THE ICE BELL
POEM PROJECT: BACKGROUND.
I was born and raised in the port of Hull, where going into the fishing industry for a school leaver was the equivalent of having to go down the pit. Luckily I avoided having to sail on trawlers, because I joined the Merchant Navy on my 16th birthday and spent seven comparatively safe years at sea.
However, we ‘Big Boat men’ had it easy compared to fishermen. The triple trawler tragedy of 1968 when 60 men lost their lives was an illustration of just how dangerous deep sea fishing was.
Today, Hull’s fishing industry is dead and gone, but at the Star and Garter Pub (known to all trawler men as ‘Rayner’s’) on Hull’s Hessle Road, the landlady there runs a charity for ex-fishermen and a small museum of fishing memorabilia. I wanted to contribute something in my own way in respect for those brave men, and as a writer, I thought a framed poem reminding people of the tragedy of 1968, which resulted in a massive campaign for new health and safety regulations, would make some small contribution. Well, sad to say my idea remains unclaimed, nicely framed and in the attic. But here's the poem anyway, for anyone interested.
the Ice Bell
In the days before the ice bell rang.
Warm and safe, ashore seemed heaven
Oh, what a Christmas, sixty-seven.
Yet that joyful Yuletide memory,
Was crushed forever by the sea.
What sickness filled Poseidon’s mind
What rage could make a sea-god blind
To joy on shore where children sang
Their carols for a fisherman?
Did Neptune envy shore-side days
In Rayners or the old Broadway,
A deckie learner’s wages, spent,
Whatever could the fates resent?
The tides they rose, the tides they fell,
But none could hear the shrill ice bell.
Beyond the cliffs of Holderness
The grey sea beckoned, merciless,
Its bounty, haddock, plaice and cod
A prize for those who challenge God.
In January, sixty-eight,
The crews all gathered, Skippers, Mates,
Deckie learners, engineers,
Galley boys and cooks who feared
Nothing of the ocean’s rage
As they signed up to earn a wage.
As anxious families watched the clock
Their men, bound for St. Andrew’s dock
With kitbags in their taxis sped
To join the hunt their skippers led.
Hull Brewery bitter, pints of mild
Still on the breath of those who filed
On board Ross Cleveland, St. Romanus,
The Kingston Peridot, abuzz
With how this trip might stuff the hatch
To settle with a record catch.
Upon each cold departure date
Some gathered by the old lock gates
As out into the muddy Humber
Slipped those fated, fading numbers;
H61, H223, H591, bound for a sea
Where balmy summer was long past,
Replaced by winter’s wicked blast.
They’d let go for’ard, let go aft,
And listening to the radio, laughed,
As Tom Jones sang ‘I’m coming home’
Whilst steel bows cut through wind-lashed foam
And like all Hull sailors always yearn
They felt that pull of home at Spurn.
Cook got busy, stove fired up,
Sweet tea in pint mugs duly supped
Up on the bridge the Skipper paced
As they sped northwards, making haste
Un-worried by the rising swell,
For fishing grounds all known so well
By countless Captains, gone before,
Who’d heard the ice bell at death’s door.
On land, in Hull, away from harm,
The children slept in peaceful calm
Whilst many hundred miles away
The sun refused to start the day
Beneath that heavy, snow-filled sky
Not even greedy gulls could cry
Against the towering, icy waves
Mere mortal men were forced to brave
The patron saint of choirs and song
Saint Romanus did not last long
For now the ship which bore his name
Was swallowed in the raging main
A squall which peaked around force ten
Snuffed out the lives of twenty men
And whilst unknowing, families slept,
Across the North Sea silence crept.
Kingston Peridot, H591
Soon heard the ice bell’s mournful song
Off Iceland’s shores she’d dropped her trawl
Yet none could heed her tragic call
As ice piled up on masts and decks
She soon would join those tragic wrecks
Deep down upon the black sea’s floor
Where countless souls had gone before.
As throughout Hull the dark fear spread
For husbands, fathers, sons feared dead
Their anxious families tried to cope
And prayed that silence promised hope
That in the stillness all was well
Yet still more men would hear the bell.
Bold Ross Cleveland, H61
Through icy hell had struggled on
And from her Skipper, brave Phil Gay,
Came one last call that fateful day
From his doomed crew he sent their love
Whilst towering, wicked wild waves shoved
The ice-bound ship beneath the swell,
The final victory for the bell.
Neptune had swallowed 58
Yet left one man, the Cleveland’s Mate,
Washed ashore in bitter gales,
And only he could tell the tale.
Then as the cruel sea still rolled,
In Hull another bell would toll
A painful peal which spoke of fear,
As those bereaved shed bitter tears.
In mansions magnates counted costs
Of tonnage sunk and harvests lost
But as the sad hymns died away
A rising anger seized the day.
Enraged and fearless in their pain
Wives and mothers fought to gain
Safety for their fishing fleets,
Demands Westminster had to meet.
Six thousand bereft children, wives,
One hundred years, six thousand lives,
Surrendered to their masters’ wish,
How bitter, steep, the price of fish.
Yet still men brave the freezing swell,
Whilst listening for the grim Ice Bell.