Grimsby c.1880
Consigned to the hellbound lurching 
of smacks, we were a back street surplus, 
a poorhouse dross with tainted blood. 
Worth less than slaves or cattle
that have to be bought or reared,
we were the spillage of couplings 
in damp infested rooms.
A lost brood of liars and thieves, 
predisposed to mischief, we were damned
from the moment our lungs cleared –
swaddled in filth and howling.
Hollow chested, intractable, we were unfit 
for a uniform or even a grave
on some frittering ledge of the empire.
So fetched up here instead 
in this port of outlaws, signed over
to masters whose pockets jangled coin,
but soon grew intolerant
of stubborn mumblings 
and fumbled attempts at fourteen
to match the skills and muscles of men.
For each God-bothering skipper
there were plenty more who’d bait us
or look the other way when deckies,  
cooks and mates tried to tame us
with ‘good natured ribbing’ 
that always went too far: their mock
‘executions’ and acts that ‘never happened’.
We came in our thousands to learn 
the value of a rudimentary trade, 
with droves absconding to the haven 
we found in Lincoln Gaol: written off, 
released. Others perished hauling lines,
or slipped from the rigging, barely missed,
their details logged in a spindling script.

The slow haul back you think of little else
but a stamping ground less bleak than Faroes,
Fair Isle, Viking, but still have work to do. 
Scouring, swabbing and sluicing down
the gangways, decks and quarters, 
you grease moving parts, while all things 
that shift and roll are stowed away, 
until there’s nothing out of place
to snag the agent’s curmudgeonly gaze,
or give him scope to knock back your wages…
With a lathering of cheap carbolic soap, 
some aftershave and a slap of Brylcreem
you’ll scrub up yourself, good enough at least, 
with cash on hip and a clean shirt,
for the tarts that shoal in shadows 
around Riby Square or come across for trade 
in the warm lee of certain boozers –
The Kent Arms, The Humber, the fractious
dives where ale flows freely  
and mind-numbing gregariousness
absorbs the wad you’ve slaved for; 
and while you’re flush you’ll pull her in,
some girl that’s caught your eye –
her hands softer than braiders’ hands,
but in their way as skilful. 

He has a way with a pint that hints 
at who he is. It starts as the ale is drawn,
his eyes moving from the barmaid’s chest 
to her grip on the polished wood
of the pump. Along the tilted side 
of the glass, the liquid rises 
as if spelling danger, or re-establishing 
an equilibrium, while the over-lively froth 
gushes forth like loose talk 
before it drains into the slops; 
and when the measure’s attained,
with a small headspace left, 
she sets it up on the counter 
for him to assay. He pauses briefly,
holds it up, then gives it a quarter turn,
staring into it like a talisman,
or the dark mirror that shows him 
what he needs to see. 

Gale-battered survivors
of distant water, they trawled 
a featureless nowhere
to make ends meet. 
Enduring iron cold 
and routine extremes 
of oceanic storm, 
they hove past torpedoes, 
mines, gunboats. 
Sweeping channels 
to keep them clear
for North Atlantic convoys, 
they netted scrap 
for years, ending up as pawns
in Cold War, Cod War, 
and scuppering deals.
Holding their own 
against the worst 
that arctic skies 
and deep swells muster,
they came to grief 
on a creeping tide –
twelve miles, fifty 
and then two hundred…
While here’s one 
that’s found its anchorage
beyond breakers’ yards,
where unindentured
boys with rods 
fish for tiddlers 
and the Sainsbury’s trolley, 
sunk for a lark, may still one day 
be salvaged.