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The Metaphysical Diorama of a Fisherman - Tim Harris

“The crabs cut ‘em… or plastic!” I nod understandingly, “Everything that comes to net… ‘s not all fish!” he adds. Delivering at first hand how inadequate waste management and irresponsible packaging impacts fishing. But I sense it's a counterargument to the accusation the industry itself is the main culprit in polluting the oceans. The boobies, gannets, and gulls that dive the waters, giant luths and other turtles that flounder onto the beach to drop their clutch, as well as garfish, mackerel and sardines, are caught by ownerless gill nets. They float like a subaqua Reaper off the Algarve’s beaches, ruthlessly effective decades after there’s no one to empty them. Hapless foci of misadventure, drifting the oceans with their community of unfortunates, waiting for destiny to arrive. For the moment, whoever is to blame for these calamities isn’t important. José sits on the Praia de Monte Gordo threading a needle through broken nets; his net management ensures they’re less likely to be problematic in the future. With a short sharp knife he removes loose ends from around the hole, cutting the monofilament against his horny thumb, then folding the fisherman’s knife into his calloused, leathery palm. Unnoticed, he’s already made a right hand side knot tying the nylon twine from his needle (like the bobbin of a loom) to the filament around the hole. He then traces a path around it creating new knots and loops — those at the bottom of the hole interlaced with new ones at the top. The transparency of the nylon, complexity of the knots, and intricacy of intertwining, make it difficult to follow his work, especially as the needle moves skilfully in and out/in and out/in and out at speed, pausing only at …

unexpected moments …to swiftly tie a knot. I soon lose the path the twine’s taken. “No, that’s too quick I can’t follow you!” I object. “Once ‘gain,” he says, as he readies another hole and I prepare myself to follow the path of the twine. His hands move slower, but it’s still difficult following the complex path of the needle. In seconds another hole’s closed. ¡Que rapido!” I say, not only impressed with his dexterity, but aware he’s comfortable speaking with an interchange of Spanish and Portuguese.

Nodding his head quickly sideways he wont accept any praise, believing his work is unexceptional. But it’s clear, the fisherman repairs his nets moving his hands with the eloquence of a signer. And apart from his hands, like a signer, he’s quite still. His eyes neither follow the net that he occasionally spreads, nor the needle that he threads within it. He pulls the next hole towards him, sensing how the net drapes itself or runs through his hands where it might be. Occasionally it catches a callous or broken nail and he quickly shakes it free — but otherwise he works methodically threading and tying the twine with a series of routine manoeuvres. I believe he could effortlessly close a hole blind. “Pack my nets away ‘fore I have to do ‘em blind,” he quips.

“Your boy won't follow you?” but I know the answer before I’ve asked.

“Hard work it is. He’s a builder. Easy money. Come out wi’ me for a season an’ad enough … que foda!” and adds, “Wa’er that’s pass the mill won’t make it work again.

Claro que sí.” I offer in exchange. Yes. I understand. So José sits alone on a white injection moulded plastic chair, its legs sinking a little into the sand. Till now his name is the only contribution José’s son — Jnr — has made towards his father’s enterprise; painted port, starboard, and the stern of his father’s dory. When José casts his final net a spare dory will be left on the beach with no one to take it out — the family tradition over. It provokes a sadness poignantly hanging in the calm of early morning. Only the screech and squawks of the gulls break the quiet, taking malevolent pleasure in any human misfortune.

Occasionally José takes his attention away from the repairs, puts elbows on knees and lifts his head — his eyes brighten. “Six kilome’er!” he contests, pushing the net towards me.

“Six kilometres?” I question, not believing a net could be that long. A tier, put together from a handful of nets, would be no more than six hundred meters long, and would stretch from Monte Gordo to the next beach, Praia de Santo António. The nets would stride purposely out of town parallel to the multi storied hotels and residential complexes. The complexes all simple geometry, bands of concrete balconies, and glass. Up and down along the boardwalk they rise and fall like an erratic bar chart of occupancy or rental value. They bookend a few remaining villas — fin de siècle idylls with pretty column-ed verandahs and bougainvillea-ed front gardens — over which they cast their long shadows. Then past Monte Gordo’s esplanade of concrete the nets would run alongside untouched beaches of grasses and dunes until they reached Spain. But having arrived at the isolated Praia de Santo António the nets would still be a few hundred fathoms from the border of their Iberian neighbour — which coincidentally is nearly six kilometres away. But this time without lifting his head, a lopsided grin breaks wryly across José’s face, and to qualify his math, he adds, “Over ’ere.” He throws a hand briefly towards what I suppose are piles of nets. They’re covered by plastic tarpaulins and placed in tidy lines between the dories. The question whether collectively his nets might reach the border with Spain is hypothetical; José’s tiers are further out and stretched square to the praia to take advantage of the offshore currents. And if placed end-to-end, they’d — if not quite reach the coast of Morocco — make significant inroads towards Africa. So counting the fishermen I speculate that if like José they each have ten tiers and formed an amicable cooperative, placed end-to-end, they’d effortlessly arrive in the Moroccan port of Tangiers, across the Straits of Gibraltar. Even if this was practical or permissible, such a disparate union would likely break before the nets. It’s clear, here on the beach there’s endless repair work to be done. The cycle has no beginning or end, no incentive to finish, nothing driving the work forward except knowing every hole loses both fish and escudos. After a long day protecting margins when they close their eyes the nets hang in a dark void in front of them. A needle moves monotonously in and out/in and out/in and out, monofilament snaking behind it, closing holes that continually open within the obscurity of their vision. Their nets might occasionally appear when their eyes are open, life passing behind an illusionary grid. A strange mixture of reality and unreality. A problem becomes a hole, rather than a hole being a problem. As instinct dictates both real and imaginary holes are closed, the fisherman’s hand twitches for his needle. But monofilament can’t always resolve problems off the beach — on dry land it has limitations, especially the illusionary kind. And if the fishermen were to overlay a metaphysical diorama onto the reality of their existence, it would simply be a net — a chart to navigate their life as far as they’d spread it. Their pragmatic manner would follow the familiar lines of the latticework, charming us with its straightforward simplicity. But to the contrary, when times were rudderless, they would see their net thrown in a chaotic heap half buried in the sands with no distinguishable modality, no chart to navigate by. More than two dimensional, many would say they’re like the fish that evade their nets — the free spirits one might expect them to be. Their life buoyed by ocean swells and succoured within the comfort of its fathomless depths. As yet I’m not certain one way or the other. Hanging from polystyrene floats and leadlines weighted with concrete blocks, the nets stand upright like submerged beach volleyball nets. They’re secured at either end by buoys, anchors, and iron bars that hoist colourful pennants. Bobbing conspicuously over the water like the inverted legs of synchronised swimmers, they pertly break the surface with the suggestion of seductive riches under the water. Above the water each fisherman owns a colour or two, the nets beneath the pennants, and importantly the fish they catch. On dry land the colourful chaos of white plastic crates, buoys, fishing tackle, tools, nets, and pennants that fly high above the gunnels of the boats, have an irresistible charm for holiday makers. They stroll along the timber boardwalk suspended high above the beach, and overlook the diffident fishermen like spectators at a surf fishing tournament. It’s timeout from sunbathing on loungers, sheltering in the shade of straw parasols, or overindulging on pastéis de Belém and Sagres in the boardwalk’s expensive restaurants. Whilst outgoingness may not be a prominent part of the fisherman’s character, who for the most part are exemplars of introspection and independence — masters of mostly crewless dories — with a little charm and tolerance there’s opportunities for selling directly to the public (OMIT). “How many you caught?” a young boy challenges José, shivering uncontrollably from an early morning bathe in the icy ocean. He simply replies with discretion… “Muitos.” which the boy seems happy with, even though it's clear the fisherman hasn’t gathered his nets that were placed in the sea yesterday. They’re still there soaking, with a catch he hopes is increasing incrementally moment by moment. José, in thermals, fleece, bib-and-braces, and boots, coarsely stubbled chin, deeply furrowed face, and a thin white mane flying in the wind, digs inside the pocket of his fleece and takes out an unusually large cockle shell. It's almost the size of a scallop. They stand together, the fisherman, a large man, clothed to withstand the forces of nature, and the naked youngster with his smooth, tight, olive skin, beaded with salt water; his black hair — shiny from the surf —stands off his scalp like the wires of a hairbrush. The boy hangs onto his skinny chest with his slender arms, clutching his sandy sweatshirt, shorts, and sandals and tries to keep the remaining warmth he has. José holds out the pristine shell in his cracked hands.

Perfectly white. Chalky outside but polished inside. It’s rare to find one so big. The boy stares intently into the shallowness of the giant cockle shell rubbing his index finger over the inside surface, fascinated by its pearliness and glassy smoothness. A few of the boy’s fellow bathers call him from the boardwalk, eager to warm themselves off the beach. He returns shouting excitedly, “Concha! concha! concha!”, not able to lift his eyes from the shell. Looking at José I suspect sometimes people are like the cockle shella bit dry and rough on the outside but polished inside. Apart from the boys there are few other tourists to charm along the boardwalk this early spring morning. A few amble sheepishly with their dogs, who go from marking one territory to another, and are occasionally passed by fluorescent clothed joggers who take delight in their own vigour — pedometers strapped to their arms, biometric watches around their wrists, and earbuds connected to smartphones clipped around their waists. Whilst others stride out determinedly with long hiking sticks towards Vila Real de Santo António as though they were walking out with a sledge and huskies across the Arctic tundra. Looking towards Vila Real de Santo António a sea fret is rolling towards us along the beach. It quickly swallows the fishermen. In their uniform of navy blue and white checked polar fleeces they appear and disappear, floating like apparitions between ghost ships that have run aground.

As they continue to search for holes to repair their manner doesn’t change, it’s a little more spectral, but unaffected by the weather closing in around them. Neither are they bothered by screeching seagulls and skuas that arrive with the fret. They swoop, dive, and flutter just above the sand and antagonistically flap over the heads of the fishermen in displays of ill tempered belligerence. Fighting over scraps, they fly at each other tearing mouthfuls of fish gut from another’s beak. They’re savage pterodactyluss malcontentedly scavenging the beach. Their disillusioned bills having readied themselves to empty the oceans, have to content themselves with scraps. “Seagulls on land, storm in sea.” José says, the pterodactyluss knowing where to put themselves — they’re also safe from the Grim Reaper.

“We wait,” he says.

“The boats can’t go out?” I ask ingenuously.

“Go out, they’ll run o’er the nets!” mutters José as he readies his dory, surprised anyone might think a fisherman could clear their tiers in a fog bank.

“Then they’ll says we litter our nets in the wa’er,” he adds defensively, and I hear quiet whispers of agreement through the fog.

Shaking the sand from my boots in a café along the boardwalk, I’d raised my collar to the chill of the fog and the fisherman’s chides, and ordered coffee and toast. The morning is passing as I lift my head from the newspaper, with the overwhelming feeling that any environmental issues are more than offset by Monte Gordo’s artisanal fishing; I see through what’s left of the fret a pair of headlights, sidelights and a boat close behind, all emerging over the high water line. The JCB has a cabin, rusty wheels as large as the paddles of a Mississippi steamer, and tugs José’s dory from the water to its sandy berth. It’s been a good day, and he’s already pulled and cleared his nets. The white plastic crates are overfilled with dourados, garfish, mackerel and sardines that occasionally jump into life; flipping and flapping onto the flat bottom of the boat.

Dragged along the sand his dory’s keel and bilge keels plough deep furrows. It’s like a fish out of water. Rocks from side to side. No longer the master of its own navigation, it looks like an undecorated carnival float — a modest one at the tail end of a parochial Algarvian carnival.

José and his dory, despite the lack of ostentation and flamboyance, implausibly play their part for the boardwalk’s spectators. The dory his chariot, he stands heroically boathook in-hand like King Neptune with a trident. And as the procession passes, he pushes his chest out and stares proudly ahead. He lacks only Neptune’s coronet that would — at least for today — crown him King of the Sea.


Tim Harris, a designer from London, chose to develop his writing and photography in a remote Spanish village in Extremadura. His work has been accepted by Litro. He’s lived not just in the UK and Spain but also Mumbai and Doha, all of which feeds his fascination for showing the idiosyncrasies of people and places.


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