Skinning Out to Sea by Mick Hugo (Bowline Books. Sewn paperback, 108 pages))
A Review by John Andrews
‘We wish you a Merry Syphilis and a Happy Gonorrhoea’ was the song with which the fifteen and a half year old Mick Hugo from Hoxton was enrolled into the Merchant Navy in 1960 having swapped his job as a runner at a Mayfair film company for a life wherever the clerk at ‘The Pool’ sent him. He was about to become one of 150,000 Merchantmen and sail in eighteen ships over the next twelve years from the Catalina Star to the Southern Cross, from the Arlanza to the Hinakura. To globe hop via ports which in the 21st Century sound like a roll-call of the old places: Boulogne – Vigo – Lisbon – Las Palmas – Rio de Janeiro – Santos – Montevideo. During that time he witnessed the final throes of an institution slowly being eroded by de-regulation and the threat of containerization.
Set in Doves Type and printed in hot metal parts salvaged from the Thames by the Port of London Authority Salvage team and then bound as a sewn paperback Hugo’s adventures are amiably recounted in his warm scrimshaw of a memoir. Illustrated appropriately in the author’s naive Briggsian hand this is a half lit world of tallow and oil, hemp and red lead, sea breezes and galley stodge. A workplace apart where the recently dead are sewn into body bags by the lamp lighter and sent to the bottom with two of his rustiest weights in a modicum of ceremony, wrapped up in an Ensign and tilted to the waves below in front of a funeral party made up of braid clad officers and any stray passengers who can make up the numbers. A seemingly savage environment where revenge comes in the schoolboy form of having ones trousers sewn up or being coated in shoe polish after one too many. A world caught it would seem in an eternal childhood where horizons move but never change.
Life bunked up with men like Glasgow Don an archetypal seafarer born to a mother unknown and brought up in a brothel who went on to witness the Christmas Island Nuclear tests, endless days spent sharing slop with a Speedo clad Lothario from Rochdale or being submerged in bars where wide-eyed under age mod boys rub shoulders with men like ‘Butcher of Bow’ who could have had any girl in Buenos Aires such was his charm but who preferred the urbane company of the Purser, housed below decks amid a menagerie made up of shrieking Marmosets and jolly Toucans, cheek by jowl with suicidal Brummies rescued against their will and Stornawegians who barely flinch at having a foot cut off in a winch and who shout when the severed appendage is thrown over the rail ‘I just bought them fucking shoes’; A gang of salties led by a honey bear taken aboard in a distant port that goes on the rampage in the bar of a demob cross channel ferry to Dover. A society separate where the ‘arseholes, nutters and snobby bastards’ inevitably become lifelong friends if not kin. A borderless state of petty rules overseen by second, third and fourth mates and other men of unfathomable rank and where orders are issued but questions are not asked, where misdemeanours are seen to without judgement and by the means of a fine as long as the perpetrators are out of jail and ready to sail when the hooter sounds. It is a carefree life freelancing on occasion for the likes of The Broken Hill Proprietary Mining Company, of being overwhelmed by hurricanes or the sight of the statues on Easter Island.
Skinning Out to Sea reads like a message in a bottle penned by Garcia-Marquez so fantastical is the life it describes; but ultimately it is a despatch from the last of a certain breed of Britons, a first hand account of the men who walked on water.
Skinning Out to Sea is on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £10.00. Buy a copy here.