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Catching words like fish

Kate waddon

There’s a small, black building on The Wharf in St Ives. Rose Lodge is one of three surviving fishermen’s lodges in the town; a squat cabin with a million-dollar view, used for over a century as a social centre. And it’s the setting for my first Feed.

St Ives September Festival has a programme of talks. One of which, held at Rose Lodge and described as a conversation between historian Tony Farrell and Creative Director of the Leach Pottery Jack Doherty, reeled me in. I love social history. I quite like pots. I want to see inside that building.

I’m not the only one. Some two-dozen of us cram ourselves around a little wood-burner in a space the size of a domestic living room (I have resisted any sardine-based metaphors). Tony stands beside the central hearth like a traditional Irish seanchai, Jack leans in the doorway. The two men speak of their Cornish-Irish upbringings, shared heritages, and influences.

The lodge, Tony tells us, is “a kitchen made by men”. It was here the fishermen came – and still do – to mend nets and talk in the warmth of fire and company.

“More fish have been caught in this lodge than ever were out there”

No alcohol, no gambling, and no bad language. There’s a swear box. Women weren’t banned: they just didn’t go there. Tony remembers visiting as a child. “Kids were tolerated, not welcomed.” The rules were never written down; they just happened. The men played dominoes and cards, and talked. “More fish have been caught in this lodge than ever were out there”, says Tony, gesturing towards the harbour. Photos of fishermen line the walls; my friend scans the old faces for family features.

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This community history inspired Jack to create Waypoint, an exhibition of porcelain vessels. The cup is the most intimate vessel we have, he explains: we hold it close, we touch it with our lips. At work, we prefer to use our own. He has crafted a series of cups, each with its own character, like the men who drank their tea here. Except they didn’t. According to Tony, there was a curious aversion to warming beverages.

“This space feels fragile”, says Jack. It does. There are few fishermen left. To many, it’s not a community space, it’s real-estate. It’s a blot on the postcard-pretty wharf.

There is call among its supporters for the lodge to be listed, and perhaps used as a heritage centre.

Oral storytelling has an immediacy and an intimacy that is very hard to replicate.

Much as they aim to preserve the space without turning it into a living history cliché, I’m struggling to capture the richness of the language I heard without creating a pastiche. Oral storytelling has an immediacy and an intimacy that is very hard to replicate. The challenge that faces a writer aiming to recreate a voice, is the challenge of authenticity. I envy Jack’s talents, stimulated by the stories to create tangible artworks.

I look at my scribbles from Tony and Jack’s words (my handwriting is dreadful). It seems to me that if I want to maintain the integrity of the words I heard in Rose Lodge, I should use my own voice. I take elements of their words and weave them in. Like oral storytellers across time and cultures, the really authentic way is to retell it yourself, just borrowing from the “word-hoard”, as the Saxons beautifully called it.

The balance between finding a genuine voice and slipping into mimicry is a delicate one, and one I come across every day while writing for clients. I shall use Tony’s stories to practice walking this wire. The building itself needs to find its own balance. I’ll keep listening out for its ongoing story.

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  1. Roger Bridgman

    This is a lovely piece of writing, Kate, though I must admit I had to look up seanchai. And you are so right to say that to tell a story you must be your own storyteller, not an imitation of the one you heard it from. Thanks for introducing me to Stranger Collective.

    Nov 11, 2015 @ 10:43 am

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