In Stornoway, says author Ian Stephen, in his soft and sibilant tones, ‘people will talk forever about fish’.
He was here in Charlotte Square, still talking about fish, but also weaving through friendships, Harris tweed, Hebridean life and Hebridean life’s end – the stuff of his acclaimed debut novel A Book of Death and Fish. If that sounds a little bit serious, the author Sarah Baume (spill simmer falter wither), who shared this hour with Ian, just announced that she doesn’t think she could write a happy book. Thank goodness, then, that we were blessed with the invaluable Peggy Hughes, one of the best and most cheerful chairpersons at the festival, to navigate our way through this maelstrom of emotion – and in fact, despite the odds, we ended up having quite a few laughs.
In the Outer Hebrides the centrality of fish is hardly surprising; fishing has always dominated the economy, and even in decline it is still a major employer. Fishing here isn’t just about commerce; it is in the blood. The narrator in Ian’s book doesn’t, for the most part, work in the industry, but that doesn’t stop him; Peter McCaulay is obsessed with fish from an early age;
‘She (his mother) remembered I was always buried in angling books. Catalogues from Abu, Sweden. When I was young I’d show her photos of astonishing and exotic pike and perch from Swedish and Finnish lakes. This fish pornography had taken over from Enid Blyton.’
Fishing is one of the currencies of this story; if Peter isn’t doing it, he’s joining the coastguard service to rescue other people who’ve been caught out doing it – or he’s just smelling it on the wind. He’s also rather fond of eating it – prawns in front of his mother’s fire, or, much later, ‘a light fish broth with Erisort mussels and singed peppers’ eaten in a childhood friend’s grown-up home; a summer job as a commis chef, cooking trout; crab picked from the shell and shared with his mother and sister, just after his father’s death.
Even when he’s away from the water all together – working as a hospital porter on Lewis in a gap year, or at university in Aberdeen (the only thing we know about his garret in Cowie is that ‘it might have been possible to catch a sea trout from the window’) – Peter’s never far away from fish. After a life well lived (or is it?) Peter is now writing his will – and even that includes directions for a gurnard and mackerel funeral supper. As Peggy says, ‘fish form the scaffolding of this writing’.
If the bones (and flesh) of fish are one frame for this story, the warp and weft of the loom form another. Weaving, another mainstay of island life, is part of Peter’s childhood, his father having turned his back on the sea to make tweed. After his death, Peter finds his old pattern book;
‘..there were grids and letters, like a code…..All these single letters would amount to cloth.’
A Book of Death and Fish immerses you in its stories. Sometimes you feel almost overwhelmed, the huge cast of characters threatening to surge over your head and draw you down – then, just at the right moment, a tiny vignette will allow you to breathe. Peter as the boy of the boat, turning his back to allocate the shares of the catch; Peter the hopeful adolescent, hardly able to walk towards the local lovers’ lane thanks to the extended width of his flares; Peter’s mother, now a widow, on holiday with the family and eating tripe in a Sienna trattoria;
‘ “Ah dinna care fits aboot it, if it’s tripe ah can eat it” ‘
Fish have also played their part in Sara Baume’s life. Sara and her boyfriend moved to back to rural Ireland so that he could enjoy the shore angling, and again fishing has provided a currency – this time a way to get to know the locals. Sara had ‘arty dreams’ of country life, but after seven years in Dublin she at first found it hard and isolating, ‘people were suspicious of us’. Fishing gave them something to talk about in the pub.
One of the main characters in spill simmer falter wither is a dog – a rescue dog living with a lonely man – and again Sara has drawn on life experience. She and her partner had moved just as the Irish economy plummeted; they had no money, no jobs and ‘no reason to do things’ – until Sara rescued her own dog. The need to look after him gave a structure to their days, just as One Eye becomes a foil for Ray, the narrator, someone for him to talk to or talk at. A man who has ‘fallen through the gaps’ , who ‘is not the kind of person who can do things’ befriends a delinquent dog that no-one else wants; ‘they are both lost and found’. Sara originally started the story in One Eye’s voice, but that didn’t work, ‘dogs don’t know enough’, so instead One Eye becomes Ray’s confidant; talking to the dog rather than simply in his head meant the narrator’s voice was forced to become more articulate.
The small details of life are as valuable to Sara as to Ian. How, asked Peggy, did Sara know what food Ray would choose to eat? (Back in Ireland people are even holding food parties based on the book).
‘It’s the tiny things that need to be attended to, the things that make up your day, the things that make a character human’.
Language is hugely important in both novels. Ian wanted to do for the Hebridean voice what James Kelman and Tom Leonard had done for the urban one, to get it into writing; Stornoway, he says, is ‘a linguistic community of hundreds’, although like Peter, Ian himself has both East coast and Western Isles heritage;
‘It’s the voices you hear and the voices you know’
Open any page of A Book of Death and Fish and in among its stories, its conversational style, are the pictures drawn with words. A fresh loaf of bread, picked at all the way home;
‘You found yourself pulling a bit, like with a scab. Instead of blood, steam would spill out’
And in the shop, salt herring;
‘…in the small barrel of bleached wood beside the ha’penny of spongy goodies. That was just the word we used. It sounded childish when a visitor said sweetie’.
In spill simmer falter wither Sara’s prose sometimes has a dreamlike quality. One Eye’s muzzle is ‘trembling over the moths and the coal dust’, Ray asks him if he can ‘see through the curtains to the outlines of the moon?’
Ray, she said, learned his language mostly from books and the radio. He does not sound like a ‘typical’ Irishman, and this difference is another way of pointing up his isolation.
Both writers have been surprised and pleased with the response to their novels. Ian has been moved by how much work people have put into the book; everyone makes something different of it. Although his own life has much in common with Peter’s, he’s amused when people think it’s completely autobiographical;
‘ “I never knew you had an affair with that woman!” ‘
Sara has found that local people who still don’t know her that well will come and talk to her about spill simmer falter wither; ‘The wife read it’.
One of the themes of both books, Peggy suggested, is the fact that we can never really know someone. As the years flow past, Peter’s perception of his father and even of his old friends, changes, just as Ray starts to find out more about himself in his one-way conversations with One Eye. Similarly, what readers take from books is not always what authors intended – if they intended anything. Sara and Ian agree that characters take on voices of their own, that they have to be allowed their own space.
People and places, connection and isolation;
‘I’d been fed stories with my milk and then with tea and three sugars. I couldn’t see it then but it’s pretty clear now; it’s all about stories.’ (Peter MacAulay: A Book of Death and Fish).
A Book of Death and Fish by Ian Stephen is published by Saraband.
spill simmer falter wither by Sara Baume is published by Tramp Press.