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Pól Ó Lorcáin
Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

THE DIGNITY OF LABOUR

Note from Paul Larkin -

I first wrote this short story whilst still a young man serving in the Danish merchant navy and not long after the events described below took place. This would make it around 1978. I held on to the MS wherever I was in the world and it is a thing of amazement to me that it is presented here now, in a more rounded form, on my own blog site on the Web. My refusal to ditch even the slightest scrap of writing which was important to me has infuriated relatives, girlfriends and flatmates alike but I like to think that this little story vindicates my stance. All artists, be they writers or otherwise, should keep everything they ever produce (even scraps and fragments) which stirs their imagination and engages them with the world. I am now engaged in collating all my stories from my time at sea and intend to publish them as a single collection called "Odyssey"

THE DIGNITY OF LABOUR (First written 1978)

All week I had known that the moment was coming. A moment I both looked forward to with all my heart, soul and imagination; and at the same time a moment I dreaded. My great dread was that I would make a fool of myself in failing to seize the glory of that very moment. A young man's quest for a certain glory, bearing in mind that I was 18 at the time, can be a thing of wonder in its enactment and victory, or a bitter wound that will fester unto death if not fulfilled. The utter imminence of that moment never left my thoughts notwithstanding all the tasks that I was obliged to perform on the ship that week. This was the build up to what was either to prove my first triumph as a man in a man’s world, or just utter disaster. As in all true rites of passage, there was no escaping this moment, nor the judgement which would be passed upon it, for good or ill. Almost as soon as we had docked at our port of destination in Denmark, my trial would begin.

Ever since we had left the port of Rotterdam on the way to Århus on the east coast of Jutland, battering our way through heavy gales in the North Sea, I had pondered what way I would approach the moment. The task was simple enough and I had been forewarned of its coming. But a ship is not simply a vessel for the carriage of goods. A ship is a living drama where the roles of the actors who traverse its decks and holds are subject to the scrutiny of many others. It is perhaps the most extraordinary amphitheatre ever built on this earth. The greatest description of that amphitheatre comes in Herman Melville’s The Whale, or, Moby Dick. The cast of characters who would be there to witness my special moment would not quite equal the cast of Moby Dick but there would be an audience of experts there who would follow my every move with a seasoned and perhaps jaundiced eye. Men who had carried out the same feat hundreds of times, men who did not like sailors, men who were jealous of sailors. Men.

It was somehow fitting that I would have to endure a week of storms before entering into that space where, I prayed, I would become becalmed and confident. All sailors listen to the weather forecast with a passion bordering on obsession; plotting the names of approaching sea areas as if the words themselves would give them a sign as regards their safety or peril. Rockall. Mizzen. Dogger. German Bight. The very word Biscay in the winter imparts a shudder to mariners as they consider the high peaks of its waves, the deep valleys in its troughs. In this sense, all sailors are etymologists in that they study the wider meaning of a word. The stories that the word carries with it. If my grandfather gave me a respect for the power of books and writing, the sea and my seaborne comrades gave me the joy and fear that lies in the power of a single word. Visibility, Swell, Gale, Storm, Force, Structural, Damage, Typhoon, Hurricane. Words to enthral you, or fill your heart with the terror of freezing salt sea scalding your mouth and lungs as you go down. All words related to sailing, clouds, wind, rain and sleet are treated with respect and studied like thrown dice for the message they give. The words adumbrate in the mind of the sailor as he casts his weather eye on the future and remembrance on the past which is embalmed in charts and shanties, homages and remainders of shipwrecks and trauma, famous rescues, infamous drownings.

The gales blew themselves out as we entered the Skagerrak and then Kattegat and the calmer climes of the Danish coastal water system – De Danske Farvande. The Skagerrak runs across the north-western coast of Denmark and leads the sailor into Danish waters proper. The Kattegat joins the Baltic Sea and North Sea together and even now, 30 years on from the time when I bestrode those waves, writing these names in Danish and listening to their resonance, their history in my gut, their ancient clash and clang, I am filled once again with the awe which enveloped me when I sailed them for the first time. Sweden to port, Denmark to starboard. Poland, and then the depths of Russia, dead ahead.

As we rounded the northern tip of Denmark, the first mate on my ship told me that the original meaning of Kattegat was cat’s hole. I refused to accept this yarn as being true. I believed it was exactly that, a yarn. A tall tale coming from an old sea dog wishing to bemuse his young pup. Having summarily dismissed this at the time, imagine my surprise years later when in a reading room of my university, where I read Scandinavian and Celtic studies, I came across a passage from Julius Pokorny's work on the Irish language and Indo European etymology which mentioned that the “gat” part of Kattegat came from Indo European - “*ghedh-, "to defecate, hole"! There in that reading room, I was humbled into realising that much of the knowledge passed on to me by older men at sea was in fact a precious freight in my store of memories. A freight I had been all too ready to scuttle in the dangerous seas of amnesia. What other things had I been told and dismissed so peremptorily? What precious knowledge was simply lost forever because I had not bothered to listen?

Writing is in part an act of archaeology where the writer attempts to salvage a knowledge once possessed but now occluded because of carelessness or thoughtlessness. Enlightenment lost for the want of foresight. These pearls of a deeper human consciousness and wisdom may become bestirred later in life by a chance meeting, a conversation overheard or perhaps the midnight shipping forecast. They will rise from the murky depths of the writers subconscious and, in a moment of epiphany, reveal themselves in fleeting glimpses. It is for this reason that writers can be seen to fall victim to abrupt seizures where a dinner engagement might be abruptly curtailed, a partner ignored, a conversation stalled or a communication chord pulled so that the writer can urgently set down his or her revelation before it is swallowed up by the congealing soup that is the humdrum.

In committing to the page my own personal odyssey as a young man at sea, I am not only rescuing vital words and moments from oblivion so that they can be passed on to others, but also recalling the simple joy of manual work and the company of men. Both these things were crucial factors in the moment of destiny which awaited me once we had arrived in Århus. The dignity of labour is an economic phrase used in the discussion about how best to reward the working classes for their labours. Any man, however, who has worked with a group of men for a common goal will recognise my own description of the dignity of labour. The feeling of camaraderie amongst men which comes from struggling to complete a task is a holy and spiritual gift which is in danger of being forgotten in this digital age. An age, in fact, where it is almost a taboo to talk exclusively and proudly of maleness and its attributes without making a passing nod to our female counterparts. It is a fact of male experience, however, that groups of men labouring together for a common purpose is a completely separate cultural phenomenon to that of mixed groups of workers, male and female. Neither one is better than the other. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. At times, however, there is no better thing than to be working, ‘grafting’ as men say, in the deep company and conviction of other men.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that the general rule under capitalism is that the less you work for a living the more you are likely to earn. Leaving aside, also, the fact that manual labour, when allied to low income and poor living standards generally, becomes a drudge rather than a form of spiritual release. Leave aside all these things and consider, for example, the beauty of digging a hole. I have always enjoyed digging holes. Any place where I have worked as a labourer, I always took pride in being able to dig fast and keep up, or even surpass, my mates in the hurling of muck. One of the greatest labouring events I ever witnessed was when our gang of ballast diggers on a railway track was given the option of ‘job and finish’. Job and finish usually means that the ganger man, or site foreman, is watching dark banks of cloud develop with a rising panic and decides that the day would be far more productive if the stretch to be dug can be done as quickly as possible and the men allowed to go home early. Under the job and finish rule, a digging job which would normally take a full working day might be completed in just two hours. It is an incredible feeling to be able to work in such a way. There is a frenzy in the air. Yet at the same time a discipline is maintained as teams of diggers work in relays. A striking unison of flashing shovels, knees moving like pistons, ranks of shoulders bending into the strain. Songs, slaggings and sweat.

My world of ships was a world of men working in unison. It always surprises me that so little has been written about this phenomenon. Not just in relation to ships but in a general sense of men at work. Jack London, in former days, wrote about the sea and ships and working men and dogs. George Orwell has written about social and working conditions in many of his works and, more recently, Cormac McCarthy has written evocatively about the world of men and horses and their ancient interaction. These are all eminent writers, and one of them is even still alive, but in general the world of literature does not deal with the world of work, and in particular the world of men and work. At least this is the case in the English language. Writers and men working seems to be a thing of the past. Like Melville and his whalers, Shakespeare can embrace, say, the gravedigger in Hamlet with an intimacy that would make modern day writers puke into their low fat muesli. Nowadays there is an obsession amongst writers with the workings of the minds of their characters. Male writers have lost their muscles and their balls.

Our ship was quickly tied up in Århus port, and almost as quickly the whole crew abandoned ship for various destinations around Jutland and the rest of sunny Denmark, leaving myself and the donkey man (a non commissioned ships engineer), to fend for ourselves. My moment of destiny had arrived because I had been instructed to man the ship’s derricks and lift a small bulldozer out of the hold once the stevedores had finished their days work. The bosun had told me just as he left the ship that a ganger man was on hand to take over from me if I was not up to the job. I was determined that no ganger man would be going anywhere near my derricks that I had cleaned, greased and oiled so lovingly as we had made our way from Casablanca, northwards to Portugal and then on to Holland where the purpose of all that greasing was proven in the protection it gave against those heaving gales and lashing waves.

Yet as the ship quietened down to an almost imperceptible soft rocking against the tide and the activities and ribaldries of the dockers grew louder across the still afternoon air, I was suddenly full of doubt. The ganger man would be coming for me shortly to put an end to their working day. For the stevedores too had been on ‘job and finish’. But I was not a real sailor. I had been born in the back streets of Salford for God's sake, nowhere near the sea. The Manchester ship canal was a vague memory by the time I was old enough to understand the navigational glory that once thrived there. Besides, ships were not in my blood, the way they were with my fellow sailors. Generation after generation of them had followed their family's call to go to sea. Not me. I was born of Tinkers, Dubs, Belfast and Manchester workers with cotton and coal dust, a knacker's renderings, and the smell of cess pits to be dug, hanging in their lungs and nostrils. I could not do it. I uttered a deeply felt prayer just as the ganger man called into the galley where I stood drinking water with which to calm and douse my throat.

‘Jeg er der om et øjeblik!’, I shouted back. I’ll be there in a minute. I quickly pondered the possibility of simply walking away from the ship and decided just as quickly that this was not a possibility. I walked out onto the deck and as I walked the revelation that she was actually my ship nearly blinded me with its electric truth. The fact that we had been through a lot together and that I had tended her and caressed her came to me like an aisling, a dream.

God smell that air! And me heaving my chest in anticipation. The heart always heightens the senses when it is banging violently into your ribcage. I walked the deck, my deck, hit by a zest of fresh Danish sea-light. There is that dusk that is no dusk at all, the light falling so quickly in Scandinavia like the sky is suddenly invaded by indigos. This is it and there is only the now of it before the light disappears. My first time alone. It was simple. A small bulldozer in the hold needed to be lifted on to the quay. The dockers wanted to go home and there was nobody around except me.

Walking along the deck, walking the plank, boots clanging. They could probably hear me down below in the hold for they had stopped all activity. Just waiting for me now. It was all down to me. A cormorant dipped by the ship - wham! No thinking just doing. It is second nature. Come on! My big chance. A few of the dockers were up on top. Big men. Who says I am only eighteen! I am only eighteen. But so what? Difficult manoeuvre yes. I will not forget this day I know it. I never have. God was in the sky like he was giving it all to me - the whole world. Was this not my ship? Hadn’t I cleaned every hook, caressed every mound, greased every thick wire and mounted that mast so good, so good, especially when it was a bit crazy outside. When you go up, right up, you get really so close to the edge when it is blowing. The mast dancing this side and that side wanting to kiss the whites of the waves so you hug it, because its the only thing that is keeping you away from the waves boy so hug that baby as she heaves and dips. This is living. This is working. The body wracked and straining. Wash her. Ride her as she moves through the blast. My mast. My winch. My derricks and cranes and me glorying in the dignity of my labours through the elements and the deliverance.

Now I have to take command in this balmy Scandinavian evening. Up from the black hold, blonde heads blink in anticipation. They want to go home. A beer or two may be consumed on the way. They wonder can I do it? The bosun wondered whether I could do it whilst the rest were on shore leave? Can I do it! Jump up that ladder, take the guard off and grasp that joystick looking straight out over Århus harbour. Next stop Stockholm for us. Feel the surge of energy as you engage her like a bronco. A frisky filly. A frisson going through the ship. This is what we do. We sail. We bring goods to all corners of the world and we keep the whole thing primed. Standing on the winch deck, I am part of something much bigger. Except that this is my part in the drama. Now I have to show. Hold that jib so tenderly. Yank her up too forcefully and she'll swing wild as a hung man on a gibbet. But not quite enough power, and she'll surge into the sidewalls as she's lifted. Smell. The brine and dirt on my gloves gives me confidence. Grabbing the uprights. Checking. Feeling good. My dark blue sailor’s jumper and Irish eyes. These gloves are on me months. Good gloves. Good tight belt. Steady knife. Hat cocked right. Lean over the railing, peer into the deep dark. Thumbs up. She's on. Wave of the hand, pull her away and the dockers scatter like cats from a cradle. Now she is airborne. So hold her.

I wait. I survey. Are you all watching? I have a two ton truck in my hands. Wish my grandfather could see me now. I am eighteen poised in the rigging and superstructure. Never felt so poised before. Good eye contact now, blue coals in the dark. Turn, shove the gear stick, let her lift then stop there suspended caught like a mouse just above the floor. I feel the men below relax. They like it. The infernal voracious bobcat which only minutes earlier was hungry for their every shovel of foodstuff. For their every strain of the flank and swivel. It is now reduced to this. The pleasure of the scrutiny of men. Some edge nearer to it like people do at dinosaur museums inspecting an exhibit. So I lift her just for the craic and they laugh. Like the spider in his lair. All legs and webbing in tandem. The bobcat snared. There it goes straight up. Now I'm motoring. Pay out the jib, reign in the slack. Now ease off as she comes up. Easy now. Swing steady. Swing in your heart because she is the first woman in your virginal hands. Swing her over the side. Sense the ship give, subside slightly beneath you. Four big rubber wheels grace the quayside simultaneously. A perfect pitch. Then quiet. That is it. And my moment is gone and this too is a truth.

The dockers troop off the ship. They've seen it a million times before but I thought they would understand. No claps. No cheers. They are milling together down on the quay their backs turned to me. One man jumps into the cat. I stand at the ship’s rail. Flat. He looks up. Starts the engine ready to drive her away and I turn to go back inside to my utter devastation.

‘Hej du!’ - Hey there!, he shouts. ‘Det var bra gjort’ - that was well done. I am eighteen. He is a big Norwegian. Probably forty three. He gunned the cat into gear and disappeared into a wide blue wink. Wherever you are in the world my Norwegian comrade, I salute you.

Féileire

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