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An essay by Robert Lynd

The Herring Fleet

Title:     The Herring Fleet
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

The last spectacle of which Christian men are likely to grow tired is a harbour. Centuries hence there may be jumping-off places for the stars, and our children's children's and so forth children may regard a ship as a creeping thing scarcely more adventurous than a worm. Meanwhile, every harbour gives us a sense of being in touch, if not with the ends of the universe, with the ends of the earth. This, more than the entrance to a wood or the source of a river or the top of a bald hill, is the beginning of infinity. Even the dirtiest coal-boat that lies beached in the harbour, a mere hulk of utilities that are taken away by dirty men in dirty carts, will in a day or two lift itself from the mud on a full tide and float away like a spirit into the sunset or curtsy to the image of the North Star. Mystery lies over the sea. Every ship is bound for Thule. That, perhaps, is why men are content day after day to stand on the pier-head and to gaze at the water and the ships and sailors running up and down the decks and pulling the ropes of sails.

We may have no reason for pretending to ourselves that the fishing-boats are ships of dreams setting out on infinite voyages. But, none the less, even in a fishing village there is always a congregation of watching men and women on the pier. Every day the crowd collects to see the harbour awake into life with the bustle of men about to set out among the nations of the fishes. By day the boats lie side by side in the harbour--stand side by side, rather, like horses in a stable. There are two rows of them, making a camp of masts on the shallow water. In other parts of the harbour white gigs are bottomed on the sand in companies of two and three. As the tide slowly rises, the masts which have been lying over on one side in a sleepy stillness begin to stir, then to sway, until with each new impulse of the sea all the boats are dancing, and soon the whole harbour is awake and merry as if every mast were a steeple with a peal of bells. It is not long till the fishermen arrive. One meets them in every cobbled lane. How magnificent the noise made by a man in sea-boots on the stones! Surely, he strikes sparks from the road. He thumps the ground as with a hammer. The earth rings. One has seen those boots in the morning hanging outside the door of his house while he slept. They have been oiled, and left there to dry. They have kept the shape of his limb and the crook of his knee in an uncanny way. They look as though he had taken off his legs before going into the house and hung them on the wall. But the fisherman is a hero not only in his boots. His sea-coat is no less magnificent. This may be of oil-skin yellow or of maroon or of stained white or of blue, with a blue jersey showing under it, and, perhaps, a red woollen muffler or a scarf with green spots on a red ground round his throat. He has not learned to be timid of colour. Even out of the mouths of his boots you may see the ends of red knitted leggings protruding. His yellow or black sou'-wester roofing the back of his neck, he comes down to harbour, as splendid as a figure at a fair. And always, when he arrives, he is smoking a pipe. As one watches him, one wonders if anybody except a fisherman, as he looks out over the harbour, knows how to smoke. He has made tobacco part of himself, like breathing.

If the tide is already full the fishermen are taken off in small rowing-boats, most of them standing, and the place is busy with a criss-cross of travelling crews till the fishing-boats are all manned. If the water is not yet deep, however, most of the men walk to their boats, lumbering through the waves, and occasionally jumping like a wading girl as a larger wave threatens the tops of their boots. Many of them carry their supper in a basket or a handkerchief. The first of the boats begins to move out of its stall. It is tugged into the clear water, and the fishermen put out long oars and row it laboriously to the mouth of the harbour and the wind. It is followed by a motor-boat, and another, and another. There are forty putting up their sails like one. The harbour moves. One has a sense as of things liberated. It is as though a flock of birds were being loosed into the air--as though pigeon after pigeon were being set free out of a basket for home. Lug-sail after lugsail, brown as the underside of a mushroom, hurries out among the waves. A green little tub of a steamboat follows with insolent smoke. The motor-boats hasten out like scenting dogs. Every sort of craft--motor-boat, gig, lugger and steamboat--makes for sea, higgledy-piggledy in a long line, an irregular procession of black and blue and green and white and brown. Here, as in the men's clothes, the paint-pots have been spilled.

There is nothing more sociable than a fishing-fleet. The boats overtake each other, like horses in a race. They gallop in rivalry. But for the most part they keep together, and move like a travelling town over the sea. As likely as not they will have to come back out of the storm into the shelter of the bay, and they will ride there till nightfall, when every boat becomes a lamp and every sail a shadow. In the darkness they hang like a constellation on the oily water. They become a company of dancing stars. Every now and then a boat moves off on a quest of its own. It is as though the firmament were shaken. One hears the kick-kick-kick of the motor, and a star has become a will-o'-the-wisp. These lights can no more keep still than a playground of children. They always make a pattern on the water, but they never make the same pattern. Sometimes they lengthen themselves against the sandy shore on the far side of the bay into a golden river. Sometimes they huddle together into a little procession of monks carrying tapers....

One goes down to the harbour after breakfast the next morning to see what has been the result of the night's fishing. One does not really need to go down. One can see it afar off. There is movement as at the building of a city. On every boat men are busy emptying the nets, disentangling the fish that have been caught by the gills, tumbling them in a liquid mass into the bottom of the boat. One can hardly see the fish separately. They flow into one another. They are a pool of quick-silver. One is amazed, as the disciples must have been amazed at the miraculous draught. Everything is covered with their scales. The fishermen are spotted as if with confetti. Their hands, their brown coats, their boots are a mass of white-and-blue spots. The labourers with the gurries--great blue boxes that are carried like Sedan-chairs between two pairs of handles--come up alongside, and the fish are ladled into the gurries from tin pans. As each gurry is filled the men hasten off with it to where the auctioneer is standing. With the help of a small notebook and a lead pencil he auctions it before an outsider can wink, and the gurry is taken a few yards further, where women are pouring herrings into barrels. They, too, are covered with fish-scales from head to foot. They are dabbled like a painter's palette. So great is the haul that every cart in the country-side has come down to lend a hand. The fish are poured into the carts over the sides of the boats like water. Old fishermen stand aside and look on with a sense of having wasted their youth. They recall the time when they went fishing in the North Sea and had to be content to sell their catch at a shilling and sixpence a cran--a cran being equal to four gurries, or about a thousand herrings. Who is there now who would sell even a hundred herrings for one and sixpence? Who is there who would sell a hundred herrings for ten and sixpence? Yet one gig alone this morning has brought in fourteen thousand herrings. No wonder that there is an atmosphere of excitement in the harbour. No wonder that the carts almost run over you as they make journey after journey between boat and barrel. No wonder that three different sorts of sea-gulls--the herring gull, the lesser black-headed gull, and the black-backed gull--have gathered about us in screaming multitudes and fill the air like a snowstorm. Every child in the town seems to be making for home with its finger in a fish's mouth, or in two fishes' mouths, or in three fishes' mouths. Artists have hurried down to the harbour, and have set up their easels on every spot that is not already occupied by a fish barrel or an auctioneer or a man with a knife in his teeth preparing to gut a dogfish. The town has lost its head. It has become Midas for the day. Every time it opens its mouth a herring comes out. A doom of herrings has come upon us. The smell rises to heaven. It is as though we were breathing fish-scales. Even the pretty blue overalls of the children have become spotted. Everywhere barrels and boxes have been piled high. We are hoisting them on to carts--farm carts, grocers' carts, coal carts, any sort of carts. We must get rid of the stuff at all costs. Anything to get it up the hill to the railway station. The very horses are frenzied. They stick their toes into the hill and groan. The drivers, excited with cupidity as they think of all the journeys they will be able to make before evening, bully them and beat them with the end of the reins. Their eyes are excited, their gestures impatient. They fill the town with clamour and smell. It is an occasion on which, as the vulgar say, they wouldn't call the Queen their aunt....

This, I fancy, is where all the romance of the sea began--in the story of a greedy man and a fresh herring. The ship was a symbol of man's questing stomach long before it was a symbol of his questing soul. He was a hungry man, not a poet, when he built the first harbour. Luckily, the harbour made a poet of him. Sails gave him wings. He learned to traffic for wonders. He became a traveller. He told tales. He discovered the illusion of horizons. Perhaps, however, it is less the sailor than the ship that attracts our imagination. The ship seems to convey to us more than anything else a sense at once of perfect freedom and perfect adventure.

That is why we are content to stand on the harbour stones all day and watch anything with sails. We ourselves want to live in some such freedom and adventure as this. We are feeding our appetite for liberty as we gaze hungrily after the ships making their way out of harbour into the sea.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: The Herring Fleet