Sunday, 14 March 2010
Fathers, Daughters, Lobsters
[Note: This post was originally published in August 2009 on my Sea of Immeasurable Gravy blog but it's more natural home is here on Fourth Plate as there will be a recurring theme of lobsters running throughout this blog.]
The Socks visited Padstow during their recent weekend away in the wet West country. Padstow, as well as being an extremely picturesque fishing village is famous for two things, Rick Stein's Seafood restaurant where we were lunching and the National Lobster Hatchery which has a deep significance for me.
My parents were Yorkshire born and bred, moving to Swansea as newly weds when my father was offered a lectureship at the University. Mum and Dad were modern day 'hunter gatherers' combining the thriftiness of their 'waste not want not' northern upbringing with the abundance of free food available on the Gower - designated the first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1956. As a family we lived an active outdoor life and soon found the best locations for the most luscious blackberries, wild damsons, cobnuts, flavourful mushrooms and anything else the countryside had to offer. My mother kept a bucket and shovel in the car boot, stopping what little traffic there was to scoop up horse droppings from the country roads for compost.
The sea at that time was teaming with life and we fished from the beaches for bass, sole and mackerel. Best of all was the cornucopia of shellfish - my parents caught fifty or sixty lobsters each summer and served them up with salad from the garden, or my favourite way with chips and Heinz salad cream. So many were caught and cooked that sometimes I would think "Oh no, not lobster again!". Crabs aplenty too, bartered for free parking at the beaches, swapped with friends for freshly caught fish, the picked crab meat served simply in a sandwich.
The lobstering was done the hard way not with a boat and lobster pots. On the days of the lowest tides, when the sea falls back and exposes the deepest dark holes and mysterious gullies, my parents would arm themselves with hooked poles and nets and stride out in the salt wind to the rocky outcrops of the Gower coast. It would be a real 'man versus nature' battle with a good chance that a canny lobster would refuse to budge from the back of his hole or use another exit route to escape and win the day. Initiated in 'the knowledge' by a local fisherman, within a few years my father had gained a mental map of the coastal rocks from Porteynon to Kilboidy identifying the holes and ledges most likely to yield a seafood supper. He gave names to them like 'Herbert's Hole' where waist high in a rising swell of water he had once fought against the largest lobster 'Herbert' who was reluctant to be dragged from the farthest recesses of the rocky hole by my fathers prodding, pulling hook. The battle lasted over half an hour with the tide rising all the while and the sea swells coming dangerously close to submerging my father. 'Herbert' was eventually wrested from his little cave, his enormous crushing and sawing claws - enough to take a man's fingers off - waving angrily as he joined some smaller catch in Dad's fishing bag.
My mother's speciality was crabbing, no less skilled but somewhat less dangerous as the crabs were most likely wedged under ledges where the water had cleared. I once watched in horrified fascination as an enormous conger eel slid past brushing her thigh as she waded down a water-filled gully. She didn't even bat an eyelid. My brother and I were given the job of prawning, finding the most likely rock pools and scraping our nets under the ledges and seaweed to scoop out fat, sweet prawns. Less exciting was my task of de-shelling the potloads of prawns after cooking - a chore that would take ages and leave my fingers sore and puckered.
My father continued fishing and lobstering throughout his life but sadly, as my brother and I both moved away, the 'knowledge' was never passed down the family. In any event the sea no longer brims with life and what there is will be taken by trawlers. The days of "Not lobster, again!" have gone.
As children we were always encouraged to be independent and whilst we were a close knit family sharing the outdoor activities when young, as the years went on we all did our own thing and any real family closeness or support was lost. The most famous line from the film 'Dirty Dancing' should be not "Nobody puts Baby in the corner" but the more apposite "I'm sorry I let you down Daddy - but you let me down too." I think the time I made my father most proud was when I returned home for a visit and we went fishing together. The evening sun and cloud formations produced a 'mackerel sky', a sure sign that fish would be about and we walked around the headland, scrambling down onto a rocky outcrop to spin for fish. A gentle tug at the line and a flaccid fightless movement would most likely mean the bite of the now popularized pollack, a watery-fleshed fish that we would probably throw back in. I felt a hard tug on the line, something was putting up a fight, thrashing about, churning the water, with rising excitement I played the fish on the line for a while reeling it in gently so as not to lose it and eventually landed a beautiful, silvery, frantically flapping, bass. Later, as we walked back along the cliff path evening strollers asked what we had caught. My father beamed with pride and replied "I just got a couple of mackerel but my daughter caught a bass!"
When my father died a few years ago my mother, with not a lack of love but a typical lack of sentimentality, wanted a fast funeral with no speeches. It was an overly religious service for a man who was an atheist and said nothing about the man himself, his life or his achievements. Neither would my mother let us scatter his ashes in the obvious place, to be carried on the wind over the farthest rocky headlands at Porteynon where he had spent so many happy and productive days. It left me feeling angry, sad and short-changed.
Then it came to me... a fitting tribute. At Padstow's Lobster Hatchery for a small donation you can adopt and name a baby lobster which will be released off the Cornish coast after a few years. Their site gives details of when and where the adoptees are liberated. I sent them a donation and adopted 'John Phillip' who was recently released off Newlyn. It makes me laugh to think "John Phillip swims with the fishes" and also that he may have already ended up on someone's seafood platter. If so, I do hope that whoever has eaten him enjoyed the lobster as much as my father did!
And what would my father think of this? He would no doubt roll his eyes and mutter "blithering idiot" his favourite description of his offspring.