The Swordfish and the Star by Gavin Knight
(The Bodley Head, 2016)

The Swordfish and the Star

by Gavin Knight

The west of Cornwall is remote. It’s the end of the train line. Newlyn, near the southwestern tip of the peninsula, is the largest deep sea fishing harbour in England. It’s a place of contrasts, picture-postcard perfect, with some of the most violent pubs in the country and boxes for disposal of used heroin-needles in every public toilet. Since the late nineteenth century, the fishing industry there has been dominated by a single family, the Stevensons, who run the tiny city like a feudal port, and own the fish auction as well as the largest fleet of beam trawlers.

As Gavin Knight says in the introduction to his extraordinary new book, we associate Cornwall with myths and legends and holidays by the seaside. But the place we escape to is also the place where we confront things about ourselves, both individually and collectively. Cornwall has a huge percentage of second homes, and some of the highest house-prices in the UK, despite being the country’s poorest region. The area also has the highest incidence of death from heroin overdose of anywhere in the country outside Liverpool.

In The Swordfish and the Star, Gavin will tell the stories of Cornish people from every level of society. A crabber sets sail for France with an aristocrat on board, who turns out to be a fugitive from justice. Spanish drug dealers leave smack in lobster pots off the coast for collection. A painter who messed around with a fisherman’s wife is found dead at the bottom of a tin mine. In the harbour, homeless squatters live on the forgotten cruisers of far-away city traders. These stories build into a vivid evocation of life under a huddle of grey roofs at the edge of the sea at the beginning of the 21st century.

Reviews

This is a marvelous and humane book about Cornwall - and unusual: a travel book with no 'I' - rather the traveler as a silent observer and patient listener. It is Cornish life as told by its people - fishermen, farmers, publicans, singers, brawlers, historians, drunks, old-timers, newcomers, and even D H Lawrence and King Arthur.”
- Paul Theroux
Knight has gone in search of old smells and danger and found them in spades. There are extraordinarily evocative stories here, of the mad bravado of scarred, de-fingered fishermen and the stoicism of their women... As a cross-section of west Cornish lives, a celebration of brave eccentricity and a prose illustration of the way those lives overlap and interrelate, The Swordfish and the Star takes some beating”
- Patrick Gale, the Guardian
The Swordfish and the Star is a fine, and at times really beautiful, book. It has a tough no-nonsense prose style that I very much admire. A style that entirely fits the lives of the people it is about, people who live tough lives where the land meets the sea at the far end of Cornwall. There are too few books that tell, so respectfully and truthfully, the stories of the men and women that make a living from the land and the sea”
- James Rebanks, author of The Shepherd's Life
An alternative perspective, telling the stories of the fishermen who work on this treacherous stretch of coast, tales gathered over two years of interviews, many conducted in the Swordfish and Star of the title”
- Tom Robbins, Financial Times Books of the Year
A terrific new book about a hard and dangerous way of life”
- Esquire, Book of the Year
[Knight] is as adept with words as his hero Nutty Noah the Cadgwith ring-netter is with a shoal of pilchards ... exhilarating”
- Tom Fort, Literary Review
The Swordfish and the Star gets top rating for its often searing honesty and its portrayal of fallibility in a harsh, unforgiving world... a terrific read... remarkable”
- Des Hannigan, Western Morning News, Devon
The reading public has become interested in the social anthropology of our relationship with nature and a slew of authors has explored the interdependence of people and the natural world. The best give us a language to read the world around us... This helps explain what's different and admirable about The Swordfish and the Star... Knight does immersive journalism. This account of the lives of the fishing community on both sides of the Penwith Peninsula is driven by personal anecdote... the obsessive, personal tangle with the sea in search of fishy riches, the fortunes made, the lives lost, the courage and recklessness”
- Will Cohu, Oldie
A hugely refreshing dunk in the ocean ... fascinating”
- Roger Cox, Scotland on Sunday
A genuine and powerful insight into the lives of people who brave the sea for a living”
- Choice Magazine