Before you set foot onto the deck of the Kingston Jet, the James Joyce, and the Arctic Kestrel Museum in our North American Premiere of Under the Whaleback, check out this five-part series by Dramaturg Walter Bilderback about the rich history, maritime culture, and world-wide impact of Cod Fishing.
In 1958, Iceland decided to protect their share of the declining cod stock by extending their territorial waters from 4 miles to 12. The British responded by sending warships to protect the trawler fleet. This first Cod War lasted until, when Britain accepted the 12 mile limit. (British trawlers continued to poach fish inside the limits whenever possible.) Things remained stable until 1972, when Iceland announced it was extending the waters to 100 miles from the coast. Since cod is a cold water fish that sticks to the continental shelf, this eliminated most of the Icelandic catch. Again, Iceland and Britain engaged in games with each other, including shots exchanged between warships. Again Britain gave in.
The end came after the third Cod War. This one started in 1975, when Iceland extended its waters to 200 miles. Norway joined Iceland, and eventually 200 miles became the international standard. All the distant water fishing grounds were now closed to the British. To worsen the sting for the Hull fishermen, Iceland is rumored to have offered a quota for British fishing close to what constituted a good season's catch, only to be rejected by Her Majesty's Government, including Hull's own MP, because of their demand for a quota that was impossible to fill.
by Wilma Dramaturg Walter Bilderback
Cod is responsible for all of this. The boats, the deckies, Hull itself in a way. And yet in many respects Hull came late to the game.
"Cod should have lasted forever, and for a very long time it was assumed that it would,” Mark Kurlansky writes. “As late as 1885, the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture said, 'Unless the order of nature is overthrown, for centuries to come our fisheries will continue to be fertile." A century later, cod fishing from the Great Banks to the St. Lawrence estuary was closed. For the British fishing industry, however, the end of cod was a matter of politics as well as scarcity, with Britain and Iceland engaging in three "Cod Wars" between 1958 and 1976.
Kurlansky started the pop-historical genre sometimes called "micro history" with his book Cod: The Story of the Fish That Changed the World. (He's since expanded the genre on his own with Salt - a topic closely-related to cod almost everywhere except Britain and North America - and The Big Oyster.) Cod shows how its namesake may have led to the European discovery of North America, and how this once ubiquitous northern fish (an 1856 book described it as "too well known to require any description") became a staple part of the European, African, North and South American diets, became what most people thought of as "fish," before technological advances led to the almost-complete collapse of its stocks.
"It's a tough town, Hull, but we are mad and proud."
Richard Bean is one of the most important playwrights to emerge in Britain in this century. He's best-known for his farce One Man, Two Guvnors, which ran on Broadway last year. Here is the full interview with Wilma Dramaturg Walter Bilderback.
WALTER BILDERBACK: You had a somewhat unusual career path to playwriting, at least from an American standpoint. You started out as an occupational psychologist and then became a stand-up comic, if I recall. How did that develop?
RICHARD BEAN: Yes, I trained in Social Psychology at Uni, mainly an American discipline with the dominant psychologists being Milgram, Asch, Skinner. I ended up with a BSc and went into the occupational side.
WB: What led to the transition to playwriting?
RB: I'd been working in Personnel and Training departments in big factory situations for 15 years and all of that time I was corrupting myself with the literary education that I hadn't had at university. Specifically I started reading Henry Miller, Kerouac, Steinbeck, and Conrad - just for fun really, but it was Henry Miller who corrupted me just through serendipity. I was working as a Personnel Officer in a telecoms company and I, by chance, started reading Tropic of Capricorn, which is Miller's story of his life in New York and Brooklyn as a Personnel Office for a Telecoms company - and I was corrupted. I became self-conscious about my work, which destroyed my ability to do it, and so, bit by bit, I started writing, and my first step was stand-up comedy.
by Walter Bilderback
Under the Whaleback takes place in a now-lost world: the sidewinder trawlers that sailed out of Hull and nearby ports between the 1880s and 1980s, providing generations of Britons with cod and haddock for their beloved fish and chips. The industry created a class of blue-collar aristocrats along Hessle Road - "blasphemous saints and splendid drunken heroes," as a Hull song put it. Then, the industry disappeared - a victim both of its own success and international competition.
The first sidewinder was launched in Hull in 1881. Powered first by steam and then diesel engines, these ships could pull much larger nets, increasing their hauls. They were called "sidewinders" because they hauled their nets off the starboard side of the ship. The fish were gutted on the open fishdeck, often in sub-freezing weather and Force 8 winds (60-65 mph). In order to provide some protection for the fishdeck, the trawlers developed "whalebacks" - raised bows. Sometimes, as in this play, the crews' quarters were located under the whaleback.
Week 3, business as usual - I’m hiding away, gargling with warm salt water, waking up in a cold sweat, drinking more water, hearing ship’s horns in the night, reading James Joyce and comic books and westerns, memorizing lines, wearing a groove into the sidewalk between my apartment and the theatre, eating raisins, and farting a lot.
And now we get to play on our boat.
We have a gangway, a top-side, a companionway, a drying room, and living quarters. We have bunks and benches and a table with a pole.
And we have a list-to port.
(2 weeks into rehearsal and we’ve already gorra fuckin’ list!)
We climb around and investigate. The first thing we do is start sending sound from our bodies into the wood and into the tile floor and the metal and, of course, into each other. We feel it escape from the sides, up the companionway, into the rafters, and we try to direct it from every bit of our bodies into the seats. We say our dialect-soaked lines, drowning in the vowels and paddling for the consonants. We improvise conversations with each other while we move in the space, talking to each other with our backs, our hips, our bellies, our heads, but never with our eyes. We get frustrated. We say what we’re feeling. Then we go home. So ends us and the boat - first contact.
Earle Gister, my 1st year acting teacher at drama school, once told our class (I’m quoting loosely here), “Actors don’t realize that when they walk out on stage they’ve already done 90% of the work - they’re living, breathing, human beings - we believe that - they don’t have to prove it. The last 10 %?( his top hand sliding over his bottom hand in a plane-taking-off gesture)… cowboys and Indians."