My Mad Captains

Frank Kermode remembers the war

I could give you the names of three captains now ’oo ought to be in an asylum, but you don’t find me interferin’ with the mentally afflicted till they begin to lay about them with rammers and winch-handles.

Kipling: ‘Mrs Bathurst’

Call to me all my mad captains. The first of my mad captains was mad in a quite different way from the others. He was unlucky as well as crazy, certainly worthy of a better deal than he got when he found himself consigned, as I was, to service in a sort of parody-navy, though he would have been quite at home in the real one, whereas I would not have found there, any more than in this grotesque doppelgänger, a climate that suited me.

On a certain day, every other Friday perhaps, I can’t remember and it doesn’t matter now, the troops got fell in to claim their pay. When his name was called, the sailor stepped briskly forward, saluted, took off his cap and placed it on the table. His pay would be placed on the cap. The sum would often be less than he had expected because of various deductions, especially what were called ‘mulcts’. This was the archaic word the Navy used to mean ‘fines’. Whenever authority was irritated or distressed by something a rating had done, it would award him a mulct. Ignorant recruits sometimes found it hard to understand that somebody who was professing to give them something was actually taking something off them. It might be a day’s pay or more, and what with one thing and another, it wasn’t difficult for a man to be awarded so many mulcts that he got no pay at all. When that happened an officer, or more likely his writer (the Navy word for a ‘clerk’: the only writers in the Navy were of inferior rank) would cry ‘Not Entitled!’ and put nothing at all on the cap. The relevant entry in the ledger that lay open before the writer was ‘NE’, meaning, of course, ‘Not Entitled’, but decoded by the troops as a North-Easter. The mulcted man would then put on his cap, hand out a parting salute as lively as the one which signalled his approach, about turn and impassively withdraw, unwilling to risk any more such awards by a display of chagrin, dissidence or even surprise. He would then tell his comrades that he’d got a fucking northeaster. The epithet was applied not only to circumstances of disappointment such as this, but also to more agreeable awards like Liberty or what sailors called ‘Leaf’. It was used less frequently in connection with what you might hope to be doing when you got your leaf, and never if the person you were likely to be doing it with was a wife or a steady friend. Worn though it was by over-use, it was especially apposite to northeasters. Sometimes simply to be in the Navy was to be in a fucking northeaster that never stopped blowing. Sometimes it seemed that to be alive at all was to have been born in the teeth of such a gale.

The summer of 1940 might have been a sombre time for a twenty-year-old, for it seemed that, unless the war quickly ended in national disaster (as seemed quite probable), the future consisted of indefinitely prolonged military service. But I remember it as a pleasant time, offering many satisfactions to which, for imperfectly examined reasons, I felt myself to be entitled. As for the future, let that come when it comes. Meanwhile, there were parties, tennis, bathing, love and the ordinary terrors, such as the gamble against the disaster of pregnancy, worrying, naturally, but at the same time enlivening.

In September, during the first daylight raids on the docks, I was summoned from the North to London, and, trotting naked from booth to booth, was examined by a team of perfunctory doctors and then interviewed by an amiably rough-tongued civilian who asked me if I had the power of command, was I a leader of men? This was a topic new to me, and I had never had occasion to form an opinion about it, but I assured him I had this power, and believed that I was telling the truth, for like many people at twenty I assumed that my powers were virtually without limit, though I lacked any notion as to how I might have acquired them – hardly from my father, four years a private, the dispossessed owner of a small off-licence, an amiable man, much liked in his own circle precisely because it would never have occurred to him to lead anybody anywhere; or from my education, small grammar school and redbrick, in which such leading as had to be done was done by other people, who would never have dreamed of asking me to join them. However, in the omnipotent summer of 1940, I felt sure I must have leadership tucked away with all my other unused capacity.

Taking me at my word, the brisk, overworked interviewer sent me to Liverpool to be interviewed again, this time by a scholarly captain, a paymaster captain, his sleeves encrusted with bands of gold lace separated by bright white stripes, his breast bemedalled. This was my first encounter with persons of such high rank, though I soon discovered that in the eyes of ‘executive’ officers, paymasters, or ‘pussers’ as they were called even if captains, were not quite the real thing, despite their being regarded with a touch of superstitious awe because of their overdeveloped literacy, their familiarity with an arcane compendium called King’s Regulations and with the insane naval system of accountancy. But then I was to learn that the real thing was, and perhaps is, not often to be met with.

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