Taken aback

Frank Kermode

  • Close Quarters by William Golding
    Faber, 281 pp, £9.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 571 14779 8

William Golding’s Rites of Passage, which appeared seven years ago, purported to be an account, by a young toff, good-natured but still wet behind the ears, of a voyage to Australia, around 1814, in a clapped-out English warship reduced to carrying emigrants. Keeping a journal for the amusement of his noble patron, he tells of a comical amorous adventure with an emigrant female, a patronising friendship with an ex-lower-deck first lieutenant (‘allow me to congratulate you on imitating to perfection the manners and speech of a somewhat higher station in life than you were born to’), and various puppyish acts of indiscipline and breaches of Naval etiquette which set him at odds with the captain. The ship is rotten and stinking, and it rolls and pitches abominably, but although they are all in the same boat the voyagers continue to observe the customs of their classes, the seamen forward, the middle-class emigrants amidships, the petty officers in their messes, the officers in their wardroom, and the captain on his quarterdeck. The professionals are desperate for action, partly as the quickest way to preferment; the bourgeoisie is not. The young gentleman is confusedly betwixt and between.

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[*] Occasionally I felt that one or another bit of nautical slang seemed too World War Two. However, I see that calling the sea ‘the drink’ goes back to 1832, and was familiar to Dickens in 1844. But ‘sippers’ – meaning a swig at somebody else’s rum, usually in my time to celebrate a birthday – does seem wrong for 1814, and the OED Supplement finds its earliest written usage in 1944.