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."
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.
Once again, world war gave the cod stocks a chance to replenish. Fishing boomed after the war. But the seeds of distant water's demise had been planted. The only nation fishing commercially between 1939 and 1945 was Iceland, which now had its own fleet of modern trawlers, and was entering the 20th century through a combination of the fishing trade and the result of four years exposure to American culture through the base at Reykjavik. As happened elsewhere following the war, the assumption that the Britannia ruled the waves began to be challenged.
It took years for this to become clear, however. In the meantime there was plenty of fish for everyone it seemed, and the shipowners of Hull responded to the competition with innovation, building new ships powered by oil or diesel that were faster and more maneuverable. There were between 500 and 700 ships in the British fishing fleet, including about 200 over 140 feet in length built specifically for deep water fishing, two-thirds of them in Hull. 20,000 people worked directly in the fishing industry in Hull and Grimsby in the 50s, out of a combined population less than a quarter-million. One-third of the fishermen were sons of fishermen. Most came from fishing families and nearly all had at least grown up in the community.