Sooner or later everyone who writes about fishermen refers to them as ‘a breed apart’. I’ve probably done it myself – certainly Gavin Knight does it a few pages into his exploration of a part of Cornwall that is sometimes regarded as the ‘most treacherous stretch of coast’ in the country.
But what does ‘a breed apart’ usefully mean? Unlike, say, monks or Catholic priests, fishermen have wives and children, homes and mortgages, and bills to pay, however patchy their performance in fulfilling these duties may be. Their alleged apartness actually lies in their doing work that takes them away from home for extended periods and is extremely arduous and unsocial – but which they much prefer to any other kind of work.
There is a strong temptation for those describing the fishing life – who themselves would not last ten minutes before the mast – to romanticise it and the men who live it. Knight falls hook, line and sinker for that temptation, if I may use the phrase. But luckily for