inFrequently Asked Questions
Occasionally, I get asked (verbally and by e-mail) for explanations of various terminology, etc.; often about arcane references in my song lyrics; sometimes about technical aspects of sailing, submarine-ing, et al. Here are some of these queries, and my responses. I invite you toShow AllHide All
- Is the story of Bunts, the Nautical Dog, really true?
Absolutely... as much as good stories are ever "true"!
That incident: the runaway dog, the disastrous ceremonial occasion, the "court martial", the incarceration of Bunts, etc., really happened. The baby canine result, "the famous Marseilles, Afghan, Short-legged hound",; is only surmised. In true naval fashion, H.M.S. Striker sailed before the eventual existence of offspring could be established, or parentage confirmed.
As a weird coda to that... following one of the very first occasions I performed the piece, I was confronted by an audience member who told me that his brother had been in Striker at the time, and had related the incident... but was never believed. The fellow couldn't wait to call his brother to make amends!
- Why don't you tour around where I live?
This question is rather more "Frequent" than "IN-frequent"; and the answer is complicated. I probably do tour there... just not frequently! What I present is difficult to label, or "put in a box", so it presents special difficulties to presenters who have no trouble drawing audiences for performers playing a guitar to accompany an evening of self-penned songs... usually without much content or connection to the experience of the audience. However, such material is what the greater portion (North American, mostly) of audiences have been habituated to believe is "folk music", so they'll come out for that.
I'm enormously grateful to presenters who understand what I do, and consider it to have a value they wish to present to their patrons. There just aren't a whole lot of them. Many of those presenters back the concerts/events they organize with their own money. They can't be blamed for not wanting to take risks they can't really afford.
If you want me to come around "where you live", get in touch... I love to travel!
- What is the reference to "Cutty Sark King" about Peter Bellamy in the song "Somewhere Safe to Sea"?
The Cutty Sark is, of course, the famous "clipper" (built in 1869, now in dry-dock in Greenwich) about which whole books have been written. Even the story of her figurehead, by itself, is worth a book or two. However; the reference to the late, great Peter Bellamy, is about one of several of the actions he was wont to take, in order to make his stage persona appear more daring/trendy/relevant/etc.
Occasionally dying his hair, one outrageous colour or another, he would often wear a tee-shirt which had been deliberately slashed... a genuine "cutty sark"... Scottish dialect literally meaning a cut shirt.
For those who never attended a Peter Bellamy performance, he was never the most conventionally melodic of singers, but he loved what he did, and his presentations could be powerful in the extreme.
- Is it true that in your song Sailor's Prayer, the word "beak" is incorrect?
Yes, indeed ... "beak" is not the original word.
I became aware of the traditional couplet, upon discovering Charles MacHardy's great book Send Down a Dove (1968). MacHardy quotes "Oh Lord above, send down a dove, with wings as sharp as razors...".
Several decades later when I came to write the song, borrowing the traditional verse to be my chorus, I misremembered the word "wings" as "beak". Cyril Tawney was kind enough to write to me and — very gently — point out my error.
By that time the song was, inexorably, entering the repertoire of several singers and groups around the world, and try as I might, I could not persuade anyone to use the correct lyric. Indeed... on occasions when I performed the song using the word "wings", audience members berated me for my "mistake"!
I still feel quite guilty for the aberration caused by my lack of research, and encourage all and sundry to sing the original, and correct "wings as sharp as razors."
- What the heck is a killick?
Great question, though the answer is somewhat convoluted.
"Killick" is Old English terminology for an anchor. Originally it would have been a stone attached to a rope, later a sort of basket of sticks wrapped around one or more stones. (Several maritime museums of my experience have examples of this type of primitive but logical device.) Whilst the term was in use right up to the end of the 19th century, it was then superseded by the term "anchor".
A decorative depiction of a "fouled" anchor, has been in naval use, as a badge of rank, for several hundred years. A single such anchor is the badge worn on the left arm (the right arm bearing a "trade" or specialization badge) of a Leading Rate or, more commonly, a "Leading Hand". Aboard ship, the senior such rating in each mess is designated the Leading Hand of the Mess or "Killick of the mess". His duties included such important matters as overseeing the daily issue of "grog"!
- You sing "Don't haul on the rope." Shouldn't that really be "line"?
Technically, you are correct. Real seamen refer to all that rope stuff as various types of "line". To those folks, rope is only "rope" when it is still stowed, in bales, in the Bo'sun's Locker.
However... engineering ratings were prone to deliberately abjure from the use of correct, sailorly, terminology — a sort of snobbery, I suppose. To engineers "deck" became "floor", "bulkhead" was referred to as "wall" and "lines" were always "rope". In the philosophy of the engineering branch, such things as learning the esoterics of knot-tying, or correctly identifying nautical gear, were to be avoided.
Please sing "line" if you wish. As for me ... "Don't haul on the rope, don't climb up..."
- Is there any significance to the clothes you wear for your stage performances, or is your appearance just for visual effect?
Both! I do, certainly, attempt to be “eye-catching” but almost every article I wear on stage is, in some way, a small “homage” to something in the past.
The cap is the actual item I wore for nearly a quarter of a century; although I was only qualified to wear that badge for the last 16 years of my service.
The (fairly) tight, black trousers are in reference to the rig worn by Robert Ryan, in his portrayal of the evil Master-at-Arms Glaggart, in the 1962 Hollywood adaptation of Melville's Billy Budd, with Terence Stamp in the role of Billy and Peter Ustinov as Captain Vere.
The belt buckle is worn off centre, in order that it will not infringe on the stomach muscles during work.
The “red-topped” boots are a definite homage to the “Blackball sailors” of yore. Whilst ashore, for the sake of comfort, sailors would fold the upper parts of their sea-boots to below the knee. Sailors employed in ships of the (infamous) Blackball Shipping Line adopted the fashion of using red felt boot-liners, thereby making themselves highly conspicuous in “Sailortown”.
- What is “shale”? (Referencing Cyril Tawney's song Diesel and Shale.)
During the recent unpleasantness with our German cousins, oil supplies for dear old Blighty were somewhat tenuous, don't you know.
It was found that some forms of shale rock, when put under extreme pressure, would yield small quantities of oil. This oil was found to be eminently useful for torpedo transmission systems and small “dashpots” in fine electro-hydraulic applications.
When the war ended, considerable supplies of “shale oil” were still in Royal Navy storehouses. It had been noted, especially by submarine First Lieutenants (X.O.s to our American readers), that this fluid was an exceptionally efficacious cleaner, when used on corticene (akin to linoleum) deck material ... so much so that the hierarchy would ignore its excessive odour.
Mingling with the omnipresent diesel oil in the atmosphere, this aroma became the signature smell, not only of the submarine service, but also of submariners.
- I'm trying to locate the meaning of Pusser's Shower.
On any ship, but principally on a Merchant Ship, the person in charge of stores, etc., is the PURSER. In the Royal Navy, this devolved into an anonymous, and mythical, "PUSSER"; being the beneficent provider, and owner, of all things in the R.N. Likewise, the correct way of doing anything was the "pusser way"! An unreliable shower would be a "Pusser's Shower".
- What is the meaning of Dabtoes?
The least respected sub-specialization of Royal Naval personnel were ratings in the SEAMAN BRANCH - at least amongst ratings in other departments! Due to their supposed agility around a deck, crowded with nautical paraphernalia, "Seamen" were viewed as being light - or "dab" - on their toes.
- Is the story of Doc Lemon true?
Yes, it is!
In 1989, I was advised (by whom, I cannot now remember) to get in touch with an interesting character by the name of MICHAEL JACKSON. Michael, at that time, lived in the Western part of Toronto. When we arrived (Lyn was with me) he was most gracious and forthcoming, which was wonderful; as he had had such an interesting life.
He had been a merchant seaman before, and during, the Second World War; and the story of Doc 'Lemon' is almost exactly as he related it to me. The poem was quite easy to compose ... all that was required of me was to make Michael's story rhyme and scan.
Following WWII, Michael was highly active in the Seaman's Union which; at that time was heavily in thrall to the Canadian and American Mafia ... with the collusion of the (then) Canadian government. Due to his antipathy to the involvement of "the Mob"; Michael went "on the run", under an assumed name, for several years; all the time doing grass-roots organizing across Canada and the U.S. Eventually; he was apprehended and became the "last man in the British Empire to be charged - and found guilty - of PIRACY"!!! (Apparently; this was under the flimsy pretext of advocating unionism aboard a ship at sea.) He then spent several years incarcerated in KINGSTON PENITENTIARY (incidentally, being closed-down this year); the toughest prison in Canada!
Michael has long-since "crossed the bar"; depriving us of a great character. Where his stories all true??? Who can say ... but he could certainly spin a yarn!
If you have a question of your own, I invite you to