Squidbox

Today’s poem is the title poem of this whole Squidbox project, I suppose!

Squidbox

Of all the buckets,
Containers, plastic tubs,
Amid forklift reverse hooters,
Shouting, throbbing
Trawler engines, plastic
Yellow coats, wellies,
High viz,
Of all the buckets
Of the aforementioned
None can be more repulsive
Than
The squidbox.

Deep sea dreams and
Night time beam trawlers
Dipping down on wave vales
Off the coast of Wales
With sonar and shouting,
Excitable as the net is
Brought up dripping
For commerce, there
Is no sport in this

And thence homewards
With a belly full of tubs trays
Buckets boxes profit gain
And rusty flanks from dripping nets
The loving embrace of a concrete
Breakwater.

The squidbox
Under fluorescent lights stark.

Thirty years man and boy

I chatted to a trawlerman who’d done nothing else since leaving school. All he ever wanted to be was a fisherman.

Thirty years man and boy

For the sea creates sublime the mystery into which
A sprinkling of science and good knowledge of
Fish behaviour, patterns, historical trends and tides,
Like magicians, I am unable to divulge
The secrets at the heart of it lest less
Moral skippers may learn my methods;
Nonetheless let it be said that I often point my craft
Away from the fleet, tap into knowledge and
Then return with bigger loads; are you
Familiar with the methodology? And of course,
A hint of guesswork.

Thirty years man and boy, I’ve not done anything else,
Got my sea legs but even I spent the first six months
Spewing into a bucket, had to hide it,
Didn’t want the others to think I was soft or
Not cut out for this, but the sunrise over the
Eastern sea when you stare up the Channel that,
Oh, that can lift you and it lasts all day, a
Bright sun over a flat calm sea and you just know
It’s going to be a good haul.

In the dead of night in fluorescent glare I
Toil amid the flung sea spray salt lipped
In the inky boiling mass whose mystery is a
Locker that even the bravest dare not ponder,
Treacherous death washed with every foam-topped wave,
The craft itself rocking, you really don’t want
To think of the dynamics as the nets slung each side
Reach down ever so into oblivion, there are
Mechanics at work here that can be
Truly frightening, you just don’t want to think.

In a bed-warm slumbers my wife and kids and
While I envy their comfort, my toil makes it so,
Industry and sweat into eiderdown and a full fridge,
While those loving arms propel me forwards, further,
More exuberant, before beckoning me home that I
May regain my strength on the sofa surrounded by love.
What kind of amnesiac goes back?
But as I say, thirty years man and boy, and
The sea – oh, it runs through my veins.

Rough

We ride up,
Hold it there just for a second,
Then drop down, down,
Tingle in your stomach,
A grey angry foam-dotted wall,
The vehemence of nature,
How small we are.

I find comfort in the smallest things.
The sweep of the windscreen wiper.
No matter how precarious,
It keeps on sweeping.
It still does its job.

After a while you get into the rhythm,
Become at one with the sea.
It sets out its rules, and you obey,
Though every now and then
A freak wave, some dissonance,
A jarring note to make sure
You’re paying attention.

And the old trawler, she
Creaks just like ships on films,
Juddering, straining, throbbing.
Hold on, here comes a big one.

You OK down there, cook?
He’s bashing out an omelette.
I don’t know how he does it.

The Fish Market has gone online

I chatted to a trawlerman and he loved his job but the one thing he regretted was the fact that there’s no longer an actual fish market. It’s a sign of the future, he said. Everything is online these days.

The fish market has gone online

The fish market has gone online
And with it, the soul of a town whose
Existence is built on danger,
Humour rejecting the obvious over these
Hard-won trawls, a place to display
The catch of the day
And to laugh, and joke, and josh, and gibe
And welcome home the weary crew.

Under white fluorescent lights
In an atmosphere so clinical as to
Bely the sweat and grime of its industry,
(Not like the old days when
They’d slam the fish down on the pavement),
A ballet of lab technicians these
Restauranteurs and dealers in their white coats,
White walls, white trays filled with white ice,
Even in this,
There was camaraderie.

The dance of figures tripping from the auctioneer’s tongue,
A babble and confusion of numbers and percentage notations,
Earnest bartering, a price laid on each in
Humanistic terms, labour weighted and fortunes made public
Amid the gleam and sheen this raucous machine
Of social tradition and occasional profanity,
The eternal search for the highest bidder
Budgeted and boisterous and occasionally brave,
Face to face, seller, sailor, trawler.

There’s a relief at the heart of it, each transaction is
Gritty in so many ways but greeted eye to eye,
A shake of the hand, a pat on the back, a grin, a smile,
A joke.
The only connection now is broadband.
The heart of the community is a click of a mouse.

Mum ruled the roost

I had a lovely chat with a trawlerman who comes from a family whose connection to the Brixham fishing industry goes back to the 1500s. It was always assumed in his family that the kids would work on the trawlers. His dad was a fisherman and would be away from home for weeks at a time.

Mum ruled the roost

Mum ruled the roost.
Dad could be gone for up to ten days,
Chasing the fish and earning a wage,
She was strong.
Three of us to look after,
I don’t know how she did it.

It was kind of assumed that we’d follow him,
Become trawlermen, and indeed we did.
We hardly saw Dad through our childhood,
Though I was the youngest,
I probably saw him more than the others.
He’d learned, by then.
And I tried it too, the trawlers.
Didn’t like it.

There’s a photo somewhere of my
Great-great-grandfather,
Selling fish down by the Prince William,
My Grandfather
In his wet fish shop,
My other Grandfather,
He came down from Rye.
Since the 1500s we’ve been
Making our living this way.

Imagine what it’s like for a moment.
Beneath the hard exterior,
When the storms roll in there must be
Genuine fear, a husband
And sons at sea,
At mercy to the waves and the tides,
The inexplicable,
Good fortune, those twin propellers
Churning the water,
Miles and miles from land.

Mum ruled the roost.
Dad was always gone
And we knew he’d come home and spoil us,
Make up for it any way he could,
But it would be only too brief.
A couple of days,
And he’d be gone again.

A scream for the sea

A Scream for the Sea

Landlubbers!
Shipwrecks!
Grockels!
Ahoy!

Climb the masts!
In the brig!
Avast ye!
Ahoy!

Breakwater!
Saltwater!
Tidewater!
Ahoy!

Where are the giant squid?
Where are the dolphin pods?
Where are the lobster pots?
Ahoy!

And the trawlers
In their port
Look like giraffes
In the zoo
Ahoy!

Salt encrusted
Barnacle clung
Metal rusted hull!
Ahoy!

This long concrete arm
Protects us from harm
Calm our harbour
Ahoy!

We feel them deep inside
The tears of those who died
Washed ashore with every tide
Ahoy!

Weary legged trawler sailors
Bearded boat captains
Deck hands and net-menders,
Ahoy!

A bobbing anchored light
A rhythmic flashing sight
A beacon in the night
A buoy!

A prayer for the wind
Some salt for the soul
A scream for the sea
Ahoy!

I like it here

I like it here

They cling to the hills like multicoloured limpets,
Slate tile roofs shining, fish scales reflecting
Sodium streetlights, the salt air
Curling in from a dark abyss.

This whole place is yours, right?
No, just two rooms on the second floor.

And is either of those a private cinema?
No, but you can get nextdoor’s wifi in the khazi.

I like it here.
This corner of the universe.
I dream of escape
But I’ll never leave.

I like it here.
It matches my soul
The centuries fold in
They embrace me.

I like it here.
So cosy here.
It feels I’m the century’s daughter
Though I feel like a fish out of water.

I like it here.
I feel no fear.
I can be me here.

I like it here,
This is my home.
If only I didn’t
Feel so . .

(Get a proper place)
I like it here
(Move on to another town)
I like it here
(Buy a mansion in the Hollywood hills)
I like it here
(Let me show you the world!)
I like it here
I like it here
I like it here

They cling to the hills like multicoloured limpets,
Slate tile roofs shining, fish scales reflecting
Sodium streetlights, the salt air
Curling in from a dark abyss.
I like it here.

Do you hear the sea still calling?

When the First World War started, the Brixham fishing fleet found itself depleted with sailors and fishermen called away to war. Others stayed behind, exempt so long as they carried on supplying the nation with fish. Old sea hands found themselves back out at sea with cadets and schoolboys. But there was danger, beyond the usual danger, of mines and U-boats, and snagging nets on sunken wrecks.

Do you hear the sea still calling?

Sea-dogs and cabin-lads,
Cooks and schoolboys, cadets
And old hands with tales to tell.
It’s so dark at one in the morning.
Do you hear the sea still calling?

A generation called to war,
A fleet depleted,
A country undefeated,
Patriotic employment,
U-boat periscope deployment
Seemingly without any warning,
Do you hear the sea still calling?

A metal spike broke the surface,
Gift from a silent foe this
Mechanical creature from the deep,
‘Say your prayers, lads’,
And every hand dare not breathe lest
An errant wave should draw it to the hull . . .
Detonate
Deploy
Smithereens
Heart-rates slowly falling,
Do you hear the sea still calling?

Tin fish on the high seas,
Literal minefields,
Sweepers and sleepers
Trawler nets a-haul
Souls entwined in brine
The ceaseless march of time
Trawlers keep on trawling,
Do you hear the sea still calling?

Margaret of Ladram Leaves the Quay

Margaret of Ladram Leaves the Quay

A single blast from the horn
Echoes from the quayside wall –
Margaret of Ladram
Moves at a crawl,
Stately in her choreographed dance,
With a slow turn, churns the sea
And moves with a surprising ease,
This hulk of metal and rope and hope,
Yellow beams high like a surrendering thief.

Squidbox : Homecoming

This week I embarked on a new project, writing a sequence of poems about the Brixham fishing industry, with the help of Torbay Culture and the Arts Council. Fishing is a major part of Brixham life and has been so for hundreds of years, and the town has the biggest fishing fleet in the UK. I thought this would be a great opportunity to get to know exactly what it is that makes people want to go out on the high seas and risk their lives week after week.

This is the first poem from what, hopefully, will become a sequence. Homecoming is inspired by watching the trawlers come back home after a long stint at sea.

A lonely dot on a wild wild sea,

A nestle of rigs and beams, a mess

Of rust with nets slung low,

Giant spools and ropes slack dripping brine.

The hairpin concrete bend of jutted brick breakwater,

Of faded dead slow lettering, a test of time,

Scratched and blotched this tub sides a-slap

With the remnants of a sea bed scoured,

Hauled loads from sonar technology blips. At night

Each bunk holds dreams or high sea murmurs

As plastic macks drip dry, this metal tin

Of deckhand muscle, winches, graft, sweat.

They gain their sea legs, these sons and daughters.

A throb of diesel purrs the shuddering deck

And slantwise rain in a spotlight’s glare,

Bow break waves and quayside forklifts, home, home.