'A small, fast ferry in the west; it would be right up your street'

Seafarer and poet Robert Hilton

Robert Hilton. Photographs:- Mike Shaughnessy

Robert Hilton. Photographs:- Mike Shaughnessy

A WELL Spent Smile is the title of an engaging collection of poetry recently published by Robert Hilton, captain of The Aran Flyer ferry. The ups and downs of Hilton’s long seafaring life infuse poems that are sometimes funny, sometimes serious, and constantly a pleasure to read.

Earlier this week, Robert came in to Galway to meet me for a chat about his years on the ocean wave and the poems they inspired. Robert was born in Golders Green, London, in 1940, but he and his mother soon moved to Sussex, while his father was away serving with the Royal Navy during the war, or “the Second World Misunderstanding” as Robert humorously terms it.

He recalls one of his earliest memories of the time: “I was about four, and one day I heard this incredible music approaching. I ran across to this wall to get closer to it but couldn’t see over it so I moved along to a spot where I could look over and I saw a Scottish regimental band marching past in full cry. It was the Highland Light Infantry and they camped nearby for several weeks; they gave us kids sweets and rides in their Bren gun carriers and let us aim their Bofors guns. Then one night they all disappeared because they were part of the invading force for D-Day; many of them did not get much further than Sword Beach.”

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Robert’s father had what he terms “an interesting war” which included skippering one of the armada of small boats that rescued the British army from Dunkirk. “He was on a small Thames motor yacht called Ryegate II,” Bob relates. “He had been invalided out of the army in 1936 after suffering a hairline fracture of his skull, but in May 1940 he volunteered for Dunkirk; once there he tied up behind a ship called the Horst and used their lifeboat to row ashore to pick up soldiers. He recalls BBC radio blaring out of the wheelhouse and it was the Children’s Hour programme which began with the voice-over “Are you sitting comfortably?” and there they were with Stukas dropping bombs all around them. Later he joined the RNVR and served as a lieutenant in the Mediterranean and won the DSC.”

Another notable Hilton relative was Robert’s grandfather, OB Clarence, a respected actor of stage and screen and a friend of George Bernard Shaw. “He played the Inquisitor in the first production of Shaw’s St Joan,” Robert relates. “Shaw wrote in the proof copy of the script that he learned his lines from ‘To OB Clarence, the greatest of Inquisitors’ because my grandfather had been asking a lot of questions about how to perform the part. He was a character actor, never a star, but he was never out of work.”

'I am really pleased that one of our chaps, who was on a short service commission to the Irish Navy, used one of my poems in a talk to them as a warning about the dangers of enclosed spaces'

It was on the sea, not the stage, where Robert’s life was destined (though he did take a stage role in Fred Johnston’s 1995 folk musical oratorio, No Earthly Pole, about Sir John Franklin’s doomed voyage seeking the North West Passage ) ; “My final school was HMS Conway, the naval training ship” he tells me. “There I learned the sailing skills and nautical knowledge that aren’t taught so much these days - so a lot of my seafaring poems tend to be whinges about the decline of the merchant navy. When I was young everybody had a relative or someone they knew who went to sea but that’s no longer the case. Today, a lot of the crews are foreign; here in Ireland as well a lot of crewmen are from Eastern Europe. Of course, seafaring always was an international operation and the best ships I sailed had different nationalities aboard.”

That rueful note about the vanishing of a way of life informs poems like ‘The Seafarer’ with its lines, "In river, swatchway, fairway, deep, past where the sandbank shelves/To keep the ship’s disbursements cheap we pilot for ourselves/But now they’re finding cheaper crews from countries where there’s need/And they can work for wages that would hardly let us feed."

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Other poems that convey the reality of life at sea include ‘Fog’, which vividly renders the fears of that hazard and the long poem, ‘In My Memory Yet’, a chilling true story about a sailor who wakes to find his shipmates have all died from poison gas: "I gain the booby hatch’s opening/I look down from the daylight into gloom/So climb down, since I hardly see a thing/And find I’m venturing into a tomb./...steel turnings give off deadly gas/That gathers when the hatch is battened down/As we are taught in many a safety class/Forget this and it’s likely you will drown."

Robert notes: “I am really pleased that one of our chaps, who was on a short service commission to the Irish Navy, used the poem in a talk to them as a warning about the dangers of enclosed spaces. Although we have very thorough rules about what to do with an enclosed space before anyone goes in there people still get asphyxiated.”

'I do feel lucky to be still working, I’ll be 80 next January and while I might look it I fool people by not acting it!'

In contrast to the elegiac and solemn feeling of the poems above, there is the sprightly humour of poems like ‘Explanation’: "The smile so very well known/On the face of the Mona Lisa/Is there because she was shown/The plans of the Tower of Pisa." Other enjoyable poems celebrate the erotic impulse and satirise religious hypocrisy.

I ask Robert how he ended up dropping anchor in the west of Ireland: “I first visited Ireland on a cargo ship that sailed from west Africa to Dublin and after that I sailed into various other Irish ports, including Galway. I remember being here once and seeing a man walking across the docks with some mackerel on a string; I nipped down from our boat and asked ‘What do you want for them?’ He replied ‘They’re not for sale, I’m going to eat them’, ‘Bottle of vodka?’I suggested ‘Done!’ Whenever we carried alcohol it was very good currency!”

“One day in 1991 I was in Great Yarmouth,” Robert continues, “My phone went and it was the shipping company; they gave a eulogy about this job they had for me ‘not our usual trade but a small fast ferry in the west, it would be right up your street; music and holiday people, seven months of a season’. It was the Aran Flyer and it turned my life around; it got me on the housing ladder so I have a lot to be grateful for – and I do feel lucky to be still working, I’ll be 80 next January and while I might look it I fool people by not acting it!”

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Robert looks enviably spry for a seadog nearing 80 and his undimmed zest for life is evident in his presence at Rosses Point for its annual sea shanty festival this weekend (June 14 to 16 ) where he will regale audiences with his verse. “I’ve been writing poems and songs intermittently for about 50 years. I don’t write every day just when something seems worth mentioning,” he remarks unassumingly.

His poem ‘Sea Poetry’ concludes, "Sea life is just life, with its doldrums and gales/Its reefs and hospitable shores / But it’s real and not a collection of tales/And it’s mine but the fantasy’s yours."

Robert Hilton’s verse goes some way toward transmitting the reality of sea life to us landlubbers. The book (with a fine portrait of the poet on its cover by Ciara Goggin ) can be bought in Charlie Byrnes for €10.

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