Fish tales

Biographers don’t, on the whole, invent their subjects’ conversations, or freely paraphrase their subjects’ writings without attribution; but journalists are allowed to take liberties and Little does with great effect. The story opens with a meeting between poet Henry Lawson and fisherman Ike Warren in 1910 in Mallacoota. ‘The friends rowed on the freshwater lake, walked to Cape Howe to savour the smell of sea wrack, shipwreck and whale, moon at the ocean, delight at skirling seabirds, and shout poetry to the wind.’ What follows is an engaging saga full of drama, stacked with tall tales and salty yarns—after all it is about fishing!

This is a biography of the exploits of five generations of the Warren family who earned a gruelling living fishing out of Eden on the south coast of New South Wales. Little took a tent to Eden and camped there for days chatting with current members and absorbing the flavour—and it shows. The founders, Ike and his brother Bob, earned a living by hand-line fishing, starting with a 28-foot open boat and venturing out in all weathers. They beach-hauled salmon. Catching fish was rarely a problem, selling them for a decent price was something else.

Career opportunities for working families in Eden were limited. The family fortunes depended entirely upon the fishing. When the catch was low the families survived on home-grown vegetables and oysters collected along the beaches. When the fish were running, the children skipped school to join in.

As the years progressed their sons and grandsons became fishermen, built and bought bigger boats and ventured further out crossing the Bass Strait and moving into Tasmania. New techniques were developed, spotting schools of fish from small planes, using purse seining nets and eventually huge boats using satellites and computers.

Along the way there were encounters with Japanese submarines, storms, shipwrecks, record catches, bitter disappointments, fights with other fishermen and finally increasing government regulation as the huge schools of southern blue fin were almost fished out. This is the Warrens’ own story; they were tough and fought for their business every step of the way. This is not a forum for an environmental analysis of the impact of fishing or the politics of fishing.

It is a story about survival.

As the work is based on memories of differing generations the narrative keeps sliding about. The inclusion of a family tree, some wonderful photographs and some bush-style poetry help to cement it together. All those with sea fever and all those who can recall reciting John Masefield’s ‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by’, will resonate with this account. 

Jane Mayo Carolan is currently writing a biography of an Australian businessman, Sir Henry Beaufort Somerset.

Down to the sea: The true saga of an Australian fishing dynasty, John Little.
Pan Macmillan, 2004. isbn 1 405 03605 2, rrp $30




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