THE MAIN CAGES
Philip Marsden’s acclaimed travel books have covered Ethiopia, Armenia and Belorussia. The Main Cages may have a British setting – and take the form of a novel – but it is still very much a travelogue, exploring in intimate detail the geography, customs, joys and tragedies of a Cornish fishing community.
Jack Sweeney is a hero of the old-fashioned kind who arrives in the little town of Polmayne in the summer of 1934. A failure on land as a farmer, he discovers that he has a knack for harvesting the sea, and – graduating from lobster pots to his own fishing vessel – soon wins the respect of the townsfolk. When they honour him with an invitation to join the lifeboat crew, he finds himself called upon to risk death among the Main Cages, a treacherous set of rocks which challenge even the most experienced sailors.
Although its finale offers drama with a capital D, the bulk of the book is as low-key as a piano gathering barnacles in the Titanic’s saloon. The events chronicled are the stuff of small local newspapers: the town suffers a water shortage; a wall painting is uncovered in the church; a new hotel opens. Even when Jack falls in love with the wife of a visiting artist, the tempo barely quickens, while the chief interest of Mussolini’s war in Abyssinia is its effect on fish prices.
Marsden’s brilliance lies in his ability to make this unpromising material completely absorbing. Amassing details of tides, nets and seamanship, he creates a world so authentic that you feel as if you are leafing through a yellowing scrapbook. Equally beguiling is the sprawling cast of characters he presents: the old salt Whaler Cuffe with his fund of tall stories; obsessive Croyden Treneer, the Captain Ahab of the pilchard fleet; the monosyllabic Boy Johns, whose verdict on every incident, large or small, is an expressive ‘Eeee!’
The Main Cages is quite simply a joy to read. It is at once a memorable adventure, a moving love story, and an intriguing portrait of a changing way of life – and on every level, it succeeds magnificently.