‘Brian’s story of how the Triple Trawler Tragedy unleashed the fury of the formidable women of the Hessle Road is inspirational.’
– Rt. Hon. Alan Johnson – Former Hull West and Hessle MP
Fifty years ago, during January and February 1968, 58 men lost their lives when three trawlers sank just weeks apart. Led by Lillian Bilocca, the women of Hull’s Hessle Road rose up to fight for better conditions for trawlermen. Their story, though moving, inspirational and important, was lost as Hull’s fishing industry went into decline. Dr Brian W. Lavery brought it back into the public eye with his book, ‘The Headscarf Revolutionaries: Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple-Trawler Disaster’. The recent BBC Four documentary ‘Hull’s Headscarf Heroes’ (for which he was a consultant and contributor, is available on BBC iPlayer for a short while) and is testament to his achievement in bringing these remarkable women much-deserved recognition. The book was optioned by a major TV production company, inspired poetry by Helen Mort, two plays – by Maxine Peake and Val Holmes respectively – two BBC Radio 4 documentaries – and a multi-media touring stage show “12 Silk Handkerchiefs” with music by acclaimed songwriter Reg Meuross, scripted by Brian.
After more than 25 years in journalism, Brian returned to higher education at the University of Hull, starting with a first-class degree in English and Creative Writing, and then a PhD.
“Initially I intended to do a doctoral thesis on Victorian socialist literature, inspired by Dr Jane Thomas,” he says, “but it was while walking through the Larkin Building to seek advice on this from the late Dr David Kennedy that I overheard Prof Martin Goodman on the telephone. His office door was open. He was saying he would like to supervise a nonfiction creative PhD with a story of importance to Hull. I had always wanted to write about Lillian Bilocca and her campaign for trawler safety that followed the 1968 Triple Trawler Disaster. My previous career’s habit of eavesdropping had paid off! I went home and rewrote my thesis proposal and sent it to Martin. The rest is history… or rather creative nonfiction.”
Brian’s second book “The Luckiest Thirteen: The forgotten men of St Finbarr – A trawler crew’s battle in the Arctic” was published late last year.
Here we talk to Brian about his time at the University of Hull, writing creative non-fiction, and Hull writers to look out for.
Was there anyone at Hull who particularly inspired you?
The English department at Hull when I arrived in 2008 as a (very) mature undergrad was simply outstanding. There was not a lecturer who did not impress me. Of course, my PhD supervisors Prof Goodman and Prof David Starkey from the History department were the greatest influence, especially Martin, whose skills as a teacher, editor and writer impressed me then, and do still.
As an undergraduate I was lucky to have great writers and teachers to work with including; Cliff Forshaw, David Kennedy, David Wheatley, Simon Kerr, Kath McKay and Ray French (Ray’s encouragement was matched only by his patience and tutelage all of which were excellent.)
Shakespeare came alive with Ann Kaegi – and Jane Thomas, Katherine Cockin, David Beck and Bruce Woodcock were inspirational. All my teachers at Hull were great, so forgive me if I missed one out. I am, after all a (very) mature student and given to memory lapse!
You have written and taught creative non-fiction. Could you tell us what that is?
Put simply the sort of creative nonfiction I write is history written as a novel, fact into art as it were. I am a writer, not an historian. I love finding forgotten or overlooked stories and bringing them to life as works of creative prose, inspired by writers like Sebastian Junger, Jon Krakauer, Truman Capote (whose In Cold Blood was hailed as the first ‘true novel’) It also helped greatly to have an award-winning creative nonfiction writer like Martin Goodman as my supervisor. Any success I have as a writer or any praise for my style of prose, I truly feel has a line leading back to Prof. Goodman.
You have written and published journalism, fiction, non-fiction, poetry – are these very different disciplines requiring different skills, topics, and approaches, or does all your writing come from a similar place?
I always joke that providing I can remember my alphabet I will make a living. There’s truth in the quip for me. Yes, there are differing and different skills and approaches to the various sort of writing I undertake, and there is not sufficient room here, or indeed in the average doctoral thesis to detail them – but the one thing that must exist undiminished is the enthusiasm to write and the desire to help others so to do.
“It’s very important for me to ‘send the lift back down’ and that’s why I love to teach and advise. If you want to be a writer I will do my best to help and teach you. If you NEED to be a writer, I will come round to your house and teach you.”
It is hard work. It is often difficult. It requires considerable intellectual capacity, but most of all it is a privilege to make your way with words. But let’s not get carried away with the ‘struggles’ of the writer. After all, it not as if you’re digging coal or trying to catch cod… now that IS a struggle.
Are there any other writers emerging from Hull that we should be looking out for?
Hull’s writing and arts community is widespread, mostly inclusive and friendly. This year two “new” writers, both poets, hove into view and you will hear them more if there’s a God in Heaven. Dean Wilson and Vicky Foster have blown me away. They write their city and their hearts in differing ways to similar effect. The brilliant Louise Beech is proving to be the Scheherazade of Hull. A great talent indeed, who in the past couple of years has produced outstanding work. I love the fact that in my adopted city I can have a pint with great novelists and playwrights and ask their advice. My respected and distinguished colleagues (and pals!) David Mark, Nick Quantrill, Russ Litten, Dave Windass, John Robinson, Jim Higo, Joe Hakim, Mike Watts, Peter Knaggs, Rob Bell and many more have played parts in supporting and helping me in all sorts of ways. You can throw a penny at a bus stop in Hull and hit an artist. That’s what I love about my adopted city. Our city’s university will encourage more, of that I am certain, but they will ignore the home-grown talent ‘doing it for themselves’ at their peril.
What forthcoming projects are you working on/will you be working on?
I am presently working on a Scottish novel, another Hull-based nonfiction (not about fishing!), a collection of poetry and some more stories from the bottomless well of social history that is our once great fishing industry. I will continue to write stories people want – and hopefully continue to find overlooked ones that people should know about!