Fishing was a reserve occupation, and men damaged in the armed services were often returned to their calling. Up on the North Sea's Iron Coast it was a perilous life involving, besides U-boat and floating mines, sudden gales whipping up beyond force seven, producing short, steep, menacing seas like standing gunmetal walls, cold that could anesthetize the pain of a barbed hook in the ball of a thumb, salt in razor-shell cuts on split hands, and heavy, disorienting fog.
Worse to bear was the wolf gnawing your innards when fish were scarce and money even shorter than usual. But the greatest disaster, drowning apart, was losing your gear--nets, crab pots, thirty- or forty-five-fathom long-lines with their hundreds of bright-steel hooks, or marker buoys--through foul weather. Crews' meagre capital was all in their boats and gear; and gear was not insured.
When in peacetime fishing failed to provide for his wife and little daughter Rhoda, Blueman would make the long train journey down to South Wales, sign on with his cross as deck hand on a tramp steamer, as he had first done at fifteen, then cross the Atlantic to plough down the American east coast with a load of coal, trying to avoid trouble on runs ashore in New Orleans and Galveston, then chancing it round Cape Horn, for the long west-coast haul up to Valparaiso. Sometimes, a shipmate would pencil a few laboured, impersonal words he dictated onto garish postcards to Francie to suggest when he might be home, writing being a labour untrusted for any purpose but conveyance of bare fact.
Months later, after paying off and buying his ticket home, he would hope to have enough left in his pocket to keep them on short rations till fishing picked up again.
Or he might come ashore to labour at the Skinningrove iron works, which lay in wait for men without options, a great fiery beast intent on shrivelling the spirit, north across the high North Yorkshire moors. Setting out before four o'clock on a Sunday morning for his first shift, billycan of cold tea in hand, boots slung, laces reef-knotted together, about his neck to save leather, he tramped the seventeen and more rough moorland miles, the died-back heather no longer purple but black at this time of year, skirting silent hamlets and villages from Sandsend, Kettleness and Staithes still sunk in dark exhausted sleep, and on through the meagre little coal-town of Loftus, now in half-light.
Twice on the bleak moor top, he would slow his pace to gulp his tea and tear at the two hunks of bread and lard Francie had prepared, maybe pausing the second time for the moments it took to shake out a last precious thin Woodbine cigarette from the crumpled paper pack of five, turn his back on the nor'-easter, and light it with a match rasped once down his salt-stiffened guernsey. One time, turning back to the face-whipping wind, he watched the exhaled smoke rise before his eyes--then in an instant leap and dash away seawards, into invisibility: gone, but not gone! And as he stood, bowed, solitary on the great half-dark silent moor, he knew--in that moment, knew--that he too had what he'd once as a lad heard called a spirit: for hadn't he just witnessed a sign of it. Part of it had flown free of him: left his innards in smoke and air, to find its way back home. And he saw that it was possible to be in two places at once: that while his body might be in prison now, they couldn't nail down this other, inner man!
With this extraordinary new knowledge fit to burst him, but whose usefulness he couldn't for the minute fathom, he carefully pinched out his Woodbine and replaced it in the empty pack; bent swiftly and pulled on socks and boots, sure, as he tied them, that now he would not be taking too much out of the leather. And on he strode, to exchange his natural element, glimpsed here and there still between the sweeps of dark hill, before he steered inland, for the sulphurous blast furnaces that were the stoke-hold of hell.
For three nights Blueman would shake down by the furnaces for warmth, before the homeward trek for his rest day. As soon as possible, he quit the iron works for his tiny deck and the clean, open sea where he had sought his bread since a boy.
School had been an irrelevance for one bound to contest a boat place as soon as he had wit and strength, in a small fishing fleet where crew places mostly passed within family clans, and injury or drowning often gave you your best chance. But most influential in his academic failure was "good works."
A local charity visited a different school each week, distributing a midday meal of bread pudding--stale bread baked in milk, with a half-kept promise of currants and sugar--a cold mess doled out on sheets of newspaper to each pinch-faced pupil in line. Had the charitable helpers glanced at the faces in the sniffling queue they must have spotted a familiar wiry, tow-haired boy from the previous week's school, and the school the week before, and back to today's again. "Bread afooare books" was a lesson well learned, as those with wits sharp enough circled the little town, stalking the charity folk from one place of learning to the next.
At twelve, Blueman found a place as bailer-boy in the open pulling coble, Robert and Mary, so ending his school days. From now he would learn from what befell him, without much sense of the right to an inner life, or perspective on the world that reading might have given him. Book learning, he had been told, was the gateway to life. Though those who mouthed their unreflected certainties, based on paper-thin learning, did not speculate that the uncultivated man may acquire wisdom beyond their own, precisely because, lacking society's common clutch of ready-made judgements and mental habits, his original, fine net-like delicacy of mind, designed to catch its true catch, may, if somehow maintained against the odds, allow access of essential impacts of life unmediated.
The morality-mongers--virtues worn like beads on a string, without noticeable acquisition of merit from the display--were seemingly unaware that true knowledge is perhaps not gained by straining after fact, but is at all times there, layer upon layer, ready to be found within the individual. Or that it is hidden prejudice, received opinion, automatic assumptions--caught like viruses, but believed to be their endowment, to be their very selves--that cover the individual like rags thrown over a narcoleptic sleeper, which must be removed for knowledge to stand a chance of waking that sleeper.
And so he began life at sea with little learning, and the belief that the strength of his back counted for more than his brain, sharp and numerate though it was; that to be was to be doing; not to be doing, meant you weren't worth a breath.
Crouched on her bottom boards for six hours or more among the rowers' boots with an old saucepan, bailing out seawater that seethed up through tired planking and dashed in over her sides, he kept himself to his daily task by dreaming of a half-decked boat he and Woodpeg might one day own, potting, long-lining, salmon-netting where they chose, answering to no bugger. And maybe, when wind, tide, and season were right, and luck in the right quarter, maybe far beyond Kettleness, or Robin Hood's Bay, or halfway to the Dogger Bank, they would net something never landed before--a mermaid, with bloody great jewels for eyes, and solid gold scales and tail--that would make them flush with money and famous all over town, maybe even as far as York!
But the dream was to help surmount each day, fill the unfillable void, fruit of generations of want, not to be believed. Luck fell to them that were lucky. The rest must keep a sharp eye out for luck's crusts.
One morning in his place on the bottom boards, young Blue was told to smash in half a large smooth stone, to make two pot weights, lashed down in every crab pot to sink it to the seabed when heaved overboard. Striking the stone fiercely with a short iron bar, blow upon blow upon blow, until finally it split, revealing a small core of softer rock inside that he could score with his thumb nail, he gazed at the halved mass, and wondered how it had endured his violent attack for so long. How it had tossed and rolled about in the sea, impervious, maybe for all time; and how it had preserved inside a character completely different from its outer. In truth, he did not know the word "endurance," and the experience was direct to his mind, unmediated except by a few inchoate words.
But he knew, from that inspired moment, that it was given to him, Jack Blueman Richardson, to be no less than that stone: that its quality of endurance was also his gift, and would mark him always. And his sharp mind knew that he must add to that gift by discovering an angle at which to stand to the world to make himself indispensable in everyday life, beyond criticism by all he might encounter.
Unlike her grown-man crew of three--four, depending on season--he had no gear in the Robert and Mary to provide a share, instead being slipped a few pennies after the quayside market, and maybe a couple of fish or brace of crabs to take home to the family table. Again as with all baler-boys, young Blue's future hope lay in somebody's exit from the boat.
Peg's schooling followed a similar pattern, though learning, perversely, attached itself to him, from literacy and numeracy, and an unquenchable curiosity about early English history, to an unfolding array of skills in observation and hand-and-eye coordination of inexplicable instinct and delicacy--as if he had been granted a sense of deep matters concerning the greater, natural world, developed not by stepping back to marvel but by first intuiting, then entering into them, grasping their place.
Before he too began his sea life, at thirteen, his summer-time practice provided his lifelong nickname. Bundling his ragged clothes in a piece of oilcloth, he would leap off the end of Tate Hill pier and swim the half mile up harbour to school by the old Whitehall shipyard, amazing a community for whom the sea was always work and never deliberately entered. Few learned to swim. "Yon Storrey lad," they marvelled, "flooats like a bloody clothes peg!"
His mother died giving Peg birth. With his lame fisherman father Billy at sea, in an unlucky boat yielding meagre catches, the boy had to shift for himself from first memory. Despite often being driven to beg for coppers in Church Street, self-conscious in his only footwear, a bulging pair of women's high-heeled button-up boots, and perhaps from some hidden necessity in his genetic code, he grew like an English oak.
In his threadbare home no smallest food scrap was ever wasted. Any crusts were placed in an old cake tin, eventually sealed by his father with candle-wax to save for winter's harsher days. Iron rules promised survival and might be enforced with a quick beating, which Billy would rehearse with grim humour, snatching up a chair, threatening to hit the youth with all four legs, "frae fower directions at yance!"
Entering the deserted cottage one day, Peg was transfixed to see on the table a plate bearing a wedge of pork pie. Dazed by hunger and the inexplicable fact of the pie, he could not stop himself snatching it up and cramming it into his mouth. In his distress he broke the plate. In panic, he pencilled a note of fine dissembling ambiguity, and fled. The note read: the cat has broke the plate and the pie is eaten. They had no cat.
Inshore fishermen spent half a life at sea, the boat a second home. Shore time imposed often-bleak domestic constraints; and drink was a dark ever-present cloud that threatened to enfold them in brief release. Yet if there was dubious safety ashore, there was untrammelled breathing space at sea. The shifting horizon, the fresh, clean daylight, once clear of harbour and riding the steep North Sea swell, might blow into the mind a sense of vigour; of renewal. Sometimes, in rare summer weather, the great sea lay all about them like a spotless mirror, a palimpsest, on which they might hope to imprint stories of new deeds, of amazing catches.
But catches of biblical abundance were not caught; not since the great herring gluts of the previous century. And the profit, thrills and addictive fear involved in the cognac and tobacco smuggling practised by their grandfathers, with night transfers of contraband at sea from sailing brigs from France, and the constant menace of noose-wielding excise men, were long gone. Now, as they endlessly crossed the sinister bar between sea and shore, shore and sea, on which side true escape lay was not certain.
Besides the town's isolation between high lonely moors and the gun-metal grey North Sea, an unforgiving climate shaped the local character: close-faced, dour, tenacious, practical; and when it mattered, compassionate--without display. Practicality made men aim to put to sea with a full stomach, insulated against cold and shock, with a better chance of survival if caught, swamped in a storm or, God help you, dragged overboard, a pot-line raffled about your feet, pulling you fathoms deep, struggling to get at your clasp-knife to cut yourself free.
Lard, well salted to hide the texture, plastered on slabs of white bread was the main stomach-liner among the open-boat crews. A few early motor cobles like Mizpah with her tiny fo'c'sle had a small wood-burning stove which could heat an iron pot. In good times, catch stowed, Blueman would crouch, eyes streaming in an evil inspissation of petrol fumes, wood-smoke and, in late summer, reeking herring oil, stirring a slop of mutton scraps, swede and potato, spiked with a fiery charge of curry powder, topped if they were in luck with a sup of dark Navy rum. With this feast inside him he wished for little more, a sea-prince in his heaving North Sea domain.
The fishermen's code, stamped like a high-value assay mark onto each man's spirit--that mysterious, inexhaustible source of drive and character--included one great moral given, with no reflection needed: you went, always, to the help of those in peril on the seas. It required that the best provide crew for the lifeboat--voluntary, ever-ready. The reputations of Woodpeg and Blueman, brother Lal and brother-in-law Jack "Tuppenny" Dryden, of "Dandy" Storr, of powerful, brooding Tom Whelam and a dozen others grew through a roll-call of rescues, though none--even in the great storm of February 1861, with five shipwrecked crews saved in a day and the lifeboat, in a sixth rescue attempt, capsized on the harbour-bar drowning twelve of her exhausted thirteen-man crew in full view of the gathered townsfolk--none surpassed the epic rescue of the hospital ship SS Rohilla.
A fine 7,409 ton converted liner, 460 feet, stem to stern, she was wrecked on a shoal near the east cliff one fearsome night in November 1914, having sailed the previous day from Queensferry on the Firth of Forth, bound to pick up wounded soldiers at Dunkirk.
Blueman, elder brother Lal, and two more of their kin--men whose own few worldly goods would be humped on backs, down Church Street to the pawnbroker's on Mondays--were in the thirteen-man crew who battled two hellish days and nights in the No. 2 pulling lifeboat John Fielden, saving thirty-five lives including five nurses--one a survivor of the Titanic disaster two years gone--in two attempts of utmost heroism before the lifeboat was smashed to kindling by sea and rocks. (The last fifty were rescued next day by the Tynemouth boat Henry Vernon, first of the rnli's motorised life-boats, in a manner that stunned onlookers and local crewmen with its unsweated mechanical power and ease.)
Of a crew and medical staff of two hundred and twenty-nine, eighty-four drowned, the event leaving the tough little town below its ironstone cliffs and ruined abbey stunned, with a terrible new piece of history to absorb, as men retrieved the bloated, naked bodies washed amongst the rocks or floated into the harbour over weeks, as if in pursuit of the living.
Early in 1917 the German Navy intensified U-boat activity against merchantmen and the small wooden craft of the north-east fishing fleets alike, sinking over sixty vessels with mines, torpedoes, and surface gunfire that year alone. Mizpah had her closest call that winter when a U-boat surfaced thirty yards off, strafing and sinking three cobles lying with their gear over the side, killing all the crewmen. Blueman and crew had sacrificed their gear, quietly cutting free of it for Mizpah to slip astern into the dense fog, helpless to assist, knowing the others were done for. In a deeply superstitious community her escape earned Mizpah the reputation of a lucky boat.
One raw dawn in January 1918, Blueman had been forced to put to sea without cigarettes or makings--cheaper roll-up tobacco. By the time they had steamed north by Kettleness Point he'd grown faint for want of a smoke, a passenger in the boat, trembling too hard to work his gear, his situation worsened by the other three's imperviousness to the craving. Tobacco was scarce and the cheap, pungent Woodbines augmented by straw-thin roll-ups didn't last far into the week, when you also needed nicotine to help keep your belly quiet.
Peg was home awaiting a new posting, his last steamer torpedoed and sunk under him in mid-Atlantic, and for a few days he resumed his berth in Mizpah. He being reckoned the finest fisherman on the north-east coast, it was usual for other skippers to come asking him where and when to fish, in such and such conditions of wind and sea and seabed character.
Yet a thing he could not pass on to others was his extraordinary ability to sense, then to feel the presence of fish through the boat. At intuition's unfathomable susurration, he would call for the engine stopped, the vessel then drifting quietly on the current as he hauled off leather thigh-boots to stand, above six feet tall in sea-boot stockings, shifting delicately about like a skilled dowser probing a force field with forked hazel twig, as he felt and felt for the silent presence of fish through his toes.
It was said he could tell the size, even type of a shoal, swimming beneath their keel. When sure, he would call for nets or long-lines with their three-hundred-and-ninety mussel-baited hooks "shot," the engine being restarted, and the boat steered to draw the gear into a wide arc. It didn't always work, though catches had improved since war began. Some thanked Kaiser Bill, reckoning wartime reductions in fishing, despite frequent mine and torpedo detonations, had let stocks rebuild.
Mizpah's evil-smelling petrol motor was shut off now for Woodpeg's magic performance; but Blueman was deteriorating fast, and they were about to restart her and turn for home when through freezing roke--the wet, penetrating fog that shut out everything but itself--came a muffled explosion, maybe two miles nor'-east of them. The sound was familiar: a German mine, probably struck by a merchantman whose look-outs would have seen little through the weather.
Swinging about and steaming at their full five knots they soon came upon what was left, a pathetic swirl of flotsam, with one stunned seaman clinging to a half-submerged wooden crate. His small coaster, on passage from Scotland, had taken the mine on her larboard bow and gone down like a sack of stone, leaving him sole survivor from a crew of eight.
"What boat am I in?" asked the "Scotchman" when they'd hauled him aboard and were getting a mug of tea into him.
"t'Mizpah, frae Whitby," answered Woodpeg.
"Then God help m'luck," gasped the mariner, "It's the second time in three years you same buggers have fished m'oot!"
Blueman's instinct for the proximity of a bit of baccy was not far short of Peg's for a shoal of codling, and at that moment it pressed in on him more surely than the astonishment at the two-time rescue.
While the others did their best for the survivor, Blue revived sufficiently to grab the clep, the boat-hook kept always to hand, blashing at the sea to coax the crate alongside, then clawing at it in a rapidly mounting swell. "What was her load, bonny lad?" he called hoarsely over his shoulder to Scotchie.
"Baccy! Three hundred-and-fifty bloody tons. Roll-up and pipe baccy. We were on our way wi' it to our lads in France."
The man's life-raft packed with enough tobacco to keep a British Army platoon coughing in France for weeks was hauled inboard almost single-handedly by Blueman, his life redeemed no less than the shipwrecked sailor's. "Second time lucky for us, bonny lad!" he growled in triumph. "Thissel we can allus catch, but we nivver catched a six month's fume o' baccy afooare!" And Mizpah's heaving deck was suddenly the grandest place on earth to stand; and for many weeks Blueman was a rich man who did not want for company ashore.
Mizpah was old but unburdened with debt, providing a living between dire and near-adequate for Blueman, brother Lal, Peg, Will Dryden, and Bill Kelly through the nineteen twenties and into the thirties, the significance of her ancient Biblical, keep-safe name unknown to them. Their enemy in war or peace was wind and sea in the wrong combination; yet the elements they could always see and sniff, and judge. Then in '34, disaster struck from below.
From a press account, "It was the important potting season, when boats put to sea piled high with crab and lobster pots and no one could afford to miss out on such valuable catches. High on the east cliff coastguard station the black storm cone was hoisted, yet many boats sailed, including Mizpah, now old and unfit for the stresses of another winter.
"Crossing the bar between the pier extensions through a mounting swell she fell into a trough and struck her back on the sand bar, shuddered, righted herself and staggered on. Driving on through heavy seas in the great open bay towards Sandsend Ness and beyond, she now sprang a serious leak.
"Despite all efforts at the pump the waters rose quickly. While one lit flares from a small supply to signal distress, Jack 'Blueman' Richardson led the rigging of a boom, hoping to keep them afloat till rescue might come, for clearly she was going to sink.
"Now they were down to their last flare, and no boat had spotted them. Suddenly the modern keelboat Galilee, steaming to her pots further down the coast, sighted little Mizpah's last despairing flare. Round she came, full ahead, and now Galilee's skipper saw the other's desperate plight. Mizpah's engineer wiped sweat from his face as water seethed in her engine room. It was not possible to steam any longer. All four crew mustered on deck, boots off for the extra moments on the surface it might give them, awaiting the final plunge, for none but Woodpeg could swim a stroke; but up came Galilee. Within three minutes of Mizpah's crew being helped to scramble aboard Galilee, up came her stern and down she went, a fearsome sight to all who love a ship."
Peg's secret dilemma was thus resolved. A bachelor then and for all his days, he had loved Blueman's wife Frances since they were all three young together; and once she married, he had vowed to himself to watch over his friend, whenever he could, as long as they both were spared. Even he could have held afloat only one man in that sea for any time.
The crew's reality differed from the reporter's and they did not share fully the latter's poetic sensibility, their own antiphons expressed in short, violent Anglo-Saxon. Yet, Mizpah's sinking promised a turn of the tide in Blueman's and Peg's affairs: the ancient sense of her name maybe protecting them in a way they could not have guessed. With their share of the insurance payout the two, together with Matt and Tom Hutchinson, scraped together the balance of the fourteen hundred pounds to commission a fine, sturdy Clyde-build keelboat, which they named Endeavour, in honour of local hero Captain James Cook.
Forty-eight feet of seasoned oak, larch, and Oregon pine, and deck-timbers that rang to their delighted stamp. With a sweet-voiced diesel by Ruston & Hornsby of Lincoln giving her a touch over eight knots, and a belt-driven capstan lightening the back-break of gear hauling, she was the steadiest if not fastest sea-boat in the fleet. And while they could not admit any such thing, Blueman and Peg had realised their boyhood dream of owning a boat of their own specifying.
The measure of luck Mizpah bequeathed them lasted a full five years, interspersed with close calls, occasional terrors, and others' disasters at sea. Then came the Monday morning buff papers from the Ministry in London, requisitioning Endeavour for conversion as a coastal patrol vessel in the Royal Navy Patrol Service, the wooden-hulled mine-hunter fleet, in the dark Dunkirk days of May 1940.
First of the local boats to go, she was handed over in a brief ceremony on the New Quay by Blueman, Peg and Matt Hutchinson, all in Sunday-best rig, to a young Naval half-striper, a rosy-futured sub-lieutenant of maybe twenty-six, and his five-man crew, all displaying the proud silver badge of their specialist support Service. And as she cruised down harbour to lift her bow to the swell on the bar, new white ensign fluttering astern, they followed in silence, treading in step to the end of the west pier extension, watched her swing east-south-east for her new port of Lowestoft, to disappear at last in light haze, and the start of her unknowable war.
Each man, now in late middle-age, had been shaped, toughened, kept inexplicably buoyant, during a life confronting peril along with occasional modest triumph. Yet though none spoke it, each knew that in the struggle into which they had been born, their lives were set in stone; and this new war, which had already taken their beautiful keelboat, was just one more battle. That win or lose, it would have little bearing on their greater battle: against the dark undertow that would always rip at their luck unseen.
And Blueman knew, in that secret chamber of his mind where he assessed, like a shoreline scavenger, what scraps of fortune might come his way, that fishing from some half-rotten tub they might find down the coast to replace her, there was neea chance they'd ivver catch that manky aud "mermaid," their Scotchman, again.
And suddenly, half turning to face the others, his head tilted back and he quietly began to laugh--laugh his hoarse laugh that reminded some of the wind playing over rust: a half-exultant sound they each understood without remark. For he was challenging life's latest go at beating out of them the endurance, the sheer bloody harder-than-granite power of endurance he felt rising bible-black within him. The self-generating, everlasting quality of impenetrable endurance, poured into him as his special gift, along with the spirit to use it, even before he had been pulled mewling into the light of day.
[Mizpah is set in the tiny historic North Sea fishing port of Whitby. Its early monastery of Saxon abbess Lady Hild hosted the 7th century Synod of Whitby, that establishment later destroyed by the Vikings; in the 18th century the town was home port of explorer Captain James Cook; in the 19th, it was part-setting for Bram Stoker's gothic chiller, Dracula, where his great black hound came ashore.
Mizpah is a companion-piece to "The Birthday Knife," published on line, March 2006, in Carve Magazine.]
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