Thursday, 29 October 2009

MENDING NETS

When there were still men working full time and making a living from the fishing in my village there was a lot of net mending going on. On the foreshore some of the poles are still standing where the fishermen strung their nets between tides to mend them. Now they are used as washing lines. I suspect thay always had a secondary use as washing lines even in the busiest days of the fishing. They must have been a point of conflict between fishing man and washing woman. The one or two fishermen who were still mending nets here in the sixties were very deft. The needles, somebody somewhere must still be selling netting needles but I have not seen one for an age, flashed in and out of the net and the quickness of the hand deceived the eye. Before the nets were mended they had to be cleared. All manner of unwanted flesh and weed was plucked out of the mesh and left to rot in the sun. The flesh was mostly dead crab which on a summer’s day were soon reeking to heaven and smelling of death and corruption. Horse mackerel and other unwanted fish added to the stink on the shingle but the tides came and went and cleansed the beach and washed away all vile things so that the nets might be cleared once more.

To have a hole in a salmon seine is to court disaster. The salmon is a clever fish and he will find that hole and be away before you can pull in the net. He will even leap over the head lines or dive under the lead lines if there is any snag or irregularity to the net or if a crew is careless. It was a matter of pride with the old fishermen that all their nets should be without kinks, twists, gaps or holes,

Net mending was one of those activities that permitted a man to talk to his idle neighbours. I remember listening to my skipper’s old father while he worked away with his needle. He was in his seventies and had a good line in philosophy and would make a strong case for the quality of his life and work. He knew well enough that the age of the inshore fishermen like himself was coming to an end and that he had seen to best of it but he believed that his had been a good life, better than many lives that would be lived in the new age. He remembered when there had been a dozen men mending nets on the Hard in Lympstone, talking the tide up, but now he was the last of them. He had been working at the fishing day and night, ebb and flood, since he was a boy and he remembered going out to catch the herring in the days when they swarmed around the Devon coast. He remembered to a fish what catches they had made and to a penny what rewards they had enjoyed for their labours. He had sailed and motored in green seas and had netted more herring than the stars in the sky. I found him working at the nets in the evening of the day that his twin brother was buried and we talked while the tide crept in. He was philosophising about life and death and telling the history of the twin brother that he had lost and talking again of the weather that was coming and of the scarcity of salmon and the price of eels.

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