We are surely living through a golden age for literary non-fiction, spearheaded by (but by no means restricted to) the much-hyped “new nature writing”.
The Swordfish And The Star by Gavin Knight | Chatto & Windus, £16.99
But as is often the case with golden ages, where the true masters of the form lead, hordes of imitators tend to follow, and a sort of standard formula emerges. Master prose stylists like Robert Macfarlane and Geoff Dyer have developed highly distinctive voices, but much of the rest of the work in this burgeoning genre – yes, even some of the best of it – seems to speak in the same, largely interchangeable voice: polite, middle-class, eloquent yet never over-showy, endlessly self-deprecating where one occasionally feels it necessary to mention one’s own exploits. All of which makes Gavin Knight’s new book a hugely refreshing dunk in the ocean.
Knight’s debut, Hood Rat, was an exploration of UK gun and gang crime, and he researched it by spending two years with criminals and police officers in various British cities. He has taken a similarly immersive approach to The Swordfish And The Star, conducting extensive interviews with the fishermen and their families living on the Penwith Peninsula – “Cornwall’s most dangerous stretch of coast”, according to the book’s subtitle. As with Hood Rat, Knight once again eschews the standard formula for writing early 21st century literary non-fiction, and instead absorbs the distinctive speech patterns of his protagonists into his own writing, to the extent that the line between reported speech and narrative voice is frequently blurred beyond recognition.
This works best when he is telling the tales of the fishermen themselves – particularly Martin “Nutty Noah” Ellis, who helped kickstart the market for Cornish sardines in the 1990s through his experiments with an old-fashioned fishing technique known as ring netting, but eventually retired in 2004, £96,000 in debt, while others cashed in.
It is less effective – and the book as a whole starts to lose its way – when Knight moves on to look at the artistic community around St Ives and the success of the Spider Eye animation company in St Just. Apart from anything else, the fishermen have far better stories. There are problems, too, when Knight adopts colloquial generalisations like “The locals are all on minimum wage” (what, every single one of them?)
For pushing at the boundaries of what non-fiction writing can achieve, however, and unearthing some fascinating social history to boot, Knight is to be applauded.