The lull before the storm By William Bowles

7 September 2005

Once more it’s a pleasant, sunny afternoon and I find myself on Wandsworth Common in South London sitting by the small lake where I first learned to fish as a kid. In fact, I learned to do a lot of things on Wandsworth Common, I grew up less than half-a-mile from the place.

Sitting here watching a handful of guys fishing brings back a flood of memories. Getting up real early, rod and bait in hand and arriving at the lakeside, not a soul around, mist curling across the still water, me contemplating the mystery of what lay waiting beneath the deep green, opaque surface.

Baiting up, the cast, the fluorescent yellow quill bobbing in the water before settling down. Lighting up a Capstan Full Strength and then the long wait, almost inevitably a futile one as my target was the wily tench, wary and cunning and very adept at taking the bait without taking the hook.

Occasionally the float would slyly lift then slide across the water before settling down again. To strike or not to strike?

Needless to say, I never once caught a tench but what the hell, I could smoke as many Capstans as I liked, there were the ducks quacking and squabbling, the musty smell of the water, the stillness and the anticipation, what else did a fifteen-year old need in those innocent days?

I also played cricket on the Common, mostly with a bunch of Asian and West Indian guys who were much older. I rode my bike but at night, weaving through unseen obstacles as fast as possible, copped my first feel-up, took my first photographs (of trees).

Wandsworth Common held endless pleasures. Later, the two pubs that overlooked the Common, the Hope Tavern (still there) and the Cricketers (now yuppified into something else) introduced me to an entirely new set of experiences, especially the Cricketers where I used to hang out with a crazy Red, Steve Piper, long since dead, who was the catalyst for my first attempt at writing, daring me in fact to write a poem, even setting the subject, the upshot of which was my first poem, ‘The Which Report on Men’s Underpants’ that Steve insisted on reading out to the denizens of the Cricketers, much to my embarrassment and I suspect, theirs.

Steve was already in the terminal stages of cancer and got through each day assisted by at least two bottles of red wine.

Piper, as everyone called him, was a larger-than-life character, tall, heavily-built with a face like a craggy pile of rock and with a roll-up always jammed between his lips.

I was warned not to hang out with Piper, he was considered a ‘bad influence’ what with his quasi-Maoist views and heavy drinking but we shared a love of jazz and writing as well as politics.

The weekends invariably found us at the Bulls Head in Barnes for the live jazz. Piper had a clapped-out Willys Jeep which would cough and lurch its way to Barnes at no more than 15mph, loaded up with an incongruous bunch of comrades. And it was still only lunch time.

So then back to the Piper household to sleep off the pints of ale, then food, then back to the Bulls Head for the evening session. It was a ritual we rarely missed; the packed room in the back of the pub and the tiny stage where I experienced that feeling of electric anticipation that only jazz gives you; tension and release.

Piper also persuaded me to accompany him on a trip on a deep-sea trawler out of Hull, ostensibly to produce the illustrations for a book he’d written on his life as a deep-sea trawlerman. Not an experience I’m ever likely to forget and one which at times filled me with sheer terror, not to mention three days of vomiting as the ship bobbed up and down and from side to side (all at once) like a damned cork in seas so heavy that we took water down the funnel.

But I gained my sea legs as they say, after being taught by the First Mate how to overcome sea-sickness, a technique that involved traversing the bridge port to starboard, back and forth until through some process, those devices in your ears figured out which way was up.

Now you have to imagine an art school student thrust into a sub-culture so extreme not only because of the setting (the North Atlantic, the Arctic Sea) and what I am told is the worst weather in the world, but because deep sea trawlermen inhabit a cruel and unforgiving world, where deaths and injuries are commonplace and the pay was dependent on the catch.

This is a world that no longer exists, wiped out along with the cod. The Victoria Dock in Hull is now some kind of ‘heritage’ site but nothing can communicate the experience of being stuck on a deep sea trawler for three weeks, working 18 hours on and six hours off; eating four, four course meals a day just to maintain your energy level as the cold sucks it out of you in no time. Of being tossed around an ice-laden deck in a Force 9 as the crew wrestled with a couple of tons of fish as it swayed above their heads, with the First Mate desperately trying to free the ‘cod-end’, hoping that he wouldn’t get buried by the ‘fucking bastards’ as the slip knot finally slipped. And in fact it did and he broke his leg simply because the skipper wanted to bring the catch onboard in one go rather than two, in order to save time.

A mad skipper, who desperate to make money would force the crew, once at (rusty) gunpoint, to fish in seas so heavy that when I looked out the bridge window some thirty feet or more above the level of a (flat) sea, all I could see was a solid wall of green water towering over the ship (my second moment of terror, the first being, waking up, hung over and puking as we steamed up the North Sea toward Iceland and the realisation that I was stuck on the ship for the next three weeks with no hope of getting off).

But also of wonder like when the First Mate woke me up in the early hours to witness the birth of an island off the coast of Iceland, great clouds of red-tinted steam in the distance as lava poured from fissures in the black rock poking out above the waves. Or waking up and immediately noticing that the ship (the Starella) wasn’t bouncing like a giant cork and going up on deck and discovering that we were surrounded by an endless expanse of ice (we were somewhere in the Arctic Sea) with seals lying around on slabs of ice. The air still and cold.

They stuck me down in the fish hold where I got so hot shovelling crushed ice out of the compartments where I had to stack the fish, that even though it might have been twenty below on deck, I had to strip off my gear. The fish came down a chute after having been gutted and then cleaned in the ‘washing machine’. I would have to spread a layer of crushed ice in the bottom of the compartment I’d just emptied, stack the fish, belly down, shovel a layer of crushed on ice on top of them and then another layer…

The other thing was the smell. Right at the aft of the ship (thank goodness) there was a boiler where we rendered down cod’s liver into cod liver oil.

Imagine if you will, a ship that short of icing up and capsizing (as the Starella’s sister ship did, with all hands), that was virtually unsinkable, almost as deep in draft as it was long, crewed by about 23 men and the radio officer (who came with the radio gear and thus wasn’t considered part of the crew), crammed together in a tiny space for three weeks, who worked virtually non-stop without knowing whether or not they’d get a decent wage at the end of it.

Then back to port, maybe a couple of days off and out to sea again but even getting a berth was a lottery as you were at the mercy of the ‘fixer’, who hooked you up with a berth, for a price, I think it was about five quid. Me and Piper had to pitch at Victoria fish dock at something like four in the morning and que up and hope.

Deep sea trawlermen were regarded as ‘casual labour’, the basic pay was a pittance, no more than a few pounds a week. The fish, assuming you caught any, were sold in a ‘Dutch auction’, where the price starts at the top and gets lower as people bid. Worse, the auction was controlled by the same companies that owned the trawlers, so they were effectively buying the fish from themselves.

If I remember it right the skipper got 20% of the sale, the First Mate, 15%, the Chief Engineer, 10%, down to the deck crew who got 1 or 2%. The pressure therefore was on the skipper to deliver regardless, thus we would steam for perhaps five hundred miles purely on the basis of the skipper’s whim that there were fish off the coast of Greenland. The last of the hunter gatherers in spite of all the electronic gear the ship carried.

And as the English will only eat cod or perhaps hake, a lot of the fish we caught just got tossed back over the side, especially one species, some kind of flat fish that the crew called ‘black bastards’ as their skin was black, that they would endlessly curse. But then cursing was transformed into an art form onboard a trawler. Every other word was either ‘fuck’ or ‘bastard’ or both. It’s amazing how much meaning you can communicate with just two words.

Eventually, after three weeks of fishing we entered the port of Hull, the ship gleaming and spotless as we spent the journey back scrubbing it from one end to the other til it shone. We berthed in Victoria Fish Dock where a line of taxis waited for the crew who, before heading home to the wife and kids would get laid first, the taxi drivers being the ‘go-betweens’ as they knew where all hookers hung out. We headed for a pub called I think, the Polly Parrot and drank rather a lot and staggered of to the Seaman’s mission, where I listened to a man coughing his lungs up all night long.

You have to appreciate just how hermetic a life the deep sea trawlermen had, they even had hookers who only slept with the trawlermen and just how much of a macho culture it was, where in spite of being treated like shit and exploited like it was still the Victorian era, they were proud of a life of extreme danger and insecurity.

A world now vanished and along with it the culture of an entire city that knew nothing else but of fishing those deep and dangerous waters.

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