Squidbox

In 1996 I moved with my parents from Surrey to Brixham. My parents had come down to Brixham during the 1960s for various holidays and they had always loved the place and its people. They had always said that they wanted to retire there. I came with them, and the whole place felt like a different world. I immediately fell in love with the history of the fishing industry and the traditions of those families who had a long association with the sea.

I moved away from Brixham in the year 2000, but I have continued to visit every single weekend, using the room at the back of my parent’s garage as a makeshift rehearsal room as my career as a comedy performance poet grew. When the chance came to write some poems on a themed idea, funded by Torbay Culture through the Arts Council, I jumped at the chance to learn more about the Brixham fishing industry and the people who work within it.

With the help of Clare Parker, my producer, I was able to infiltrate this world. I spent a little bit of time on a trawler, (in the harbour, though; we didn’t go anywhere!), and I interviewed trawlermen and people associated with the industry, as well as locals to get their view on what the fishing industry meant to them. I was also able to go behind the scenes at Brixham Museum and chat with Anna Kisby Compton, the curator, about the role that women played in the history of the fishing industry. I was also deeply inspired by Samantha Little’s book, ‘Battling Onwards : The Brixham Fishing Fleet 1914-1918’, published by Brixham Museum. I also spent some preparation time chatting with John Hegley, a much more accomplished comedy performance poet, who gave me some ideas on how to approach the project, and who suggested poems I might read or listen to by way of inspiration. Finally, I chatted with Maggie Duffy, Brixham-based singer and songwriter, whose extensive knowledge and understanding of the town and its people were invaluable.

I have recently published these poems in the form of a pamphlet which, for now, you can order from Amazon. The whole project has been an incredible learning experience for me and has left me with an increased understanding and affection for the town of Brixham.

The pamphlet can be ordered here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08KR2M649/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Robert+Garnham+Squidbox&qid=1602320577&sr=8-1

We are Brixham

I’ve had a great month (and summer) getting to know the people of Brixham and writing poems about their fishing industry, its importance, history and culture.

We are Brixham

Amid the pontoons and jetties, the wind whistle
Through yacht mast rigging,
The stone breakwater a loving arm,
The harbour calm.
Amid the trawler bustle and diesel throb, the hum,
The roar, the continual movement,
Night-lights of long-distance trawlers
In their humdrum heroic return,
We are Brixham.

Amid the labyrinthine narrow lane cottages kissing
Face to face over alleyway cobbles,
Amid the crafty cats and shoals of sprats,
And bearded trawlermen in blue cloth caps,
Amid the grind and wheeze of autumn’s first breeze,
Of chilled fingers numbed by winter’s first freeze,
We are Brixham.

Amid the rust and plants and smuggling haunts
And quayside pubs where sea legs find their own solidity
On the moving deck of life itself,
Amid the gift shops and chip shops and ship hulls
And sea gulls and old father time his
Beard soaked in brine,
We are Brixham.

Amid the local lore, the drunk pub bore,
The concrete remnants of the Second World War,
The plastic floats, the high-viz coats,
The loaded totes from chugging boats,
The sea serene, the sea-scape scene, the holiday dreams
Of vanilla ice cream, the trawler beams,
The harbour walls, midnight pub brawls,
The pirate ghost ghouls, the mechanic with his tools,
The people, the town, the community and life,
We are Brixham.

Adam

Adam

I’m a firm-chinned trawlerman.
I don’t fight on the quay.
I’m not a brawlerman.
I don’t stagger in the gutter
Getting legless in the pub
I’m not a crawlerman.
Although I’m not short,
I could be a bit taller man.
My name is
Adam.

Heaving seas much like the
Heaving bosoms of the girls I have
Pinned around my bunk.
In the middle of the night
In the midst of a gale I catch
Their slightly uncertain eyes in the glare
Of my mobile phone.
I’ve cut them out from magazines.

Yet my heart yearns and the
More it yearns I beg not
For a girl in every port.
The lessons I’ve learned,
The lessons I’ve been taught,
Someone to spend my time with
Because my trawler days are fraught
And my life will mean nought
Because I really ought
To find
Contentment,

Slippery nets as we haul in a big one,
Scales and flippers, kippers,
Frantic shouting from the skipper,
Diesel generators and lights
Illuminating horizontal rain.
How I tire of these
Seas
How I pine for a night
With a loved one.

I’m too old
For magazine cuttings.

Chugging into port,
A belly full o’ fish
After a week on the big brine
Feeling an ache in every muscle,
A lonely room awaits me
Somewhere in this place, this
Collection of lights, this
Outpost of humanity,
This
Rock-clung town with its cottages
Like limpets holding on so
Tightly as if to an idea.

She’s out there, I can feel
An untold story,
A future love.

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.

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.