The process of writing this collection began in the distant early spring of 2016 when Gill Wilde, promoter and director at Grimsby Jazz asked if I’d like to collaborate on a jazz and poetry project with Alan Barnes and Pat McCarthy in which we would use the heritage of fishing in Grimsby as inspiration. I was thrilled to be asked, not just because of my Grimsby origins and the fact that people here are 90% sea water and 10% east wind but because the story is a compelling and multi-faceted one. Furthermore, the opportunity to work with musicians of such outstanding calibre was not something I was going to miss.
Gill arranged a visit to the Grimsby Fishing Heritage Centre and a tour of The Ross Tiger, the trawler that stands in dock as a lasting testimonial to the astonishing fleet that made Grimsby one of the most significant fishing ports in the world at its heyday. It’s always made me sad how through my lifetime I have seen the docks decay and fall into disuse and disrepair. There is a wealth of history and heritage here that has been allowed to fall into nothing.
The tour of the centre and the trawler were impactful and I set about writing and produced the first draft of the poems very quickly. I like to write collections in this way as I can capture a mood and feeling and the work is always more cogent when it comes as a flurry. Refining, editing and revising is where the real work is done and that took longer and was exciting as the poems developed their form and shape.
The story of fishing in Grimsby is a bleak one. It was built on a corrupt system of apprenticing boys from orphanages and workhouses and exploiting their labour. It was dangerous and uncertain and loss of life was an occupational hazard. However, I didn’t want the poems to just be bleak and unrelenting – like the work itself. I sought ways of telling stories about fishing that had elements of awe, wonder and magic about them. This led me to explore superstition and myth and to some wonderful and mysterious findings. Two of the poems, Witches in Eggshells and The Fisherman and the Seal Woman are centred on myths and the influence it had on our seafaring community. I also looked to nature and the power of the elements. I was particularly unnerved by the power of the barfrost, the black frost that could sink ships rapidly. The poem Barfrost is an attempt at capturing the fear and danger it represented.
Once the poems were written I was able to wait, with considerable anticipation, to hear Pat and Alan’s music. I knew it would be brilliant and I knew the ensemble of musicians performing it would bring the whole work to life in a visceral way.
On May 18th, 2016, Gill and I were sitting in the Old Clee Club as the musicians warmed up and Alan gave his directions. I was trembling with excitement and when the first notes of the suite sounded, Gill and I yelped and leapt up. The air in the club danced and I was overwhelmed. What a sound. Alan’s arrangements were full of detail and movement. I could feel the sea as the music rose and swelled and then ebbed back.
During the premier performance that evening I was carried with the rhythms and tones of the octet and as I performed the poems I felt them fit the music, I felt my voice working to carry the mood and nuance of the suite. It was an astonishing experience and the rapturous response of the audience was as moving as it was surprising. As a poet I am used to reading to quiet and polite audiences, and I enjoy that, but this was something else entirely. It was the same at the Cleethorpes Jazz Festival and the euphoria I felt swept me away.
And so, what a thrill to be taking A Fish Tale on a national tour this year. We start in July in Hull and Grimsby and then take a leisurely national excursion with it until mid November. All dates plus information regarding tickets are here on the website with links to venues.
The book A Fish Tale is available to buy for £6.50 (including postage and packing) via the secure Paypal link (leave your address in the notes): paypal.me/msjosiemoon
The CD is available by following the link to Alan’s pages: http://www.alanbarnesjazz.com