Life on the Edge

6 February 2011

A dozen years ago I wrote a book called Life on the Edge, and as I was a struggling freelance writer at the time, the inspiration for the book stemmed partly from an empty bank account. The idea was pitched to Hutton Press, a small press based near Hull that specialised in local interest books and particularly anything to do with fishing. Charles Brooke, the enigmatic Aberdonian who ran the company with his wife, Dee, snapped the idea up and, to my surprise, I had to get to work quickly.
The premise was that I would do eight or nine trips to sea and write a colourful account of what went on and describe the lives of the fishermen on these different vessels. It didn’t turn out quite as easy as I had expected. One skipper/owner repeatedly gave me the run-around. ‘We’ll be in on Tuesday next. Give me a call then, and we’ll see what we can do,’ he’d say. But come Tuesday next, he’d be nowhere to be found, until someone else whispered to me that he’d had a bad experience with a film crew who had sold the footage to an environmental organisation, didn’t really want a passenger with a camera and was too polite to say no.

Hard at work on a museum-piece powerbook in the Carisanne's galley.

Eight trips finally became five. I spent a day with Paul Joy on his netter Sandra from Hastings, an old boat with three bilge pumps and no liferaft, and a day with Steve Dell on the Sophie-Jayne, cockle fishing from Leigh-on-Sea. Those were the easy ones, day trips fairly close to home.
Next was a week at sea with Andrew Leadley and his crew on the Carisanne at the end of the summer in perfect sunny weather, sailing from Whitby and ending the trip in Scarborough. Sailing in the autumn with George West and his crew on the Courage for a mackerel trip wasn’t so comfortable, straight from the Broch into the teeth of a northerly gale that died away as we reached the fishing grounds. I had expected to be away a week at the most, but it wasn’t until we had made three landings in Norway – Måløy, Ålesund and finally in Sirevåg – that I still had the long drive home from Fraserburgh ahead. The last trip was with David Stevens and his son, also David, on the Crystal Sea from the Cornish port of Newlyn, which was something of a jaunt down memory lane.
All of the skippers and the crews I sailed with to write Life on the Edge were real gentlemen, happy to take an inquisitive writer – albeit a former fisherman himself – to sea and to answer plenty of questions, both daft and otherwise.

Life on the Edge, the last book published by Hutton Press

But then came the harder part, writing the book. In fact, it wasn’t hard. None of the fishermen I’d sailed with had been shy in speaking about their lives and work. The manuscript went off to Charles Brooke at Hutton Press and a few weeks later proofs arrived. The book was finally published, a year behind schedule, in 2001, the last book published by Hutton Press.
A few months later, Charles Brooke, by now not a well man and recently widowed, called it a day and shut the shop. To this day, I don’t know what happened to him, or the company’s stock. There was no publicity, it didn’t get a lot of attention, and once that first modest royalty cheque had appeared, that was it. The amount of money that Life on the Edge generated was miniscule. I’d certainly have made more money if I’d have stayed ashore and moonlighted as a window cleaner on Saturday mornings instead.
I hadn’t even thought about the book for years and it was only when someone who was commenting on Frozen Out had clearly done some digging and mentioned LotE that it came to mind again. Writing it was an enormously enjoyable experience. Although I’d spent long enough at sea myself, this was the first time that I had been able to be on a boat and concentrate on words and pictures instead of having to work just when anything interesting was happening.
It was a privilege to meet some of these fascinating people and there were some unforgettable sights, low-lying clouds painted brilliant orange by the rigs of the Beryl Oil Field gas burning off gas, and steaming past the Wolf Rock lighthouse in bright morning sunshine and with the weather chasing us in.

There’s a gallery of pictures here that includes some from LotE

And a few more fishy pictures from the old days

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