Squidbox

I spent the summer of 2020 getting to know the town of Brixham and its fishing industry, and what that industry meant to the people of this evocative Devon port. Meeting people whose lives and livelihoods depended on the catching of fish, and learning about historic events, wartime exploits, the role of women and the emotional and family effects of such a perilous industry, I wrote a series of poems which were published by Torbay Culture as ‘Squidbox’.

It was a particularly evocative project and one which is close to my heart. As a comedy performance poet, I don’t often get the chance to concentrate on serious matters, and it was a privilege to become part of a community. As a bit of background history, I moved to Devon in 1996 with my parents initially to the fishing port of Brixham, a place which, at the time, I knew very little about.

During the course of the project I met with trawler operators, fishing folk and other people who work in the industry, as well as the curator of Brixham Museum, where I spent time in the archives looking at the role of women, and the Belgian refugees who were welcomed into the town during the Second World War. I also spent time researching events from the First World War and the role that the trawlers played including skirmishes on the high seas with German U-boats. It was fascinating.

One of the more fun days was spending some time aboard the Adele, a small one person trawler operated by Tristan, who told me all about his job, the difficulties and risks, and also the biodiversity and environmental effects of global warming.

On a drizzly, wet and windy day at the start of the winter, I went down to Brixham harbour with film-maker John Tomkins and my producer Clare Parker, and we filmed general scenes of the harbour and myself reading some of the poems from my Squidbox collection. This really was a case of suffering for my art! Wearing two coats, and soaking wet, and with the rain rolling down my neck, I was filmed in a variety of locations around the harbour. The film can be seen here:

Soon after the project finished, Brixham was hit by the tragedy of the sinking of one of its trawlers with the loss of two crew members. I revisited the poems and wrote two new works, which reference the sinking, as well as a third new poem about the natural sea grass environment of Fishcombe Cove.

If you would like to order a copy of Squidbox, you can do so here: https://robertgarnham.bigcartel.com/product/squidbox

It’s been a wonderful summer being paid to write poems, which is not something that normally happens. I’d like to thank Torbay Culture for the opportunity, and the Arts Council who provided the funding. It was fascinating learning all about the history and culture of Brixham and the importance that the fishing industry has on the town and the people who live and work there.

Sometimes they don’t come back

Sometimes they don’t come back

And the community
Close knit at best
Comes together.

A friend of a friend
Went to sea
And he never returned
And nor did his mate
And it felt
Like everything
Was closing in.

There’s a statue on the quay,
Man and Boy.
It became a focus
And everyone left tributes.
This town
Has no secrets.

Flames flickered
In the autumn breeze
Under overcast skies.
Floral offerings
Heartfelt outpourings
The town
A shoulder.

And the grief
Never seems to go.
It’s unimaginable.
You can’t even begin.

Souls entrust in each other
That every boat which sales
Carries an extra presence
Acknowledged but never seen.

Because
Sometimes
They don’t come back.

Squidbox – The Video

On a drizzly, wet and windy day the week before last, I went down to Brixham harbour with film-maker John Tomkins and my producer Clare Parker, and we filmed general scenes of the harbour and myself reading some of the poems from my Squidbox collection. This really was a case of suffering for my art! Wearing two coats, and soaking wet, and with the rain rolling down my neck, I was filmed in a variety of locations around the harbour. Just another crazy poetry adventure!

It’s been a wonderful summer being paid to write poems, which is not something that normally happens. I’d like to thank Torbay Culture for the opportunity, and the Arts Council who provided the funding. It was fascinating learning all about the history and culture of Brixham and the importance that the fishing industry has on the town and the people who live and work there.

Here’s the video! I hope you enjoy it.

You can order a copy of the book here https://robertgarnham.bigcartel.com/product/squidbox

Squidbox

Comedy performance poet Robert Garnham spent the summer of 2020 getting to know the town of Brixham and its fishing industry, and what that industry meant to the people of this evocative Devon port. Meeting people whose lives and livelihoods depended on the catching of fish, and learning about historic events, Robert used his trademark humour to draw out the unique character of an iconic town.

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

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 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 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’.