I believe that if my father had lived he might still enjoy wearing a fisherman’s cap. He never went to sea, but got a new cap every year on birthdays, so Hattie said. He liked looking at the brown Thames water from almost any of the bridges or wharfs along the river, and would always suggest an outing to such places for a Sunday walk. Hattie also remembered that when my father was a child he had described the river as a yawning snake, which to me seems precocious. To him, snakes meant danger, and the space below the bridges was filled with slithering horror. They found things in rivers too. It said so on the news. Whatever people secreted in the unfathomable water eventually washed up.
Sometimes when I drink a cup of tea I think of him. This doesn’t ever happen with coffee. I imagine him tiny, legs over the rim of a mug, ready to fall.
In the inter-war years it seems most likely that my father attended what was known as a higher grade or higher elementary school, probably on the Isle of Dogs. Even after some internet research, these general terms for schools, never mind the names of individual schools or locations, remain unclear. My son has told me you can find anything on the internet. He is wrong.
It’s probable that my father took lessons intermittently at best. What is clear is that he developed an interest in photography during his teenage years, having somehow come into the possession of a Voigtländer folding camera. I know this because I have a few faded pictures, dated and annotated in what is presumably his own hand. On each, the word Voigtländer appears, along with the exposure settings. According to Hattie – oh Hattie! – there were many more of these photographs, but somewhere between moves from the East End to Islington they were lost, as was much else.
Hattie said that many of my father’s old pictures were of workers at Millwall’s docks. She described the docks “impounded water”. The idea of locking up a river sounded unnatural and unwise. My father had taken pictures of men holding up their union cards at call-on; of sailmakers and lightermen, tally clerks, wharfingers and gangs of stevedores. There were pictures that might have been taken from aboard the free ferry at Woolwich and imported goods that are now unthinkable – live elephants, piles of ivory and snake skins twice the size of a man. There were also images of what remained of the wild Plaistow Marshes, which stretched from Canning Town to Barking Creek. I have none of these photos though. I would love to have seen them. When Hattie talked of them, in her last years, the descriptions fell from her mouth lifelessly, as if she were describing any old pictures that she might have half recalled from a picture book or a newspaper. I sometimes wonder whether they existed at all.
The few photos I do have from my father’s collection show a keen interest in the barges that were once a much more common sight on the Thames. The names can just be made out on a few: Lady Daphne, Cambria, Victor, Wyvenhoe. There are a few other fishing boats too: the oyster smack Boadicea; a Humber keel with its already hazy name made more illegible by what is perhaps a coffee stain; an eel barge near the Dutch Mooring at Billingsgate; and two Thames Estuary fishing smacks, Primrose and Perigee.
Did my father drink coffee? Perhaps he drank that Camp coffee that we used to have – the stuff in the dusty bottle that left a sticky ring in the dark back of the pantry cupboard. I wonder. That shelf that was too high for any young child to reach (so there’s where the wells of your imagination take you!). And there’s my mug of tea. And there’s my father growing ever smaller on the lip of a precipice, slipping down and away into the dregs of something gone cold.
I learned that the Thames Estuary smack Perigee sailed between St Katherine’s Docks (which in the 1930s still handled cargoes of luxury goods including sugar, rum, spices and perfumes) and Rochester, Ipswich, Hull, Newcastle – even northern France. I’ve imagined this small boat in rough Channel seas, or mooring up under the Tyne Bridge and unloading tales of The Mudchute and Deptford in a clash of accents and experience.
Perigee was built in the late 1860s by Frederick Wheeler in Maldon, Essex, and first registered for an oyster and herring fisherman, Samuel Wilson. It was re-registered in Brightlingsea, Essex, in the 1880s and then in Faversham, Kent, in the 1890s. From here, until its appearance in my father’s photograph, the details are murky. At some point in the 1930s it was fitted with an engine, thought to be adapted from one found in a Ford Model T. This wasn’t – maybe isn’t – unusual: the term for having undergone such an adaptation is “marinised”.
Perigee makes an appearance in the London Fisheries Register of 1936. It is listed as being owned by Thomas Culshaw of Rotherhithe, who was well known in the area at the time. Born into a family of fishermen (who were originally from Margate and had arrived in London almost accidentally), Captain Tom was easily recognisable by his “moon-like visage”. No record I can find tells whether that means a face as round as a full moon or as lop-sided as a crescent one. In his youth he had apparently sailed to Cape Verde, Easter Island and Brazil. He was a renowned smoker of a calabash pipe stuffed with expensive Turkish “Joy Smoke” tobacco, and entertained crew with his nimble playing of the spoons and perhaps also the melodeon. He had a spaniel, Mr Tipps, who accompanied him everywhere. It looks most likely that Tom Culshaw was killed during the war, sunk in his boat off Potton Island near Foulness – “lost through enemy action”. The name Perigee disappears from the London Fisheries Register in 1943 and never returns. What became of Mr Pitts is unknown.
I have been researching my father’s early life, off and on, for the past few years. It’s an unsteady project. Sometimes, you could say, I take a sip of it, sometimes I drink deep. You can delve down into a history until it’s dark and you’re wanting air, and you’re trying to get back up – up to the surface.
I wonder what happened next. For the docks and dockers of the Isle of Dogs and beyond, World War Two is a barrage and blaze of all the words that for some people at the time must have become horrifically familiar: Black Saturday, the Gothenberg, ARPs, Mulberry harbours, South Halsville school, Beckton gasworks, UXBs, first-aid posts, Kearly and Tonge, trains to Weston-super-Mare and Somerset, safe camps in Epping Forest. I’ve looked for my father’s name but he’s nowhere in it. It’s all craters and smoke. Hattie would roll her eyes and light a Regal. I draw blanks. I put the kettle on.
He reappears as a gaunt man in a photograph from the late 1940s, sitting atop a pile of pristine bricks, the highest up in the picture of six men, all young, grinning and gurning at the camera. One is toothless, two wear braces, one has a belt around his high-waisted trousers. Shirts are unbuttoned and sleeves are rolled up. My father is wearing his fisherman’s cap, others wear flat caps and one appears to be sporting a knotted handkerchief on his head. The only evidence of work-wear is that each man has a protective leather pad strapped to his shoulders. In the background are a giant crane and the hull of a ship. Everything is grey, fading to brown. It is the only picture I have of him. I have looked at it so long I can conjure the image whenever I want. And I have looked at it so long it tells me nothing at all.
He should have stayed for me.
Hattie wouldn’t tell me any more. She preferred talking about him as a child, her baby son. My mother told me nothing, bless her. He was off bounds. I didn’t know anything about him for years. Lots of us had fathers who were lost, so it wasn’t unusual. I just thought mine was lost for the same reason. In fact, he left my mother shortly after I was born. Of course I don’t remember. He slipped through the rubble of London’s East End and never reappeared, at least not to us. I found out later there were reports he had taken his life: jumped off a bridge or some jetty at one of the wharfs. My father couldn’t swim.
I now consider it strange that the only image I have of him is one in which he’s sitting on top of a pile of bricks. There’s nothing solid about him at all. He spent most of his life at the water’s edge and finally fell into it. He still falls through my hands every day. He floats off. The world turns. I orbit him silently. The tide rises again. The water is deepest when the moon is closest. The more I reach out the more he recedes into a history that’s always flowing away, even as it grows: incessant, spiteful, cowardly. His secrets are gone. The river washed up no body.