Writing True Stories of the Sea and Seafolk – A conversation with Brian W. Lavery

November 21, 2020

You live on Hessle Road in Hull, albeit on the posh end. How does it help you as a writer, living in the community you are writing about?

Being able to ‘walk’ the setting for my books is invaluable. Even though much has changed in some parts, there are still remnants of docklands, trawler offices and of course the trawlermen’s pubs, where a yarn is never more than a pint of bitter away. When I was a kid starting out in journalism one of my old mentors told me, “People are news.” – Well, the people of Hessle Road, on my doorstep, are a news resource bar none. I write in a tiny room at the top of my house opposite a park donated to the city by an Edwardian trawler magnate. On rainy days squalls and storms somehow enhance the atmosphere when I write, glancing from my little window to the legacy of Sir Christopher Pickering – especially when writing about ships at sea. In the early hours on winter nights fog horns still sound.

Lilian Bilocca makes for a striking hero in The Headscarf Revolutionaries. Were you conscious of pulling her out of history and into the limelight, as a model for others?

Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple Trawler Disaster

I was very conscious that Lillian Bilocca, in common with many women of her class, were overlooked on the whole. This story was particularly so. The Headscarf Revolutionaries worked to remedy that, and then the documentaries, poetry and music inspired by the book. This public art renewed interest in the community. I like to find stories that have been overlooked or under-appreciated and bring them to the fore. Lillian and her comrades were both under-appreciated and overlooked. Not any more though.

St Finbarr. Mr John Matthews

What’s as close as you came to encountering Lilian Bilocca ‘in the flesh’?

In a feature I wrote for the Manchester-based arts website Northern Soul, I recalled my only encounter with Lil. I was a young reporter and had arrived in Hull when the industry was in decline. I was sent to interview the mother of a lad lost at sea. After the interview the photographer with me, an old timer, arranged to meet me in the fisherman’s pub, “Rayners” on Hessle Road. Reg, the photographer, pointed out a big woman at a corner table. She had a bottle of stout in front of her. I glanced at her as we left the pub and the snapper told me, “That’s the dame who fought for the trawlermen.” In the car on the way back to the office he told me her story and I remember thinking then it would be a great book. A mere thirty years later and … hey presto!

You’re writing about tragedies – trawlermen who were lost at sea. Those who loved them are still around to

 

grieve and have memories. How did that fact affect your writing?

I am very aware of the responsibility of writing about real people with relatives (and often themselves) still living. You owe them the duty of truth. Nothing more. In The Luckiest Thirteen I told of a man who died in the rescue, falling from a rope ladder into raging seas. His death was a harsh, cold one. His shipmates watched helplessly as he drifted to his doom. The details were tough to write, let alone read – yet when I met his son he thanked me. He was able to put the uncertainty that had haunted his dreams for forty-five years to rest.

Events such as Hull’s triple trawler tragedy move into folklore. Were there any facts that were part of the local narrative that your book had to correct?

Yes! Lillian Bilocca never met Harold Wilson! – this has become the urban myth I most have to dispel. Wilson was in the USA at the time of the Hessle Road women’s lobbying of Parliament. Other than that, the good thing about recent history is you can speak to folk who were there as well as check out the veracity of what they say via other resources, such as media, radio and TV archives. The latter can literally give voice to your characters. I know what Lillian and her comrades sounded like and that is a real asset when writing about people who existed.

The title The Luckiest Thirteen focused on the survivors of the St Finbarr, rather than those who died. Why?

Like the mountaineer’s answer to ‘Why do you climb mountains?’ it is, ‘because they are there.’ In other tragedies the survivors are usually nil. In the Triple Trawler Disaster in The Headscarf Revolutionaries – there was one. In The Luckiest Thirteen – twelve men from a crew of twenty-five perished. But there was a two-day rescue in fierce Newfoundland seas on Christmas Day and beyond. Showing the lives of those thirteen men is a tribute to the bravery of those who saved them. Showing the gift that the brave gave; the gift of a life lived to old age. And again, we are back with my old mentor’s adage, ‘people are news’ – and the news of these people’s lives that are owed to the courage of their rescuers is the best tribute I can pay.

Your books are incredibly filmic – we’re inside the heat of the drama and experience the course of maritime disasters in vivid detail. Are you a secret trawlerman? How did you come by all those details?

I am a reporter. The re-tell is in the details. I know lots of trawlermen and folk from the community. It’s their story. I just get to type it up. I don’t have the courage to have been a trawlerman. I am pleased that I only have to write about it! As for the filmic aspect of my writing, a smart book editor told me to write as if looking through a lens and reporting what I see. This is something I now tell my students in my creative writing classes.

What’s your process of drawing stories out of people to share in your book?

Make them comfortable. Chat, don’t interrogate. When folk are at their ease they will unpack the story for you. Bear in mind, they don’t think they have anything of interest. It’s their day-to-day life. If they had such awareness they’d be in competition! I am always at pains to listen and … be kind. You catch more flies with honey…

What’s your relationship to the stories in your books – is it the storyteller, the custodian? It was moving to attend packed audiences in Hull Minster, in which the stories seemed to become ‘our’ stories. And then with the likes of Reg Meuross, some storytelling baton has been passed on.

I am always moved when art begets art. And The Headscarf Revolutionaries certainly did that. It inspired two radio documentaries, one BBC TV documentary, poetry by Helen Mort, Music by Joe Solo and Reg Meuross and is in development with the acclaimed director Mark Herman (Brassed Off, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Little Voice etc.). I toured England with Reg with a multi-media theatre piece, with his song cycle at its heart. I am also working with a songwriter with music inspired by The Luckiest Thirteen too. So, I suppose I am more than a storyteller in as much as I get a wider audience that just that of my readers. An old skipper who advises me paid me what I think was a great compliment. He said, “Brian you are our community’s clarion.” I like that. A clarion. Yes, I’ll take that all day.

When you’re researching your books, is there a point when you say ‘Yes that’s it. I see how to shape this into a book now.’

The Luckiest ThirteenThere’s a point when I can almost recite the research. Then I write. Unlike when I write fiction – especially short prose and poetry. With this latest book there were some sad personal issues early on that set me back – but now I am writing and can recite the research. Also, every nonfiction writer needs a bit of luck. Mine came via a very old man. Across 30 years he was involved in the government investigations into the mystery ship Gaul – which is at the core of my latest work, Spynet: The Enigma of the Gaul. The old fellow in question had kept files that filled a room, which he gave to me via a friend. Contacts are important too. As is luck, but I also find the harder I work, the luckier I get.

There’s another Brian Lavery famous for writing maritime history. Are you in touch with each other at all?

We have never met. Although Radio 4 almost got us mixed up and I missed out on a bigger cheque when they realised their mistake! The other Brian is also Scottish, writes about maritime matters, but is far more encumbered by success than I. He is also the reason I had to find a middle initial, something which previously I did not have. As a result, I used “W” as a wee tribute to my father, William.