Caught by the River

The Swordfish and the Star

Mathew Clayton | 25th June 2016

Jacket - The Swordfish and The Star The Swordfish and the Star: Life on Cornwall’s most treacherous stretch of coast by Gavin Knight (Chatto & Windus, hardcover, 256 pages. Out now.)

Review by Mathew Clayton

Martin’s boat is sinking…

‘He knocked the engine out of gear, climbed out of the wheelhouse and waded towards the stern. To clear the net he had to hurl himself far out to sea. The shock of the freezing water hit him. It was a bitter, icy December, just before midnight. It was very dark, cloudy; miles away in the distance car headlights glinted, on their way from Mousehole to Penzance.

The Penrose lay on her side, engine still running. Ford, 120 horsepower.

As he swam away, he felt a rope drag him back. It was caught round his foot, and as he turned in the water it skidded up his leg and wound round his groin. He yelled out to the others. He couldn’t get it off. Fuck. He heard the sound of the exhaust, running chom, chom, chom, chom. Screams cut the air above his head – he glimpsed gulls wheeling in the dark. The decklights were still on underwater. It was an eerie light. Sachets of fluorescent dye had spilled into the sea round the wheelhouse. The water was full of weird colours, lights and noise, like a rave.’

Martin is Martin Ellis, better known to his friends as Nutty Noah, a crabber from Cadgwith on the Lizard Peninsula whose adventures are at the heart of a new book by Gavin Knight about Cornish fishermen. Gavin spent two years embedding himself within the fishing community; the Swordfish and the Star of the title are neighbouring pubs in Newlyn Bay. The result is a gripping piece of reportage that often reads like a crime novel… ‘Eddie the Ice died when a three-quarter-inch towing line snapped and took off his head with a noise like a bass string being plucked’.

To write, what you could argue is a local interest book, in the style of David Simon is ambitious, but Knight’s book is a triumph. He has produced something that beautifully captures the wild west spirit of the Cornish people. What makes it even more impressive is that the subject matter is so different from his debut Hood Rats – a bestselling book about teenage gangs. At the heart of both books is Knight’s ability to search out great characters and then let them do the talking. There is little about Cornwall’s long and noble history: instead the focus is on contemporary events and people.

Highly recommended. I can’t wait to see what he does next.


Mathew joins our stage at Port Eliot Festival this summer, where he’ll give a talk titled ‘Kling Klang: The History of the Cowbell’.

Mathew Clayton on Caught by the River/on Twitter