Reg Meuross 12 Silk Handkerchiefs album review – Folk Radio UK

“Meuross has achieved something rare and important: he has reanimated a valuable piece of history, and he has done so with great sincerity and emotional depth. 12 Silk Handkerchiefs is a fitting tribute not just to Lillian Bilocca, but to the power of individuals to bring about change for the better.”  FULL FOLK RADIO UK REVIEW HERE By Thomas Blake

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few years ago there was something of a fad for TV programmes about ‘the deadliest jobs in the world.’ One occupation that often featured was that of the commercial fisherman. Camera crews would spend a few days with a fleet, filming the taciturn crews of trawlers as they were buffeted by menacing winds and huge sea swell in the North Atlantic. The sombre mood of these programmes was exacerbated by stories of injury and death, and by the unavoidable fact that the fishing industry has been in a seemingly terminal decline for a long time. I am not entirely sure what draws people to view this sort of thing – perhaps a large measure of schadenfreude is involved, or the need to experience vicariously a life of danger and adventure. Either way, they must have been reasonably successful – even a hermit with no telly (me) was aware of them.

And it is true – commercial fishing is dangerous. But it is much, much less dangerous now than it was fifty years ago when the industry was virtually unregulated, and crews were wholly in the power of unscrupulous and often negligent trawler bosses whose primary concern was to maximise profit. The city of Hull suffered more than most – an estimated 6,000 of its fishermen have died at sea since the 1850s. And then in 1968, in a period of less than a month, three separate trawlers went down in bad weather. Of the combined crew of fifty-nine men, there was only one survivor.

The story of what became known as the Hull triple trawler tragedy – and the subsequent changes in the industry – has been told before. But the universal nature of the lessons learned combined with the highly personal and emotive subject means it is a story that is worth repeating. And there can’t be many better placed to tell that story than singer, songwriter and storyteller Reg Meuross, who has been compared to Ewan McColl and counts Pete Townshend and Martin Carthy amongst his fans. Meuross has chosen to present the material as a six-song cycle with each song introduced by a section of spoken word to provide an extra layer of historical context. Singing duties are shared between Meuross and two Hull folk singers, Sam Martyn and Mick McGarry. 12 Silk Handkerchiefs’ narrative arc is based on Brian W. Lavery’s book The Headscarf Revolutionaries, itself a fascinating and moving work of social history, which focuses on the campaign of Lillian ‘Big Lil’ Bilocca (Lavery also provides the narration here). Bilocca was the wife, mother and daughter of fishermen (and herself worked in the fishing industry), and it was the tireless work of her and her colleagues that finally brought about better working conditions for trawlermen.

The album begins on the most personal of notes: Wash Her Man Away describes the superstitions of a fisherman’s wife who refuses to do laundry on the day before her husband sets sail. Sung by McGarry, it is a quietly stirring hymn to the small details and relationships that make life bearable: drinking with your brothers, singing along to songs by the Drifters. It is also a song fraught with fear and haunted by the listener’s foreknowledge of the disaster that is about to occur. Meuross’ acoustic guitar has a simple fluidity to it, and Martyn’s harmonium adds depth and a touch of solemnity.

The narrative introduction to the next song, I Am A Fish House Woman, describes the camaraderie of the women in the fish processing plant and goes into colourful detail about the nature of the work. It also briefly introduces Bilocca, and we get a glimpse of the determination and the sadness that will define the rest of her life. The song itself is sung beautifully by Martyn. Her voice is both impassioned and down to earth, and harmonies in the chorus enhance the strong sense of community. It is illuminating at a documentary level – we learn for example that the women have to wear thick coats to stave off the freezing temperatures in the fish house – but what is truly moving is how these facts impact on the lives of individuals, how the narrator’s mother only stopped working when ‘the freezing took her lung’, or how her tongue is as sharp as her knife. It is partly the mastery of details like this that makes Meuross such an impressive songwriter.

The heart of the album deals with the harrowing story of John Barry Rogers, an eighteen-year-old deckhand who saved the life of Harry Eddom (the tragedy’s only survivor) before dying of exposure in Eddom’s arms. The song John Barry Rogers, sung by McGarry from the point of view of the dead man, is not an easy listen. We see all the modest hopes of a young man disappear into the freezing sea. But it is a compelling and ultimately moving examination of just how precious – and how precarious – each individual life is.

The Man The Sea Gave Up, sung by Meuross, tells Harry Eddom’s story. On the surface, it is the most upbeat moment of the album, but in reality, the tale of a man who survived only to see all of his colleagues perish puts an even more heartbreaking slant on the story. Musically, the structure and delivery of the song resemble early Bob Dylan, and Martyn’s flute sounds a note of hope above the desperation.

As 12 Silk Handkerchiefs draws towards its end, it focuses in on Lillian Bilocca. It was Bilocca’s sustained campaign of civil disobedience that led eventually to a change in the legislation that would save the lives of countless fishermen. She was evidently a strong, single-minded and complex character, but was not without her fragilities. A character that any writer would love to invent. In short, she was human, and it is this humanity that Meuross draws out so well in his songwriting. Sleep You Safely describes her touching meeting with a young galley boy, a small but meaningful moment of empathy. And the title track, full of graceful harmonies, shows that she was still thinking of the men who were lost at sea when she herself lay dying of cancer in 1988 at the age of 59.

Fifty years on from the triple trawler tragedy, the events of 1968 and Lillian Bilocca’s story are, more than ever, in the public eye. Earlier this year there was a BBC documentary on the subject, and a play by Maxine Peake – The Last Testament Of Lillian Bilocca – opened in Hull a year ago. But more importantly, the story lives on in the hearts of the people from Hull and beyond, people who lost loved ones in the tragedy, and who were moved to tears when this album was premiered in a live setting in January. Meuross has achieved something rare and important: he has reanimated a valuable piece of history, and he has done so with great sincerity and emotional depth. 12 Silk Handkerchiefs is a fitting tribute not just to Lillian Bilocca, but to the power of individuals to bring about change for the better.

 

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Reg Meuross Singer Songwriter Storyteller