My response to the Curator’s logistics enquiry, in turn prompted a startled reply;
No – impossible; finding a ship for my sound-sculpture was beyond the Festival’s capacity.
I was quietly persistent, pointing out that Hull was, after all a major port, or more accurately had once been a major port and surely there were a few idle vessels moored in the once bustling harbour.
Persistence is a useful quality, eventually I was offered the Arctic Corsair (H320) the last sidewinder trawler to operate out of Hull; de-commissioned but still in her original condition and waiting to be converted into a museum ship, dedicated to the North-Sea fishing industry. The cavernous fish-hold of the Arctic Corsair would be the perfect environment to install my multi-channel sound-work Drift.
Drift is what the Ark of Gilgamesh and Noah did – aimlessly and noiselessly, that is, if one disregards the vocalisations of the menagerie. To drift is also to embark upon a Dérive, the higher-order pastime of the Situationist Internationale who embraced this free-fall into fate, a process which required at least four days and which was fuelled by large quantities of high-octane alcohol – the protagonists eventually washed up somewhere, tired, damp but still alive!
The part of God’s creation that Gilgamesh and Noah neglected to load aboard their respective Arks were the Fish and the many forms of marine Crustacea, Medusae and other invertebrates which possibly places them in a special theological category, one free from the taint of original sin and moreover, oblivious and impervious to the effects of the flood. Perhaps this is the reason that eating fish is so good for us?
In a Jonahesque trope, the installation on the Arctic Corsair included a wooden Ark sculpture, replete with an array of acoustic horns. As if trawled from the deep the Ark was netted and suspended in the centre of the fish-hold intoning the names of all the species of fish that never swam under the keel of the Arctic Corsair – all the vernacular names of fish from the warm waters of my adopted Antipodean homeland.
All around the little Ark plied a massive acoustic swirl of Oceanic forces and aqueous textures, crashing here, breaking there and quite literally shaking the fifty-seven metre steel vessel. The Festival had provided me with truck full of stadium-size sound equipment and there were certainly no neighbours to disturb!
Serendipity: On my first day working aboard the Arctic Corsair I came upon a poem, posted onto a bulkhead;
This is the old Hessel Road
The home of Bear Island Cod
Where the Hudson’s speak only to the Helyer’s
And the Helyer’s speak only to God!
It was as if an Angel passed, turned and smiled at me – Salt is in the blood; and blood is saturated with messages and memories.
Nearly a thousand years ago my father’s ancestors sailed the short distance from Normandie to England with William the Conqueror, to beat the heads of their English cousins. In return for their services they were given a family seat in the South-West of England. Centuries later, many Helyer’s set off as early emigrants to the new-world colonies, whilst others branched off to the North-East coastline of England establishing a small fleet of North Sea vessels and working as fisherfolk.
The land of darkness flamed
but no light and no repose.
The land of snows of trembling,
and iron hail incessant.
The land of earthquakes,
and the land of woven labyrinths.
The land of snares and traps
and wheels and pitfalls and dire mills.
The voids, The solids, and the land of clouds
and regions of waters.
My father was a ‘hard’ man by any standard, toughened in the steel-mills and shipyards of Northern England and by long years behind the lines in the North-African war, fighting with the infamous Long Range Desert Group. He taught me to box before I was five and died when I was ten, leaving mother with three kids and scant resources. Very sensibly she bought me a small sailing boat to keep me occupied and for this I am eternally grateful.
My father’s back; a Palimpsest of shipyard labour. His skin punctuated with small lunar-white scars; a Tyneside riveter’s coat-of-arms. My father’s voice; a soft Gordie croon with a lull-a-bye about Shrimp-Boats sailing home, guaranteed to put me to sleep in the cot. It seems my fate is co-mingled with salt water, as it is professionally with sound. Both are liquid mediums, both immerse and envelop us and naturally, we can drown in both!
We are in a dense embrace, drawn forward on a flow of molten lead. The air clings to every surface penetrating the woven fibres of the sail and simultaneously the recesses of our lungs; there is no position of distance here, we are co-substantial. The air is opaque, a milky smothering; embalming the chalk cliffs ahead; suffocating vision; muffling ears. Somewhere the ocean voices an argument with the cliff-face and somewhere a bell is drowning upon slow glutenous undulations.
Ahead, hidden in this universe of milk, is a place called the horizon, we are slowly but inexorably moving towards it. Upon the horizon I imagine I see the broken form of the cliff – my eyes slide horizontally and print a luminescent trail of after-images; an infinite series across this dimensionless firmament. My task is to locate the indolent tolling of the drowned bell in order to choose which of these virtual cliffs represent physical danger.