Plenty has been written about masculine hardships in the world of work but a play by Ann Coburn casts light on some of the toughest workers in history, male or female.
It is called Get Up And Tie Your Fingers and it focuses on the lasses of the gutting crews who used to follow the herring fleets up and down the east coast in the 19th Century.
The fishing boats came in, the catch was unloaded and the women – lightning-fingered or they didn’t eat – would get to work, cutting and slicing more often than not in biting cold and always smelling of, well... fish.
Just try, for a second or two, to imagine what it must have been like to do work like that. And then consider that many of these women had fathers, husbands or sons in constant peril on the sea.
Ann’s play is set against Britain’s worst fishing disaster, in 1881, when 20 vessels and 189 men (129 of them from the village of Eyemouth, near Berwick) were lost in what came to be known as Black Friday.
Ann, who lives in Berwick, was commissioned nearly 20 years ago to write a play for the Borders Festival and this was the result, a classy and very moving piece of writing and a wonderful gift to actresses.
In the North East it was picked up by Northumberland Theatre Company in Alnwick which took it on an extensive North East tour with a cast featuring Janine Birkett, Karen Traynor and Lindsay Bruce Sharp.
I saw it at a packed village hall in Heddon-on-the-Wall, Northumberland, and was mightily impressed. I can still remember the real tears the cast appeared to shed and which audience members almost certainly did.
Now the play is back as part of an even more ambitious enterprise called Follow the Herring involving performance, song and the visual arts.
The play is being performed at 12 venues along the east coast and in every one the cast is joined by a local community choir (female voices only) which performs a specially commissioned score by composer Karen Wimhurst.
It is based on the traditional songs the women sang as they gutted at the mind-boggling speed of 60 fish per minute – hence the need for bandaging their vulnerable fingers.
People have also been knitting fish to a pattern helpfully supplied by the producers of the show.
The result is that an ever-expanding shoal of knitted herring – what could be nicer? – is following the play down the coast, going on display at each venue with a full-scale replice of a fishing boat draped with knitting as a tribute to a skill prevalent (and necessary) in fishing communities in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The knitting project, called Coat for a Boat, has involved men and women from across the country.
This new version of Get Up And Tie Your Fingers is a co-production by the Customs House, South Shields, and Newcastle theatre company The Guild of Lillians which was set up with a mission “to put women’s stories centre stage”.
One of the co-founders is Janine Birkett who shone in that 1998 production and was behind a revival of the play 10 years ago when it was The Guild of Lillians’ first production, in collaboration with Sage Gateshead.
“Get Up And Tie Your Fingers gives a fictional account of three women who watched the (Eyemouth) disaster unfold,” Janine says.
“It’s a remarkable tale of endurance, survival and the courage of the east coast herring fishing communities. We wanted to celebrate that with the people living in those communities today.”
Janine adds: “We’re involving nearly 300 women, some direct descendants of the women who worked the herring fleets.
“The women used to tie their fingers with rags to protect than from the gutting knife, but it is the tie between a mother and a daughter that is at the heart of Ann’s moving play.”
Ray Spencer, executive director at The Customs House, adds: “The women of the east coast communities the length of the UK were linked not just by fishing but by their twin traditions of knitting and singing.
“Follow the Herring will not only pay tribute to them but will hopefully educate a new generation about this fascinating part of their heritage.”
The project Has been supported by Arts Council England and Northumbria University while the tour is sponsored by Port of Tyne.
:: See Get Up And Tie Your Fingers at The Maltings, Berwick, on Friday (1pm and 7.30pm), The Customs House, South Shields, from May 21-24 and the Town Hall Theatre, Hartlepool, from June 5-7.