Tugboat Tales, Number One

I once read a story, I can’t remember where, about a dyspeptic tugboat captain who wore sinister black gloves and struck fear into his crew. I remember that his name was Captain Bagshaw, or Shawbag, and that his tugboat was ancient and rusty and rotten. I think I read the story in a newspaper, which would suggest that it was factual rather than some made-up fiction, but I can’t be sure.

The captain’s black gloves were made of wool, and often became tattered and frayed, and I recall a phrase in the story where we were told that he used to “darn them with malevolence”. I’ve done a lot of darning in my time, for I am handy with needle and thread and crochet and knitting needles and suchlike, I have darned socks and jumpers and balaclavas and mittens, though not, admittedly, gloves, yet I cannot for the life of me think how I might darn something malevolently, though god knows I tried to, in the weeks and months after reading the story of Captain Bagshaw, or Shawbag, in that newspaper, if it was a newspaper. It may have been a periodical. I tried snarling, or spitting at passing puppy-dogs as I darned, but it came across as churlish and bad-tempered rather than malevolent, and I felt like a fool. When the captain snarled, he made a sound like the cawing of a thousand crows, and when he spat, he spat sulphur. There were no puppies on the tugboat, of course, but there was a badger. The captain did not snarl at it, because it was his creature, his familiar. At one point I think it is described as a “demonic badger”, whatever that may be.

I think we were meant to see the captain as a kind of Ahab figure, obsessed and mad as well as sinister, but for me this effect was flawed by the fact that it was a rented tugboat. Bagshaw/Shawbag did not own it. Every week he had to slip some coinage into the waiting palm of a seaside bureaucrat, representative of a dull organisation stuffed with accountants and administrators. Their main business seemed to be civic coastline management and prettifying, with renting out a tugboat to a sinister begloved madman as an afterthought. Somehow that made him less the master of his vessel, for me, and I remember tutting ruefully as I read the paragraph in which this was explained. Whoever wrote the story clearly felt it was important, for it was a very long paragraph, leaden with detail, and I skipped past it on my subsequent rereadings.

So there was Captain Bagshaw, or Shawbag, on his rented tugboat, with his demonic badger and a terror-stricken crew, and then there was the radio cabin, a tiny cubbyhole squeezed under the orlop deck. I am no expert on maritime hoo-ha, but I suspect it is unusual for a tugboat to have an orlop deck, let alone a radio cabin. No illustrations accompanied the story, and the writer is vague on details about the tugboat’s specifications. I have to say that this did not bother me when I read it, and it was only years later, when I talked about the tugboat with a raddled and brine-soaked old sea dog while on holiday at O’Houlihan’s Wharf that I learned of these anomalies. I put them out of mind, however. I’m sure there are all sorts of different designs of tugboat plying the harbours of the world, big ones and tiny ones, rotting ones and gleaming ones, ones that fly flags and ones that don’t, and ones with and without orlop decks and radio cabins.

It has only just occurred to me that we are never told the name of the tugboat.

The captain’s handwriting was spidery, but surprisingly legible given that he never removed his sinister black woollen gloves, even when wielding his fashionable fat fountain pen. It was a sturdy pen, and it needed to be, because one of the captain’s enigmatic little ways was that he mixed his ink with glue. He used it to keep his log, of course, but was also given to scrawling commands and directives and warnings and decrees on sheets of foolscap and pasting them up all over the tugboat. One such sign was on the door of the radio cabin, forbidding any of the crew to enter in any circumstances, at any time, ever. The punishment for doing so was not made explicit, but it did not need to be, for as we have seen, Captain Bagshaw/Shawbag kept the tugboatists in a permanent state of stomach-churning terror. As a youth, if one could imagine him as a youth, he had studied the methods of tyrants and dictators and megalomaniacs, from Josef Stalin to Paul “Bono” Hewson, and once he stepped aboard his tugboat, even though it was rented, his self-belief carried him through. As I have indicated, I may not be convinced of his power, but the crew certainly were.

Except, that is, for the latest recruit, a plug-ugly loose-limbed lantern-jawed feather-hatted scented and perfumed dimity deckhand who’d cut his teeth in the Puffin Club. I think the writer gives his name, but I can’t remember it. Let’s pluck a name out of the ether and call him, say, Siegfried Sassoon, for the sake of convenience. No, let’s not. Let’s call him Puffin Boy.

Now, Puffin Boy, in addition to being plug-ugly and loose-limbed and lantern-jawed and feather-hatted and scented and perfumed and dimity, was functionally illiterate. He could just about manage simple three-letter words like orb and lip and jug, but anything more complicated was beyond him, and Bagshaw/Shawbag liked to write his brutish decrees in long-winded, flowery sentences so as not to waste even a speck of his foolscap. Thus it was that Puffin Boy blundered into the radio cabin quite unaware that it was off limits to such as he. Although most of the captain’s commands were senseless and deranged, he had good reason to keep his crew away from the radio. He wanted to ensure that no one twiddled the dial away from important seafaring information channels and tuned in to a programme very popular at that time, called Tugboat Crew Playtime. This was a music show which was bound to distract tugboat crews from their tugboat duties, for it featured a roster of presenters with mellifluous voices who played tunes requested by tugboat crew members from near and far. A typical show would include works by Glazunov, Borodin, Webern, Heinz Karl Gruber, Sibelius, Petula Clark, Conway Twitty, Scriabin, the Memphis Jug Band, Al Bowlly, Oumou Sangaré, Sleater-Kinney, Silvestre Revueltas, Big Bill Broonzy, Bucks Fizz, Augustus Pablo, Bela Bartok, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Morton Feldman, Charles Ives, Big Audio Dynamite, George Formby, Mercedes Sosa, Jacques Brel, Schubert, Schumann, Monteverdi, Ned Rorem, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Cassiber, Cab Calloway, the Psychedelic Furs, Omara Portuondo, Burning Spear, Peter Warlock, Carl Ruggles, the Strawberry Alarm Clock, Joan Baez, Havergal Brian, Dennis Brain, Cheech and Chong, Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Carpenters. Not only did Puffin Boy retune the radio to Tugboat Crew Playtime, but he managed to jam both the tuner dial and the volume knob. This was not done by design, for Puffin Boy was an innocent dunderpate.

Up on the orlop deck, Captain Bagshaw/Shawbag was stalking around with his demonic badger in tow when his eardrums were assailed by Janáĉek’s Glagolitic Mass blaring from down below. As expected, he flew into a rage. What was unexpected was that he did so literally. His feet left the deck, he flapped his arms, and he found himself soaring forty feet above his rented tugboat. A gust of wind took him then, and he was carried off over the glistening sea, into the blue.

Months later, an intrepid ornithologist was clambering around on a rocky outcrop buffeted by wind and waves. Peering through his Blotzmannscope, he observed a seabird’s nest, auks or skuas, I can’t recall, and there was the captain, in his sinister black gloves, scribbling on a sheet of foolscap with his fashionable fat fountain pen, and the birds were gathered around him screeching madly and trembling with terror.

I wish I could tell you what became of the tugboat and its crew, particularly Puffin Boy, but the writer confesses he does not know. Perhaps one day I will remember where I read the story, and track down a copy, and find out whether it is truth or fiction, and tell it to you properly.

4 thoughts on “Tugboat Tales, Number One

  1. I for one do not believe for a moment you would willingly set foot in a land you have previously described as a “sea-girt wasteland”, so the very notion that you would journey there on a holiday, and willingly mix with the unhinged, brine-addled simpletons of that coastal-town is anomolous and befuddling.

    By the way, this must be the 2nd of your collection of pen-portraits of ship’s captains. At this rate you will have completed the set in about 20 years!


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