The old fishing town faced the sea psychically as well as architecturally. Dressed as pirates, my grandson and I walked down through the steep and narrow streets to the quayside, where we found other pirates. It was still early and there weren’t yet the solid crowds of pirates we were hoping to see. The overcast morning was the last day of the pirate festival, and this fishing town, with a long tradition of privateering, buccaneering, smuggling, piracy and rugby, was slow getting to its feet after two days and nights of carousing. The ticket hut in front of the replica Golden Hind was open for business, however, and there were hungover pirates to welcome us aboard. So we paid the nice lady and descended the wooden gangplank.
The pirates greeted us gruffly but warmly. They wore real leather thigh boots with the tops turned down, and real frock-coats embroidered with gold thread, and flouncy shirts, and pirate pistols, and real pirate beards. They spoke with real pirate accents. They were so indistinguishable from real pirates that we were both quite disconcerted. OK, we were pirates too. Grandad, for example, was wearing a £1.50 cardboard tricorn hat, a joke scar, a clip-on pirate earring, a stick-on moustache, a plastic eyepatch, a T-shirt with horizontal stripes, and a toy cutlass stuck in his belt. But these guys had it all, without a single false note, right down to the silver knuckleduster rings, the anti sea-glare eyeliner and the tan. The oldest one, presumably the captain, cleared his throat, spat meditatively, and said, ‘Welcome aboard, me hearties. While you’re under my command there is but one rule. Ye can swear and spit; ye can stab, strangle and shoot people; but to satisfy health and safety regulations, I have to tell you, I’m afraid, that you can’t run about.’ Oscar and I offered our solemn assurance that we would only walk, then, on the captain’s further advice, we started our tour below decks.
It was dark and claustrophobic and must have been very cramped and noisome with 50 crew sleeping down there. An information panel about piratical culture stated that in spite of their reputation for belligerence and unruliness, pirates were in fact surprisingly democratic. That the first English democrats were pirates was very apposite, I thought. Oscar now made his little self known to me in the darkness, and privily confessed an overwhelming anxiety that the pirates standing above our heads were real pirates. An additional anxiety was that if we didn’t disembark very shortly, the captain might sail away with us both still aboard. They were real pirates, I said. And it was possible, I said, that the ticket hut and the little paper tickets were all part of an elaborate trick by the captain to refresh his crew. So we legged it back upstairs and made our excuses to the captain and his lieutenants, explaining that we badly needed to get an ice cream.
Up on the stage a line of deep-voiced West Country pirates were standing in a line and singing a mournful sea shanty about their having been away at sea too long. We were served our ice creams by a comely lass wearing an ankle-length gown and a heavy flintlock pistol thrust through a leather belt. The town was coming awake, the pubs had reopened, and bleary pirate gangs were filing inside them for hairs of the dog. We took our ice creams and watched the sea-shanty singers. They looked terribly pale and hungover. The leading singer apologised for his croaky voice, which was owing, he said, ‘to drinking out of too many damp glasses’.
Then we walked over to the ‘family’ stage to see a pirate magician perform. We were slightly early, so we sat on a step and finished our ice creams. Oscar took the opportunity to get some straight answers to some controversial questions unrelated to piracy. The first he wanted settled was, what relation was I to his daddy? ‘Is he your brother?’ he suggested. ‘No, I’m his daddy,’ I said. He pondered my answer then seemed to accept it. Then he said, ‘Who do you love most out of everybody?’ ‘You,’ I said, drawing my plastic cutlass and stabbing him lightly in the ear. He thought about this too, before offering me some advice. ‘You can live to a hundred if you eat healthily, you know,’ he said.
Then a very genial pirate magician stepped on to the stage and kicked off with a joke. ‘What did the pirate say on his 80th birthday?’ he said. We said that we didn’t know. ‘Ah, Matey!’ he said. This somehow hit me amidships, crippling me, to the extent that the pirate magician looked at me with happy surprise and said how grateful he was.
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