Men at work: the silence of work on a fishing trawler

Ross Tiger in Grimsby. Credit: Chris Allen
Ross Tiger in Grimsby. Credit: Chris Allen

John watched a heavy door crush his hand and slice his finger off, but he wouldn’t change his life for a second. He stands on the deck of the retired fishing trawler he used to work on and tells me that his skipper gave him some brandy to numb the pain in his shattered hand and then pulled the ship into a harbour for some medical attention. Once the doctors had stitched him up, John was back at work again.

I want to tell you that John is proud of everything the Ross Tiger trawler stands for. Today it doesn’t have much to stand for: the fishing industry in Grimsby is all but gone. The Tiger is the only trawler left of the 700 that used to trundle out into the North Sea to fish. “When she’s gone it’ll be the end of Grimsby’s history,” says John. She sits rusting in a permanent dock next to a Sainsbury’s, like a grandmother parked in a neglectful care home.

John loves the knowledge he has, and he drops noun after noun as he describes the workings of the trawler. Jiltson, lancasters, bobbins. Most of all he loves how tough it was, although he never says so. He just describes how tough it was: working 48 hours with no rest, being tossed about by 100-foot seas. He doesn’t have to say it was tough because that would be boastful. And yet he manages to boast anyway—mostly in the way he reels off his facts and then says playfully, “Have you got it?” He says it in a way so as to pretend that I’m a crew member who is being trained and who needs to respect his authority and what he is saying to me.

Not for a moment does John say this trawler was a blokey place. He doesn’t even mention that only men were allowed. He says the wives and girlfriends stayed at home, and adds that the men never worried about the women at home, not even the fact that the women were worrying about the men. “They worried,” he says, “not us.” This is the most shocking thing John says to me; it is far more shocking than the story of how he lost his finger. It must have taken a lot of training for these men to block out their anxieties about their loved ones back home, but John seems to say that they managed it. He’s proud of this too, is John. He’s proud of everything.

He’s even proud of the fact that the men in the cabin next to the engine room would have to sleep through the roaring sound of the propeller engine and the winchester engine that hauls the nets in. “We need the noise to sleep,” he says. “The noisier, the safer.” There was even a nearby one-ton door that banged hard against the steel hull as men came and went.

John is nothing if not nostalgic. He doesn’t come off as if he thinks the country has gone to the dogs. He doesn’t seem bitter than European quotas and fishing zones killed off Grimsby’s trawlers and turned the town into a food distributor instead. But he does believe that the old days were better. When he tells schoolchildren how much a beer used to cost in the 60s and 70s, they look at him blankly because they don’t understand old money. “Breaks my heart,” he says and I can hardly think of a greater exaggeration.

Sometimes I like to think I could have made it in a tough job like John’s. But I doubt it. I’d have lost much more than my finger. I wanted to ask John what would have happened if a crew-member said something like, “No, skipper, I’ve been gutting fish for 48 hours straight, I can’t go on, I’m clocking off and going to bed.” Or maybe even something like, “Skip, it’s too hot in the engine room, it’s too stuffy, we need some kind of ventilation.”

I get the feeling that the skipper would have told that person to sod off. Worse, he probably would have laughed at him. And so would everyone else.

John didn’t once talk about discomfort on my tour of the Ross Tiger, and I can only assume that he avoided it when she was a working ship too. Sure the men would have grumbled but never for a moment would they have suggested that the situation could be any different. John feels this so passionately that he even implies that he’s happy to have lost his finger on the job.

The job has to be what it is, the men have to be what they are, and the trawler is a steel object still floating in a dock in Grimsby. She is silent. She is wasting away and pretending that things cannot ever change.

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