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Gone Fishing?

One of the most interesting things about last week was a trip to Kingston upon Hull. Jokes aside, I never thought I would say that but the reality is most British towns and cities of a reasonable size have something to recommend them and Hull is no different. However, what I thought I would be most interested in – Hull as the birthplace of William Wilberforce – turned out to be less fascinating than something else that I was exposed to that I knew nothing about.
Don’t get me wrong – Wilberforce is a ‘hero’ of mine and there was some satisfaction in the pilgrimage but I already felt I knew a lot about the story around abolition from William Hague’s excellent biography (well worth a read) and I did not really learn anything new. Around the back of the house he grew up in however, is moored the ‘Arctic Corsair’, a 1960s North Sea trawler. There are free tours of the ship and this was the biggest eye opener for me; what it was like to be a trawler fisherman. As I stuffed myself with cod and chips at Seahouses on my holidays year after year in the late seventies I do not think I gave one thought to the men out catching the things, for weeks on end and in all weathers. I certainly did not consider that they would have been almost constantly soaked to the skin, as the nets would always be put down on the side that had the worse swell, to facilitate them going out from the boat rather than being swept back under the boat and potentially wrapping itself disastrously around the propeller. The gentleman who took us around the boat was almost gleeful in the description of how hard it could be; he was a retired Merchant Navy man who had desperately wanted to be on the trawlers as a kid – like all the men in his family – but had found his father obstinate in preventing this, hence the change to commercial sailing. But this was not before being sneaked aboard a trawler for a tour of duty at the (illegal) age of twelve; maybe his father thought it would have put him off. It didn’t.
It made me think about why a young lad would want to go into such a tough and dangerous profession, especially after seeing a bit of what it actually was like. Maybe it was not being forced to wash for several weeks, as there was little point of doing that when your time was spent working in the spray and the combination of fish slime and guts or sleeping, apart from the short breaks to eat. Apparently most men would have three sets of clothing that they would rotate, wearing one set while the other two dried. The ‘Corsair’ has a rather spacious bathroom with showers at the stern – this was only used when they finally returned to port at the end of the trip, for the crew to make themselves more presentable. It was a hard job, but also in some ways simple, and that might also had to appeal. It could even be profitable in a part of the country where physical work – such as an agricultural labourer – was poorly paid. If a crew could get a good catch of cod, ‘dux’ (i.e. haddock) and the Holy Grail that was the odd halibut in the (massive) hold, and be lucky enough to get market on a day when there was not a glut, then they could make a significant amount of money. Of course the opposite applied. A lot depended on luck and the skill and tenacity of the skipper, who, while comfortable on the bridge in the warmth had the most to gain and to lose from a trip, as he had worked his way up from the bottom to get to that position, but only a successful skipper would keep getting the gig from the shipping company. Our guide gleefully told us about one skipper, who went by the nickname of ‘Killer’ which tells you all you need to know. He was notorious for working his crews to breaking point and taking risks in pursuit of the best catch. Working in a comfortable ‘people caring’ corporate environment as I do that seems shocking to me. But as was pointed out, ‘Killer’ never had a problem finding a crew to man a boat on which he was skipper – he got results and all the crew profited as a result. In fact, it is really not hard for me to imagine a bunch of exhausted trawler men raising a glass to their skipper in one of the many old pubs of Old town Hull, at the same time as they called him some very nasty names indeed.

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