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Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson: The salty tale of 'Andsome 'Oward and the Cornish fishermen

Boscastle needed three pubs for its 800 souls, and there was singing in every one

In the hold this gear must go,
Rattling winches, O!
For mister mate has told me so,
Rattling winches, O!

It's a while since we discussed seafarers and the songs they sing in this column. I'll need to conduct a thorough search of my files but I suspect that while I've touched occasionally on the grog and my noggy, noggy boots, this is the first time I've invoked the rattling winch, O! Clearly, I've been away from the sea too long.

And the reason for this sudden burst of maritime nostalgia? An item in the news about the Fisherman's Friends, a group of Cornish fishermen, lifeboatmen and coastguards who have just landed – "landed" or, if you like, "netted": I want you to see I'm still conversant with the idiom – a million-pound recording contract from Universal. Good to hear of anyone who isn't a banker making money at the moment, though no doubt they'll be singing shanties in the City now they know there's a buck in it.

In the hedge this fund must go
Rattling rolldowns , O!
For Warren Buffett's told me so,
Rattling rolldowns, O!

Port Isaac is where you can hear the Fisherman's Friends perform their repertoire, including "Rattling Winches", which I initially misheard as Rattling Wenches. (Wishful thinking, I suppose. You think of little else when you're out rattling on a whaling boat on a wild wild sea.) Port Isaac is on the north Cornish coast, just a few miles of blind and winding lane from Boscastle where I got my grounding in sea shanties 20 years ago and more. There was a fair bit of rivalry between Boscastle and Port Isaac in those days, as I suspect there still is, in the matter of which village is the more ruggedly beautiful, which has the greater history of independence, which smuggled more successfully, which has the better darts and pool teams, and of course which sings the more authentic shanties. So there'll be some sour faces in Boscastle today, is my guess. If I weren't busy proof-reading a novel – not a seafaring yarn this time – I'd be down there to give them moral support. It's no joke losing out to a neighbouring village, as I know having been on the Wellington Hotel pool team and the Cobweb Inn darts team in the days when Port Isaac was devilishly strong in both sports.

They were always slicker in Port Isaac than they were in Boscastle. It was a population thing, partly. While we in Boscastle weighed in with a mere 800 inhabitants, a figure widely thought to include family pets, and most of those (pets included) morose, Port Isaac was a seething metropolis of 1,000 ebullient faux-Cornish socialites. But it also had to do with our relative places in the popular imagination. Television always preferred to film period dramas in Port Isaac, on account of its looking more conventionally like a smugglers' cove. Poldark and all that. And now Doc Martin. To probe Boscastle's subtler mysteries you need to get up on to the cliffs, or walk the Valency Valley, a deep, shaded tunnel of ancient vegetation and rivulet where Thomas Hardy courted his first wife. We had the literature and the savagery. Port Isaac was merely picturesque. But you know the public.

So it's all in the saga of their rivalry that in these superficial times the shallower village should have the more successful shanties. Whether ours were more genuine, that's to say more native to the area, is another matter. Most of Cornwall is tainted with Birmingham and Walthamstow now – garage owners and window cleaners who sold their houses in the boom time and migrated west to make crab sandwiches and serve cream teas and chips; and even when you find true Cornish Cornish it's hard to avoid the impression that they're playing at it. When a voluptuous Cornish woman by the name of Trixie nestles up to you in the snug and calls you "Me 'andsome", is she recalling a Celtic courting ritual hundreds of years old, or is she taking the piss? I divided my time between Wolverhampton and Boscastle for about a decade and never discovered the answer to that. But this I can say: not once did anyone call me "Me 'andsome" in Wolverhampton.

Boscastle needed three pubs to refresh its 800 morose souls – Port Isaac, as I recall, had only two – and there was singing in every one of them, though the best singing happened at the bar of the Cobweb. It could break out at any time, depending who was there, but Friday night was when it really happened. Sometimes there'd be recitations or shaggy dog stories, none of which I much cared for – if I wanted prose I could write my own – and then there'd be the odd Tom Jones favourite, such as "Green, Green Grass of Home", a song highly inapplicable to Boscastle which did grandeur not hospitality, invariably followed by Roger Whittaker's "The Last Farewell" – you know the one: "There's a ship that lies rigged and ready in the harbour" – which is a bit too catchy to be a shanty proper, but we bellowed it like broken-hearted mariners anyway. Then the "real" locals would turn up, still wet with sea spray (and a little aftershave), still bespattered from the fields, and some still tanned from the oil rigs of the Middle East, at which point mere northern interlopers like me would buy a round of drinks and withdraw from the bar, in the manner of acolytes attending a secret ceremony, and the singing would begin in earnest.

I say they were shanties but many were simply coastal folk songs of uncertain provenance – mainly Irish, I suspected – that suited the mocking melancholy of the Cornish. The one I remember most vividly, perhaps because it was the one above all others that made me feel a stranger under threat, was "A Bunch of Thyme", an aching, wickedly lilting story of sexual theft, the singer lamenting the bonny bunch of thyme a "saucy fiddler" had stolen from him. "For thyme," we would all join in, "it is a precious thing..."

I always felt they were siding with the fiddler. They were after my wife, of course. "You got a song, 'Oward?" they asked me once. The bastards! What did they expect – "Hava Nagila"? So I gave it to them from the back of my throat – all I'd experienced of the cruel hardships of the sea.

'Twas on the good ship Venus,
By God you should've seen us...

I know other verses if Universal's interested.