Brian Lavery’s journey into hell needs to be toldOn February 11, 2018 by Margot
Not only did he bring to light the extraordinary life of ‘Big Lil’ Bilocca but he highlighted the travails of an industry which, like many others, is now in steep decline.
The Headscarf Revolutionaries told of the struggle of Big Lil and other Hull wives to win even,what seems today, the mostbasic safety measures on thedeep sea fishing fleet based atthe Yorkshire port.
Even in the Seventies, having good radio contact was a startling innovation and the feisty women, fighting to keep their men safe after the Hull Triple Trawler disaster, received a storm of abuse and condemnation for daring to voice their opinions in the man’s world of the fishing fleets.
Now, with a recent BBC4 documentary and widespread media coverage, Lillian Bilocca is finally being given the credit she richly deserves.
But it was while he was researching this fascinating story that Dr Lavery uncovered the details of a long-forgotten tragedy – one he knew provided so much human interest and drama that it deserved a book of its own.
And so The Luckiest Thirteen was written, partly as a tribute to the many men who died in yet another tragedy upon the high seas.
And, like his previous book, Lavery has used his journalistic skills to transform what could be a dry piece of Hull history into a wider story which portrays the attitudes of the time, the society in which the tragedy played out, and the strong characters who all played a part in it.
When the St Finbarr was builtby Ferguson’s Shipyards in Port Glasgow, it was meant to be the last word in super trawlers.
Replacing the primitive conditions of the old sidewinder net fleets, this vessel provided comfortable accommodation for the crew, a modern wheelhouse with excellent communications and freezer capabilities to ensure it could fish and store the vast lucrative catches found in Newfoundland’s Grand Banks and far beyond.
The St Finbarr was considered to be ‘the perfect trawler’ and, on its maiden voyage in the winter of 1966, there was every confidence that this would be the dawning of a new era for the shipowners and for the men who spent their lives at sea.
And in a way it was. The new stern freezer distant water trawlers were the way forward – but for these particular 25 menon board the St Finbarr it was to be a journey into hell, and a one-way ticket for many of them.
By weaving the personal stories of these men – both survivors and those who perished – and their families in among the details of the hard world of fishing for a living in the cold, unforgiving waters of the Atlantic, Lavery unravels a story which needs to be told.
We know the ending. The title itself tells us that.
However, what this book does is show us the bravery of these men, the conditions they took for granted, the wider picture of the fishing community, its traditions and its superstitions – most of which have now passed into social history.
The Luckiest Thirteen by Brian W Lavery, Barbican Press, £9.89