The Fish Hawkers

From the 1840s onwards, the wives and daughters of Brixham fishermen would buy fish at the auctions and sell them from door to door. They were the backbone of the fishing industry, fierce, feisty and protective.

The Fish Hawkers

Here we are, the fish hawkers,
Raised on brown sail soil,
We wives and daughters
Of endless toil, we,
Who cut and gut and pack the catch
Or in auction crowd we who aim to match
The hollored voices, we stand our ground!
Neither demure nor afraid to make a sound,
We, feisty fighty fishy folk
Hoist our barrels and foist fresh fish
From door to door to earn our keep.

We net menders, basket weavers
With tongues as sharp as butcher’s cleavers,
Well-versed in lip, a comeback or three,
We speak our minds with liberty,
Let no-one doubt us, independent and free,
Strong willed and tough,
Does that scare you?

We fought for recognition,
More than cleaners or gossip gleaner,
We, who are slated for occasional misdemeanours,
The chance to match our wits over fish-packed barrels,
No strangers to fist-fights and neighbourhood quarrels
Stand our ground proud as any can.

Here we are, the fish hawkers,
Mothers of this town, keepers of the light,
Our voices echoing through cobbled streets
As we hawk our creels
For honest folk, for dinnertime meals,
Can you hear our ghosts amid the modern day trawlers?
We spirited types, we frequent brawlers,
Never silent, never ignore us.
Here we are, the Fish Hawkers.

Little Ostend

In 1940, a flotilla of Belgian fishing craft crossed the Channel, a perilous journey under the circumstances, in boats piled high with furniture, food and belongings. Their families were on board, too. Having spent the 1930s fishing alongside Brixham folk, and with warm memories of Brixham and its harbour, it seemed a natural place to come and seek shelter when the Nazis marched into their home town. They arrived in the middle of the night and the town welcomed them, opening the shops and baking bread, and bringing water down to the quay to help the arrivals. The Belgians became a part of Brixham everyday life during the war, and when the war ended, they left in a fleet of double decker buses from Bolton Cross, the whole town coming out to wave them off.

Some of them stayed behind as wives, husbands, lovers.

Little Ostend

Send us your Belgians!
Not the usual rallying cry.
From Ostend they came,
Families and furniture piled
In a foreign fishing fleet
Welcomed by the town
In the middle of the night.

Shops were opened,
Bakeries into business,
Water taken to the quay
For these fisher refugees,
Whose home towns were
Quivering under the Nazi march,
And all was hopeless.

Over a thousand souls
A part of Brixham life,
In the shops and pubs and clubs,
Belgians whose knowledge
Of trawling methods was gladly accepted,
Belgians who became friends, and lovers,
And husbands and wives.

They served in cafes,
And schooled their children,
And plied their craft on trawlers,
Brixham, this Little Ostend,
This welcoming town
Proving that when humanity is at its worst,
It can also be at its best.

Take heed fellow humans,
That goodness will always prevail
And a heart will aim to share its warmth.
A town reaching out its fingers to another
Whose soul is in peril,
A trawler in a storm ,
The loving curve of the breakwater.

The Trawler Basin

The Trawler Basin

That tangle of beams and nets and ropes
Might well be mistaken for a metal arboretum but
There are no robot squirrels here.
You!, caged whales in a concrete dock,
Shackled together as slaves on a swell,
You’re nodding your bows as if each
An adventurer’s remembrance of
Channel fog, white horses, force six storms,
The biggest, toughest load you ever hauled

As callous hands winch and yank, at one
With the rolling seas, you, with your
Portholes perhaps pining for the quay’s embrace,
Where gathered your beams tower and peer
Like giraffes from their zoo enclosure, you,
Named for wives, girlfriends, daughters, fathers,
Ungainly, cormorants with wings folded, oh,
I think I’ve run out of metaphors now.

A morning’s diesel throb cast off you’ll seek
Invisible bounty by sonar glow, hands numbed
By cold clutching metal cups at the wheel,
How many souls have stroked your innards and
Uttered a silent trawlerman’s prayer?
Keep us safe, return us once more, I have a
Life and a bank account and Davy Jones is no friend of mine,
And that, up there in the lines, is that a winch,
Or a robot squirrel? The cold, the dark,
The long hours, they do strange things to a soul.

The Sea Monster

This story is absolutely one hundred percent true.

The Sea Monster

Playing cards below deck.
Jack’s got a good hand,
You can see it in his eyes.
Freddie’s in the galley and he’s
Clanging pots, the radio’s playing.

And all the time the engine’s throbbing,
Skipper Steve is in the wheelhouse,
He’s been doing this longer
Than anyone can remember.
The new guy looks a bit green.

It’s a squally night, said on a sea which heaves
Like the belly of a monk with trapped wind.
Our lonely vessel, the Unsinkable 2,
Was being tossed a-hither as if Mother Nature was
A bored teenager, and we were nought but a
Can of Pepsi
Idly thrown from hand to hand.

Of a sudden there came a crash and a splash and the
Slimy scaly suckered limb
Of a giant octopus
Smashed through the starboard porthole
And flailed around inside the bunks and sleeping quarters
Of the Unsinkable 2,
As tough Trawlermen gasped and flung themselves around,
Another scaly tentacle crashed through the door
And prodded and probed some more.
We were doomed!

At that moment our fearless captain, brave and courageous
Steve,
Clambered down from the wheelhouse,
Cried
Take off your shirts, lads! And line tight in a row!
That this briney beast may feel you with its accursed tentacles
And assume it to be the teeth of its natural predator,
The giant whale!
A natural reflex will cause it to retreat
Back to its ocean lair!

So we did as he bidded, each one of us
Bare chested and quivering as the tentacles slithered
Along our sweat soaked chests,
Then watched aghast as it let out a shiver
And just like Captain Steve had said,

Retreated back to the deep through the door and the porthole,
That we remained undefeated.

And jubilant cries rang out, never before did trawlermen
Jibber and tremble, their eyes lit with a sudden intensity,
That life may so quickly be plucked from them.
At that moment there came a ferocious knock on the starboard
Porthole
And with dread we saw the octopus there once more,
Watched dumbfounded as it
Reached in and left
The biggest toothbrush you’ve ever seen.

The Skipper’s Decision

The Skipper’s decision

In the old days
They’d come aboard
Worse for wear,
I suppose you could say.

Nothing worse
Than a hungover crew,
Mardy from the offset,
So I said,
Lads,
No drinking on board.

Which makes the first
Day or so
Particularly uncomfortable,
But they sober up.
They go through that zone.

Early in the morning,
Gliding past the stone breakwater,
They’re very quiet.
And I am too, I suppose.
Coffee is OK.
Whatever else they’d need
To put a layer between themselves
And the world.

This is my life

This is my life

I don’t know how it started.
Did a favour for a mate,
Went out on his skipper’s boat,
Liked the money
And before long it was just kind of assumed
I’d be there.
Fifteen years ago, now.
Been on three different boats.

It’s not all work.
On that hot day,
That really hot day last year,
Millpond sea,
Skipper and the lads, we all dived in.
Weird seeing the boat
From the outside.

And my mate?
The one who got me into all this?
He don’t do it anymore.
Works as a supermarket delivery driver.

I only wanted enough to buy
A place of my own,
A place for me and the wife.
And now,
This is my life.

The Battle of the Eastern Scruff

During the First World War, Brixham trawlers would often find themselves under attack from German U-Boats. One of the most famous encounters would be remembered as the ‘Battle of the Eastern Scruff’. Alas the only casualty was the ship’s cat from one of the vessels. It’s all now part of Brixham folk lore.

The Battle of the Eastern Scruff

The tin fish surfaced amid the Brownsail fleet,
A deep dive menace in manufactured metal so shiny and so sleek
Taking aim without a sound and peppering ships with shells,
Splintered jibs and sullied sails to sink to their watery hells.

Sometimes a soul acts braver than it ordinarily could.
The sea became a jumbled mess of ropes and sail and wood.
A bullhorn grabbed, a skipper yelled the first thing he could blurt,
‘Stop it now, you silly fools, or someone will get hurt!’

Some boats made sail and hauled in nets, began to drift afar.
Others braved a hail of shells losing masts and booms and spar.
A boiler bursts with repeated hits spewing smoke and flame and steam,
A cacophony of tangled wrecks now circled the submarine.

Ship after ship disabled now, shrapnel and shot galore,
Broken decks and tangled nets this outpost of an uncalled war
Till all at once as if their thirst at last was suddenly sated
The firing stopped, the fishing fleet was torn and emaciated.

When hearts are strong and souls laid bare and fortune is a dance,
When fate steps in enmeshed with luck and quirks of circumstance,
Not a soul did waver nor for their safety choose to weep
A day which started normally now threatened with the briny deep.

Yet not a life was lost that day and of the boats only two,
Towed to port or rescued by their fellow fishing crew.
Welcomed home by onlookers limping wrecked and ruined and rough,
Wide-eyed men with tales to tell of the battle of the Eastern Scruff.

One hundred years and more have passed as I wandered on the quay
To ponder on this episode and such high-seas gallantry,
And tales of fortitude and pride and undoubted bravery
Of souls unwittingly tied forever with Brixham history.

It’s just what you do in this town

This quick poem is based on an anecdote told to me by a fisherman.

It’s just what you do in this town

‘It’s just what you do in this town.
I know more who’ve been out at sea
Than haven’t.
I remember my old neighbour
Having a hospital appointment in Torquay.
It’ll be the first time I’ve left Brixham
In forty-eight years, he said,
On something other than a boat . . .
The next time I guess
Will be in a coffin’.

This is my life

This is my life

I don’t know how it started.
Did a favour for a mate,
Went out on his skipper’s boat,
Liked the money
And before long it was just kind of assumed
I’d be there.
Fifteen years ago, now.
Been on three different boats.

It’s not all work.
On that hot day,
That really hot day last year,
Millpond sea,
Skipper and the lads, we all dived in.
Weird seeing the boat
From the outside.

And my mate?
The one who got me into all this?
He don’t do it anymore.
Works as a supermarket delivery driver.

I only wanted enough to buy
A place of my own,
A place for me and the wife.
And now,
This is my life.

Poet in Residence on a Beam Trawler

POET IN RESIDENCE ON A BEAM TRAWLER

Cod, halibut, mackerel, rainbow mullets,
Brown turges, narrow-eyes loomheads,
Grand flappers, suspended marlin,
Norwegian screamers, ribbon-tailed Kenneths,
Sole, turbot, plaice, haddock,
Bulbous flatfish, flounder, spasm ray,
Honey roasted dogfish, the common eel,
To name but twenty species of fish.
And scampi, that’s twenty one.

And me? I think I’m gonna spew,
This old rusty tub flung round like
That Danish weather girl in the
Last series of Strictly,
Last night I honked up in my
Left welly
And only remembered this morning
When I put it on.

The trawlermen here have all got nicknames.
Stinky Sam is our captain,
I’d follow him to the ends of the earth, I would!
And Stinky James, our cook,
And Stinky Jim, who looks after the engine,
And Stinky Bill and Stinky Keith,
Who gut the fish.
These are the nicknames
That I’ve given them.

I was so cold last night
That my nipples went really big.
I had a weird dream
That I was stroking a caterpillar.
And in the morning Stinky Keith said,
‘Gosh, my moustache feels really smooth’.

Oh, the banter!
This morning I was laughingly called
A barnacle-encrusted puke-soaked
Impertinent half-witted buttock,
And I said,
‘Nice to hear from you too, Mum.’

Out on deck,
Hauling in a big load with Stinky Jim.
‘Do trawlers often sink?’, I yelled,
Above the clatter of the engine.
He replied, ‘usually only the once’.

Gutting fish with Stinky Bill,
He’s seen it all, has Stinky Bill
Looks one way, then the other,
And says,
‘Sonny Jim,
Have you ever been sexually aroused
By a walru…’.
I said ‘no.’

And a giant octopus stole my cheese sandwich
And a sperm whale
Tried to mate with us
And I was winked at
By a squid
And I’d never seen so many crabs!
And our captain was out on deck
With a jumping rope
Jumping up and down
I suppose that’s why they call him
The Skipper.

And the sea got rough
And I spent the whole afternoon
Being tossed
As the trawler rose up
Through swell and wave
And the skies spat rain
They were ever so brave
This lonely tub
On the wide wide sea
Perhaps this was the wrong moment
To tell Stinky Pete
That he would make my life complete.

He slapped me
With a gurnard.