Thursday, February 20, 2020

end of an empire

Crossness lighthouse on Leather Bottle Point, the boundary between Barking Reach and Halfway Reach

[Image source: Wikipedia.]

17 April 1958. Osaka

Anchored off Osaka last night. I was on anchor-watch, just keeping a general eye and checking bearings to make sure we weren't dragging. I couldn't see much until first light, then it was just like one of those Japanese paintings. The water's completely still, and as the sun came up all the other ships and boats were blodges, not sharp enough to be silhouettes, just blodges against the yellowy-brown (I think that's the colour) mist. Ainslie came up to the bridge and I said wasn't it an amazing colour. It's shit, he said. He's really got a way with words. I said I thought it was beautiful. You would, he said. That's because you know sod all about sod all. It's yellow because it's sulphur from the sodding factories. Forget the fancy toe painting or Madame Butterfly crap. It's part of their wonderful industrial revolution. They chuck all the industrial waste into the air or the sea. I said it was just like London and smogs. He said everyone was the same. Didn't matter where you went. You had a sodding great world war. Killed as many people as you could and then tried to kill the rest with progress coming out chimneys instead of gun barrels. I asked him what he was going to do about it. He said if Mr Churchill couldn't care a toss why should he. Just remember two things, he said. Don't drink the water and always remember to wash your willy after you've shagged their women.
      Ainslie is strange. He comes out with something as strong as the thing about smoke and philosophy and then somehow spoils it by saying things like that. Somewhere deep down he's very angry. I wish he liked me, then I could ask him why. 


The area round Belvedere used to be called Lessness. I just couldn't resist using that word for two posts in succession!

Belvedere lies west of Erith and north of Bexleyheath. It was and is a working-class area but its name has fancy origins. One story is that the village was named after a wooden tower erected by Sir Culling Eardley in the mid 19th century. The other is that his forebear Sir Sampson Gideon's house was already named Belvedere when rebuilt by James "Athenian" Stuart, c. 1765. At any rate, the name alludes to the fine view over the Thames from its upland location.

Belvedere House in 1910

[Image source: .]

Eardley's son fled England for America in 1869, facing accusations of bigamy. Belvedere House ended up in the hands of the Shipwrecked Mariners Society and, after many years service as a retirement home for sailors, was demolished in 1959. The Kentish lad may have been home in time to see it come down, not that he was staying. His world had become a lot bigger in the past 18 months. Eight Bells and Top Masts (2001) is based on teenage diaries of his time as junior deck apprentice on a tramp steamer, flying an archaic red ensign and pursuing an archaic trade across the world in the last days before container shipping: salt from Port Sudan to South Korea, phosphates from Nauru to Colombo, sugar from Cuba to Shanghai.

[Tramping meant undertaking ad hoc voyages; as contrasted to a liner, i.e. a ship that plies back and forth on the same route.]

The Kentish lad was Christopher Lee, who later became a historian and prolific author of radio plays. The diary entries have a dramatist's sense of arrangement and pace. I'm guessing that sometimes the author of 2001 lent his 17-year-old self a helping hand.

31 January 1958

I'm not yet sure who speaks and who doesn't. The Mate is quite fierce. He's not as tall as me but he's very round and he's got an enormous beard. And he's Irish. When he speaks he makes gurgling sounds at the back of his throat. It's like he had a bit of his whiskers caught down there. The Second Mate just stared at me when Ainslie said who I was. Then he nodded. Then he said was I keen on crosswords. I said I didn't know. I'd never done one. He just walked away. The chief steward's Chinese and has a big smile. Ainslie says we have to keep in with him. Because he's got the food? No. Because he's the biggest sneak on the sodding ship and he'll tell on you if he feels like it. Ainslie says I'll soon get to know everyone. He says there was no need to speak to the engineers unless you wanted to. He says you'll soon know who they are. They always wipe their hands on their trousers before they shake hands -- even when they're perfectly clean. Habit, he said. Don't take any notice. They're not like us. I said, my grandfather's an engineer. He said, you'll know what I mean then.

The point was, even the lowly junior deck apprentice was, prospectively at least, a sailor, and sailing was a profession. Engineering was a trade. Even though the Chief Engineer had unparalleled access to the godlike Captain, that distinction still held: there were two separate hierarchies within the white British part of the vessel. The afterdeck (bosun, deckhands, stokers, donkeymen) were Chinese. To them, as to all other foreigners, the British applied a simplifying set of stereotypes; chinkies, darkies, dagoes... It was sufficient for their limited contact with the world they roamed. Our apprentice had all the lingo, but was thoughtful enough and young enough to know his ignorance, and to feel his ingrained belief in Britannia's sway contradicted  by Nasser at Suez, by a world that neither feared the British nor liked them.


15 March 1959, Gibraltar

I reckon I'm really lucky to be alive. I think we all are. We were coming through the Strait of Gibraltar last night. Very, very foggy. Engines on Slow Ahead. Long blasts on the ship's whistle [hooter]. I went on watch at four this morning and was sent for'd as fo'c's'le lookout. You stand right up for'd on a metal platform in the bows. There's a bell with a clapper. T|he mate said that if you see anything on the starboard bow then you hit the bell once. On the port bow you hit it twice, and if anything's ahead then you hit it three times. That way the bridge will look in the direction rather than you shouting and not being understood. I got up on the fo'c's'le and it was so dense that when I looked back I couldn't even see the bridge properly. We were hardly moving through the water. Then we blew two blasts, which meant that the engines were stopped and we weren't making any headway. We kept on signalling this. I think it was lucky we weren't moving. Or maybe if we had been, the tanker would have missed us. There were foghorns everywhere, but we couldn't see any other ships. Then I heard engines, but I couldn't see her and I wasn't even sure where they were coming from because the fog distorts everything. There's no bell signal for that. So I yelled back at the bridge: Engines! Engines! Suddenly from nowhere this huge tanker is coming at us on the port bow. As I rang the bell I could see we were going to hit so I ran for the ladder. I jumped it. I was just landing on the main deck when I heard someone shouting from the bridge: Clear the fo'c's'le! Got something right, I thought. At the same time I could hear the bridge telegraph ringing. It must have been Full Astern. The whole ship was shuddering, but we hadn't even moved when . . . Bang! We hit. next thing I'm up in the air, then on my backside sliding across the deck, luckily into the hatch coaming and not the other way, which would have been over the side. All I could think of was, Please, God, make her fully laden. Please. Please. If the tanker had been light ship [empty], she could have exploded. She was full. 

[Empty tanks were more dangerous as the space would contain inflammable vapour from the previous cargo. ]


P&O began in 1837 as the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. "Peninsular" meant the Iberian peninsula, another trace of the once-great importance of the "Atlantic" trade, like the marmalade I wrote about recently.



Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger