when the fisherman say that, I'm like, 'Yeah; Oh, my God.' Because, sometimes I found it really hard with some of the older fishermen that they cared so little about sustainability--from the small level things just like throwing their rubbish bins over the side of the boat into the water. And you're thinking: 'This is the environment you work in. I don't understand how you can care so little and, like, still doing something like, kind of like catching black fish--so, kind of, like illegally, secretly catching more than you're meant to and finding ways around it.' Which still fishermen do. And: I can understand that if you think things are unfair, but then why would you act within the legal system that someone else has from faraway has told you, you have to act within, which your grandparents didn't have to act in. Or which seems to benefit other societies more? Say, for instance, if they think that in Spain and France, that legislation is, those laws are maintained less, so they can get away with it. So: We should try and get away with it, as well.
So, I found that difficult and kind of hard, because I definitely have an idealism to me in most things and I wanted to write a book that was showing fishermen in a kind light or at least an honest light.
And so, sometimes I went, 'Ah, this is a shame that you guys think in this way.' As I was meeting younger fishermen, it was really exciting to be--firstly, environmentally because a lot of small-boat fishermen, meaning that they go out just in for a day; and they're very small boats and they have a minimal environmental impact because they just can't catch that much. It's impossible. It's not commercial fishing, really.
And they are--often, they're backed by people who are interested in the environment. They might be part of a seafood who are like a training company who also sort of help to instill some of these values in their fishermen.
And also, they might be frustrated in the way that loads of us are with our parents or grandparents, about the way that--there's a sense--I find it interesting because I'm now part of the problem because I'm an adult, but I always think that teenagers spend so much time saying, 'Look what you've done to the world.' To adults, 'You have ruined this world for us.'
And, then suddenly you hit 21, you're an adult. You're part of that problem. But, I found it interesting that the younger fishermen kind of did feel, because it's impossible to avoid not thinking about the environment and thinking about--say, in fishing. You notice environmental change, or climate change through the fact that fish that were never normally caught in British waters because they are warmer-water fish, are now being caught there.
So, obviously this stuff is happening. And, that then they do want to respond to it. I think, I hope that will be a longer lasting change because it is just harder to shy away from any of those huge global concerns for our generation, I think.
Russ Roberts: Well, we'll see. I think it's--there are some obvious things that can make the world a better place easily. Some of them are more complicated. We're talking about economic change. I spent a decent part of my side of this conversation talking about the downside and acknowledging it. And I want to say something about the upside. And, when we're talking about fishing in smaller boats, it reminds me of farming.
And the move towards the people that want to start farming in smaller farms and doing less corporate, an urge for less corporate influence on farming. And I certainly think in America, we've subsidized farming, at the corporate level--which is a horrible mistake, I'd zero that out if I could.
But, there is a transformation that took place over the 20th century in America. In 1900, 40% of the population worked in agriculture. Now it's about two and a half. That changed the country in a myriad of ways.
But, the truth is, I think most farmers are happy that their great grandchildren--the farmers of 1900 are probably pretty happy with the lives that their great grandchildren lead. Most of them--not all of them, of course--and I don't think we should forget that. I don't think we want a world--I don't know; there's no 'we'.
But, if you think of a world with lots of small fishermen having less impact on the environment and on the fish populations--you're in a world where fish are a lot more expensive to eat; where you might have to devote a lot more land or energy to other things to keep people alive.
And for me, most importantly, you might lose the opportunity to use your gifts in areas that aren't related to fishing and farming, which are not necessarily what everybody wants to do--get up in the morning and slop the hogs or get seasick or miserable or--
Russ Roberts: There's a lot of downside. I just wanted to add that as a non-romantic note that should be kept in mind.
Lamorna Ash: Yeah. No, I think that's so true. And I think that just--it kind of emphasizes the tangle of difficulties within that, that each small shift that you do make, there's going to be negative and positive outcomes.
And I think it's so hard, because things like [inaudible 01:05:53] a community that often it seems arbitrary the things that fishermen decide.
So, with Brexit, that basically every fisherman in the country voted for Brexit to get their waters back. There was a really simplistic argument behind that which Nigel Farage's party came in and said, 'You will get all the water back. There will be no boats, other European boats.' Yeah; it was just so strange--this idea of owning our waters is such an odd concept.
But, then that, like very--what's the idea I want to say--that basically allowed them to forget about the fact that say 70% of fish from the United Kingdom is exported, like, a lot of that to EU [European Union] countries.
So, then, so kind of that sense of each thing you do that: okay, if you shut off all those borders and mean that the European boats can't come and fish here, then obviously the tariffs will become higher there. And yeah--it's so knotty and I guess that's part of why it's, it's so difficult when the public is told, 'Okay, you're going to get to vote on this,' when we are thinking, kind of selfishly, or just in terms of the small community around us or whatever we understand as the people close to us. Yeah. It's so difficult.
Russ Roberts: You said it was a knotty problem. That's where a 'k', right?
Russ Roberts: But, it's also a naughty problem. It's knotty and naughty.
Russ Roberts: Your title, it's an unusual title for a book: Dark, Salt, Clear. It comes from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop. And if all goes well, we're going to have an upcoming episode that touches on Elizabeth Bishop in a funny way. You like her poetry? Why did you choose that title? What's it mean to you?
Lamorna Ash: I love her poetry. I found choosing a title is the hardest thing in the whole world. I had no idea that that would be: the worst parts of writing a book is trying to find something that maybe encapsulates it or gives a sense of it in a couple of words. While I was writing, I was living in a really horrible flat at the time in London. I had the front room overlooking a big, busy main road. And it was really badly insulated. And it was really noisy.
And, I'd lie there tossing and turning unable to sleep, desperately trying to think of words to do with the sea that could be my title. I'd go Ctrl-f and look through my book and see if I could find a good line in there. Just I'd type in 'blue,' or 'sea.' God, what do I say? And, when I went down to stay in Cornwall for the second time, one of my close friends, Andrew, who is doing a Ph.D. on Elizabeth Bishop, gave me a book of her Collected Poems and said, 'The sea mattered so much to her whether she was in Brazil or in America. I think this might be useful for you.'
I read it a lot while I was in Newlyn and I continue to have it beside me on my bookshelf, her collected works. And, the poem, "The Fish House," is one of my favorites. And, that's where the line comes from. She's describing what she thinks the sea is and how the sea is like knowledge. She says it's--it's how she imagines knowledge to be: 'dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free.' I just thought that was really beautiful because--I don't know, even just like the fact that there's tension between dark and clear, made me think about the fact that in my book there is a sort of similar sense. I'm trying to give a kind of complicated portrait of a place.
And, there's a lot of poetry in the book, as well. There's a lot of the literature that I was interested in. I am still trying to understand the writer I want to be and I do that through reading a lot. And, I wanted to put some of that writing. So, there's works by John Steinbeck I talk about. I talk about Virginia Woolf a lot, who used to go to Cornwall on every holiday like I did as a child. And so it made sense to have a kind of literary title for the book, rather than saying something really simple, like this is about a girl on a trawler. I wanted it to be a bit more poetic.
Russ Roberts: Girl On A Trawler is not a bad title.
Lamorna Ash: My publisher wanted to call it Trawler Girl.
Russ Roberts: Oh, gosh.
Lamorna Ash: Oh. Yeah: it just sounds like a terrible superhero. But, it also positions me at the center of the book, which I didn't really want either. I'm a woman. So, I nailed[?nixed?] that one.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, titles are tricky. Publishers have really unusual ideas about what a book should be called compared to often what the author wants, I've noticed.
Russ Roberts: Let's close with what you've learned about yourself from this time there. Some of it is in the book, of course, and some of it will unspool as your life goes forward. Try to summarize as best you can that unanswerable question. What do you feel was--let me say in a different way. There are authors who say, 'Well, it was great. I got a book out of it.' Which I totally get. Totally understandable. I'm more interested in your inner life. Is it still with you now, there in London?
Lamorna Ash: Big time. I think--it's not the same as saying, 'Well, I got a book out of it.' But, maybe it's along those lines. But, that faith; and I've always--as a kid, I always wanted to make writing my life--and to have been able to turn something into a book which came out this year--I was 25--it has given me confidence to keep saying, 'You can do this. You can go to places and you can try really hard to understand people. There's the possibility that you can make that your life.'
So, I think it's given me--I hold onto it when I'm really struggling with writing, which happens all the time, that: 'You've done that once; you can do it again.'
And then, I think the kind of big thing I've taken from it is just, I guess, the value of listening and listening slowly and carefully and for a long time. It really means something to go get to somewhere and just sit for a while and hear what other people think, and to try and transform that into writing. Different things--recently I've been writing about all sorts about--I've written a big piece about people who do anger management classes. And, then I've been writing a piece about someone who has gone back into drug dealing during the pandemic because he didn't get any government help, and it was, like, the only industry he could find himself in. These are things that could be some sensational topics--anger and drug dealing. And then if you sit with someone for four days and you understand their background, how they got into these things, or what their experience of anger is like, you can just build a much more nuanced portrait.
And so, I think, in Newlyn I learned maybe how to listen. I'm sure I'm still rubbish at listening sometimes but definitely it's something that I see the value in so much and want to keep practicing.
Russ Roberts: But, what about in terms of what you heard while you were listening? Is there any lasting effect do you think from that time there?
Lamorna Ash: God, so much of it was--I think--okay, maybe the thing that I learned most from anything in Cornwall was the time I spent with Lofty and Denise, which was actually about something not so fishing, but it was just about how to love people well and how to share space together.
So, what I learnt from Denise and Lofty was actually, while sitting, watching TV, having our dinners on trays, was that they--their love isn't about--maybe it's about back-row, front-row kids again: It's not about the biggest things that you can share and how intelligent you are and having to constantly tell everyone about that.
It's about the way you treat each other and the small jokes and the nonsense, boring conversations you have together and how that can sometimes be the best foundation parts of a relationship. I think I come from this big university and sort of thought that everything was about knowledge and everything was about intellect. And it was really amazing to realize it wasn't. And, actually the small jokes and those little conversations are the best ones.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Lamorna Ash. Her book is Dark, Salt, Clear. Lamorna, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Lamorna Ash: Thank you so much. It's been so interesting and to hear more about the economic side of things as well. It's been really useful. Thank you.