Review by Mary Chamberlain
The Last Hunters: The Crab Fishermen of Cromer
by Candy Whittome and David Morris, with a foreword by Blake Morrison
The title of this excellent and moving account of Norfolk crab fishermen is not an idle metaphor, but a description from Keith Shaul, at sixty-four one of the oldest of the fishermen still active in the industry.
We’re the last hunters, I suppose, fishermen. People who say they go out there purely and simply for the money, I don’t think they’re being totally honest. Probably they might have started off like that, but why are they still there when the catches are low? I think that’s what it is; we’re the last hunters.
Keith ran away to sea when he was fifteen. It was a kind of destiny – his grandfather, too, had been to sea all his life – but it became an addiction, for the sea made him come alive, ‘complete’. This dual theme, destiny and addiction, is reiterated throughout the interviews in this collection. More often than not, the fishermen came from fishing families. Going to sea was expected of them, and by the time many of them left school they were already seasoned hands. Some started off on the trawlers before settling for the hazardous life of a crab fisherman. Others began on their fathers’ boats. Other themes emerge as the narratives unfold. The work is dangerous, financially precarious. They gamble with their lives, and their incomes daily. ‘Every next pot is a potential gold mine,’ Johnny Seago remarks. ‘You don’t know what’s coming next, even the worst days can be turned around with a couple of good pots.’
These are not men to enter into a syndicate; to compete with each other is the essence of their own survival. If they are hunters, as Keith Shaul suggests, they do not hunt in a pack. ‘Everyone,’ as Paul Daniels says, ‘is out for themselves:
The fishermen won’t work together. We said it years ago, if we’d all got together and said, ‘This is the price the crabs have got to be, all over’, you’d get a good price for them, everyone would have got the same. But there’s always someone who would undercut. No one will stick together.
The environment is tough in other ways, for the sea is a hard and unpredictable taskmaster. Hunting and gambling, competition and danger – the rush of adrenalin is palpable. Yet these men know the sea better than anyone, they don’t take unnecessary risks and, for all their individualism and competitiveness, there is an irreducible element of camaraderie, people ‘look out for one another,’ give time to the lifeboat, grieve collectively when a fisherman is lost, for the fishing community is small and tight-knit. The toll on families is high. The men are aware of that: many have had marriages break up and watch as their children turn their backs on the way of life. The lucky ones have wives who muck in, diversify the family resources into retail and ancillary activities. Others are loners.
In many ways, The Last Hunters confirms much that we know of communities where a sole employment dominates and shapes lives. Yet the interviews sparkle and surprise. This is old-fashioned oral history at its best, accompanied by a remarkable set of photographic portraits by David Morris of the individuals concerned and of the elements in which they operate. While the emphasis on the book is on the fishermen – and they are all men – their wives, mothers and daughters talk too, as well as a supporting cast of boat repairer, fish shop owner, fisheries conservation officer, pastor. The result is a rounded and stunning study of this specialist industry and the particular, integrated society it engenders which, as the interviews unfold, teeters at the edge of terminal decline.
There is a danger with books such as this that they are an exercise in nostalgia. Yet the fishermen are far from nostalgic, embracing unsentimentally new technology when useful, lambasting the regulations and bureaucracy which controls them, accepting that their sons are unlikely to follow them. All of these men have argued that the sea was a compulsion for them and in a timely post-script, the author strikes an optimistic note. Catches are improving and much-needed subsidies likely to be forthcoming. If fishing once again becomes a viable way of life, these fishermen’s sons, and perhaps daughters, could well, like their fathers and generations before them, choose to follow the sea again.
This is a beautifully produced book from Full Circle Editions which specialises in publishing fine, illustrated books from writers and artists in the East of England. The Last Hunters is more than a coffee-table book; it is a delight, an informative and touching portrait of a unique way of life.
Full Circle Editions £25.00 ISBN 978-0-9571528-0-9