The Main Cages by Philip Marsden

30/08/02, The Times Literary Supplement

Polmayne, Cornwall, 1930s. A small, loosely-knit coastal community, the contours of their lives drawn indelibly by the sea, live a slow, apparently unchanging life. It is dominated mostly by fishing and salvaging wrecks off their coast. Old men sit on Parliament Bench and make wry comments on everything, a veritable Greek chorus of this forgotten outpost of the farthest reaches of coastal Britain. The Tylers and the Stephenses are involved in a long-standing family feud; the Garrett brothers run a pleasure steamer, the Polmayne Queen, for offshore cruises; Croyden Treener’s heart is in fishing in the seas, the very thought of which his wife Maggie finds intolerable; blind Whaler Cuffe tells very tall tales, including one of a crab in the tropics ‘that would scamper up the palm trees and happily pick dates with his claws’. Jack Sweeney, newly arrived from Devon, hears the call of the sea, buys a boat and becomes a fisherman blessed with uncanny luck.

And just offshore, beyond Pendhu Point, lie the perilous and treacherous group of rocks, the Main Cages, around which, even  on the calmest of days, the waters rage and lash white. Many a ship has foundered and broken against them and Polmayne has reaped its benefits, from the baulk timber salvaged from a wreck which now formed the Parliament Bench to tins of salmon and peaches saved from the wreck of the Charbonnier, their labels all washed off so one didn’t know which tin one was opening.

But changes are in the air. Electricity arrives, the nascent tourism slowly blossoms to include holiday villas, new building projects and even a swish new hotel, Golden Sands, which robs the old one, Antalya, of its trade. A group of painters discover the astonishing beauty of the place. And then nature capriciously asserts its total control over the community: the sea which gives them life and living also takes from them.
Philip Marsden’s luminous first novel is so simple, it is almost sublime – this is a tale as old as storytelling itself, of man and nature and the profoundly skewed relationship in which they are irredeemably locked. It is an elemental tale, inhabiting the same space as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or The Tree of Man, of forces beyond human boundaries and capacities, of the sheer littleness of human life and its continuing heroism and tenacity. The sea is the main character in this book, sentient, indifferent, witnessing, almost like Egdon Heath in Hardy’s tragedy. When the outside world does intrude in this little corner, it is filtered through the sea: Mussolini’s Abyssinian adventure leads to an embargo on Italian goods, which in turn leads to the retaliatory return of tins of Cornish pilchard, bringing about the collapse of the pilchard market and, subsequently, the decline of fishing.

The world the book depicts resonates sympathetically to the natural rhythms – the diurnal course of the sun, the change of the seasons, the shift in water currents and shoal movements, the onward roll of the months, the kaleidoscopic drama of the winds and the waves.  In some ways, it is the only story there is to be told, of making a habitus of the environing world.

And yet this is no general, Everyman story, for Marsden, with his travel writer’s eye, ear and sympathy for the multitudinous colour and music of life, embeds his novel so firmly in time and place that the particularities both convince and amaze. To paraphrase Mies van der Rohe, god is certainly in the details in this work. From the songs sung at a beachside Christmas celebration to the stone tablets with their pithy and germane verses which Parson Hooper has carved in Truro and then installed alongside the main paths of the churchyard, the book couldn’t be more individuated. It is peopled with  as lively and idiosyncratic a cast as The Canterbury Tales. The comparison with Chaucer is not a throwaway. Marsden has a Chaucerian humanity, ironic, warm and infinitely sympathetic. This is fiction with a capacious heart: the generosity it extends towards its characters is worthy of a Heinrich Böll or a Vittorio De Sica.

Underpinning all this is Marsden’s lean, exact and beautiful prose, every sentence  pitch-perfect. Even  the detailed arcana of the nautical world and sailing and technicalities of boats cumulatively  acquire a kind of mesmeric poetry. Like a seashell, it contains the various music of the sea within it.