Stinking Fish?


People have commented to me that I rarely mention fish or fishermen. I suppose it’s true but it’s by pure chance. You get to the fish market from the far end of the Old Esplanade, at the opposite end from the Shore-combers. The front is divided up, the Shore-combers have the middle section, next to them heading up the estuary are cockle-pickers, and on the other side are the long-line fishermen.

Yes, the three groups can work in each others’ territory, but it’s by agreement. A Shore-comber will ask permission to go in among the long-lines. If permission is granted, he can wander among the lines but mustn’t touch them and can be asked to hand over a tenth of what he’s found. Similarly anybody wanting to put a long-line down on the Shore-combers’ area will probably be allowed to, but will be shown an area that has already been worked over so they’re not in anybodies’ way, and of course, they’ll be expected to share their catch. The same sorts of deals are done with cockle-pickers as well. Boat fishermen will come in with the tide and unload their catch along with the long-line fishermen, because it’s handy for the market.

I’ve occasionally put a line down, or rather helped somebody who had one. A hundred paces of line with forty hooks can pull you in twenty fish on a good day. Some of these fishermen have two or three lines. They’ll put one line a long way out, a second line not so far out and the third line closer to the shore. That way, as they bait their hooks they can work their way back to shore ahead of the incoming tide. Then they can follow the tide out to take the fish off their lines. It’s a family trade, with one working the line, one gutting fish caught, and the children running backwards and forwards taking fish towards the land and fish-guts back to use as bait.

The fish market itself was a place for a person with a strong stomach. In theory the fish were fresh, indeed it might have been caught only hours previously. In reality what didn’t sell might put in repeated appearances, before eventually being chopped up, fermented with salt, and then filtered. The liquid fraction is garum, perfect for giving savour to foods, the remains that have clogged the filter they sell as allec. This is popular with the poor because it’s salty, has a strong flavour and is cheap. It is perfect for spreading on stale bread or coarse porridge.

There are a few fishmongers in Port Naain, who buy fish and sell it in those parts of the city where folk don’t want to walk to the fish market. If fishmongers were to have a prince it would be Ballat Snartle. He was an uncomplicated man. He just wanted to buy the best fish. Like his father before him Ballat would arrive in the fish market and make his slow way around the stalls looking for what took his fancy. Seeing him make his way through the market, stallholders would shyly produce something that they’d been keeping back with him in mind. Indeed a fisherman, confident that he had indeed caught a truly magnificent fish, would bypass the market and make his way direct the Ballat Snartle’s emporium.

Ballat was liked and admired in equal measure. He was admired because he knew fish and could prepare and display it to perfection. He was liked because he wanted the best, was willing to pay for the best, and didn’t care who knew it. Because of this the ladies of Dilbrook and the Merchant Quarter would send their maids directly to Ballat Snartle with their fish order. Yes they knew they paid more, but it was always fresh and always good.

Ballat had many foibles, but one was that where, at the end of the day, there was fish left, unlike everybody else who would offer it again next day (and even the day after that if it was winter) Ballat point blank refused to do this. Everything not sold was handed across to his daughter who boned it, chopped it fine, and poured it into great clay pots with brine to make garum to the old family recipe. Whether it was the freshness of the fish or the fact that his daughter pointedly refused to throw fish guts into the mix I don’t know but a jar of Snartle garum was a real treat, and frankly I’d rather buy his allec than the ‘fresh’ fish on some stalls in the market.

If Ballat had a fault, it was his utter disregard for trivia such as profit and loss. His son was supposed to watch over him and ensure that fiscal rationality prevailed, but he alas was infected by the same affliction that had had both his father and grandfather firmly in its grasp. Some form of order was maintained by the daughter who whilst not being grasping, did at least expect people to pay the price in cash before they took their goods home.

On the other hand this may have saved him a lot of grief. When ‘Hot Irons’ Welash decided that the whole fish trade was ripe for shaking down by a competent extortioner with some good hard lads, he took one look at Ballat’s business and decided that instead he’d start at the other end with the fishermen.

Welash knew his trade. First there were fist-fights in the fish market and stalls would get knocked over. Then there were some pretty unpleasant robberies and muggings. Then Welash offered to send some of his boys in to ‘maintain order’. For a fee obviously.

That side of the business sewn up, he set to work on the long-line fishermen. After all a line out there was vulnerable, it might go missing. Indeed a boat might go over the area dragging an anchor or two and it could make a real mess of the lines.

The long-line fishermen might have struggled with literacy, but they could read this situation.

A delegation went to see Welash. ‘Would he come down and look at the lines and they’d explain how things worked and come up with a deal.’

Magnanimous in victory, Welash went with them, taking a couple of his hard men, just to keep everything honest. They surveyed the lines, going right out to the very furthest.

After the next tide, six of the long-line men struggled into the kitchen of the Welash house, carrying a great deep water Brant. They’re bigger than a man and you can sometimes catch them on the farthest lines, provided you bait well with big lumps of decent bait. Madam Welash admired the fish and gave cook orders as how she wanted it preparing. She was gracious in her thanks to the long-line men, but not gracious enough to offer to pay for it. When you live with an extortioner, one rarely pays for anything.

Ten minutes later she rushed into the kitchen to see what the cook was screaming for. Cook merely pointed silently at the fish. She’d split it open to remove the guts and there, lodged deep in the creature’s throat, was the head of ‘Hot Irons’ Welash. The long-line men had used him and his two heavies to bait their lines with.

Ballat Snartle still plies his trade, somehow remaining in business in spite of his inability to charge what his produce is worth. The fish market remains the somewhat chaotic place it always was, without bullies patrolling it to keep order. The long-line men continue to work their lines as they’ve always done. Extortioners and their protection rackets have come and gone, but none of them have ever bothered the fish trade.


As mentioned previously, ever keen on expanding the boundaries of his art, (and even keener on eating regular meals), Tallis has put together a longer story,


Rather than his usual collection of anecdotes, this time Tallis presents us with one gripping adventure. A tale of adventure, duplicity and gentility. Why does an otherwise respectable lady have a pair of sedan chair bearers hidden in her spare bedroom? Why was the middle aged usurer brandishing an axe? Can a gangster’s moll be accepted into polite society? Answer these questions and more as Tallis Steelyard ventures unwillingly into the seedy world of respectable ladies who love of sedan chair racing.

As a reviewer commented, “

Tallis, the well-respected (he says) Port Naain poet, becomes embroiled in a bit of sedan chair racing, with all its associated betting and a side order of bullying and corruption. He is helping to arrange a large social gathering to introduce a widow to the social circle and we see how important it is to have a resourceful poet on the task.

Another good fun adventure from Port Naain, with a different voice narrating it.”

28 thoughts on “Stinking Fish?

    1. I try and balance the light and dark in the Tallis stories. There are others which are also dark, but then Tallis does, by his nature, deal a lot with the frivilous as well 🙂


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