12 Silk Handkerchiefs Tour – a reflection

Reg Meuross at Greenwich Theatre London – 12 Silk Handkerchiefs
all photos Rachel Snowdon

Jill stood in the foyer of the Greenwich Theatre, London. She wanted to tell me how her Trawlerman Uncle had been lost at sea, and how her Aunt had told him not to sail that day. She’d had a funny feeling, it wasn’t safe. She talked about how her Uncle’s death had affected her Aunt. He had no grave, nowhere for her to lay flowers or sit and talk, tell him her news. As Jill spoke and remembered tears began to form in her eyes and slip down her cheeks. She carried on like someone who was used to speaking and crying at the same time. She wanted to share her story with me. She wanted me to know how our re-telling of the Triple Trawler Disaster out of Hull in 1968 had touched her and brought alive those painful but precious memories of her past and her own loved ones.

Mick McGarry

Fifteen minutes earlier Mick McGarry’s eyes also filled with tears and his voice cracked as he read Brian W Lavery’s powerful poem of the hardships faced by the trawlermen and their families. This wasn’t the first time Mick, an ex seaman himself and one of Hull’s finest folk singing voices had almost broken down. I don’t think any of us, when embarking on this song cycle project, were aware of the emotional impact our show might have. When I read Brian Lavery’s book, The Headscarf Revolutionaries back in 2016 I was drawn into a world of hard and harsh labour and living conditions, a tight-knit, tight-lipped fishing community at the other end of the country, in a town I had only visited once in my life. I had no history myself to compare with the devastating impact such a tragedy might have on my family or the families of those around me. This was a story about ‘other people’ in another place and time. But I was fascinated by the story of Lillian Billocca, Big Lil, and her determination after the death at sea of 58 men of her community, to finally get something done to protect her men folk. Her indignation and the passionate mission it inspired in her to ‘do something about it’ should be an inspiration to everyone.

So I wrote the songs that were to become 12 Silk Handkerchiefs, and over the last couple of weeks we have taken those songs and the story they tell to audiences from Seahouses, a remote ex fishing community in the far north of England, to Greenwich, the home and the heart of the Maritime world. Inbetween we played in Grimsby Central Hall’s Fisherman’s chapel on Friday 13th by the light of a full harvest moon. In Seahouses to a packed and beautifully restored Wesleyan chapel. At West Kirby we played a thriving home-spun arts centre (West Kirby Arts Centre) boasting the first and only Wilfred Owen exhibition in the world. At the Greenwich Theatre we were surrounded by the history of the sea.

We brought our words and songs to Benjamin Britten’s old theatre in Aldeburgh Jubilee Hall, Suffolk, which boasted a window onto the stage where he would watch rehearsals and afterwards would come down and announce who could stay and who could go home and who didn’t need to bother coming back. A story that was told to me no doubt as an example of his stature and confident artistry but just made me think what a heartless snob he must have been! On, then, to The Seagull Theatre in Lowestoft with its still strong and thriving fishing industry and from there to The Ropery Hall in The Ropewalk, Barton upon Humber, the place closest to Hull, where people shared their memories of those dark times. One woman told us how she knew the only survivor of the tragedy, Harry Eddom’s son, and how, when she told her own daughter she was coming to see our show, her daughter asked “What is a trawler?”.

Our last performance was at The Cluny in Newcastle to an engaged audience who, in spite of their distance from Hull, were enthusiastically curious in the Q&A session that ended every show.

I feel privileged to have shared the passion and dedication, skill and artistry of the cast:

Brian Lavery for writing the book (The Headscarf Revolutionaries) and spotting an important story that needed telling, and for telling it in such a clear and focussed way to enable me to find the seeds that would make my song cycle, also for his dedication in putting together the footage and radio extracts that gave the piece such atmosphere.

Mick McGarry for his integrity, for being there and knowing the people, for his charm and incredible voice.

Sam Martyn

Sam Martyn for the passion and emotion she poured into my songs and for her work on the multi media and scripts.

Katie Whitehouse for her tireless efforts in finding the venues, promoters and the money to be able to do this at all, and for her dedication to the project and belief in our work (and for bravely taking on the role of projectionist at each gig).

Rachel Channa Snowdon for joining us on the road and capturing the spirit in her beautiful photos. And to @ArtsCouncilEngland for their support.
Thinking back to that night in Greenwich Theatre and to Jill, I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to tell this incredible and important story and to have engaged emotionally with everyone involved in the telling and the hearing and the sharing of it. It’s times like this that remind me why I do the work I do and why I love it so much.

Reg Meuross. Somerset September 2019

Final performance of the show in this tour: Musicport Festival, Whitby on 19th October.

To book Reg or this show – contact katie@fromthewhitehouse.com

Sam Martyn, Reg Meuross, Mick McGarry and Brian W Lavery – photo Rachel Snowdon

Reg Meuross Singer Songwriter Storyteller