My Mad Captains

Frank Kermode’s final war report

We did our fighting for freedom by proxy. Bad news drifted in, terrible things happened to other people. One of our sailors lost his wife and four children in a bombing raid on Hull. For a reason I forget, or perhaps for no good reason, all compassionate leave from Iceland had been stopped, but I thought that in the circumstances I should try to get the rule bent for this man. When I told him I’d see if I could work this, he replied: ‘Why bother? They were the only reason I had for going home.’

Archer, the captain of Sierra, was unperturbed by all news, good or bad, and it soon became obvious to me that he was far from sane. To live as he did, like a spider hoarding flies, reducing his handsome accommodations to a warehouse, caring only to measure his self-contentment by the quantity of his acquisitions, was surely crazy. To remain indifferent to the interests or opinions of others, except when to consult them might mean an increase to his store, the encroaching measure of his own greatness: to live thus was surely to be crazy. He was like Sir Epicure Mammon, though for the moment without succubi. The piles of groceries served him as the conversation and re-enacted rituals of Winchester did the midshipman and the doctor.

One cause of wonder was that I couldn’t see what, in the end, he hoped to do with all these sacks of sugar, split peas and the rest of it. How and where would he take it ashore and dispose of it? Of course I could see a use for it in those Southsea boarding-houses, or on the black market, but I was thinking of the impossibility of it ever reaching those destinations. As soon as we touched a British port, the friendly customs men would board us and, as their habit was, head straight for the captain’s cabin and the usual propitiatory drink. They would see what I saw every day, only more so; there might not even be space to raise a glass. They could hardly ignore the thousands of pounds’ worth of contraband piled up before their very eyes. Once I dared to ask him what his plans were. ‘Don’t you worry about that, Cosmos,’ he said. ‘I got friends, in I?’

As the months went by and the rest of us grew more and more bad-tempered, more stupid, more hopeless, except of course for the Wykehamists, Archer grew more radiant, always crisply turned out, always derisive, always winning. His command was of a kind that would irk many seamen, for having got his ship to the site of the boom, his job, not always ably done, was simply to keep it there: it served only as a depot, all the work, admittedly tricky, being done in smaller craft nominally under his orders. He did not seem to care about this, and there was reason to doubt whether his professional skill was anything like equal to his mad self-confidence.

On one occasion a boom defence vessel was for some reason detached and sent to Seydisfjordur on the east coast of the island. This ungainly little craft had run into a gale even more severe than the usual North Atlantic winter blows and broke radio silence to say she was in trouble. Archer had a fondness for the skipper concerned – in fact, he probably valued these boom defence, ex-trawler skippers more highly than anybody around, and perhaps with reason. So he decided to go to the rescue.

He already had steam, for fear of dragging his mooring, as had happened before; and against the urgent advice of his officers, certainly more experienced big-ship sailors than he was, he set forth to save his lost lamb. The consternation of these seamen was increased when he insisted on doing what they wouldn’t have permitted even in far less desperate weather. Incredulous and terrified, we steamed out through the shattered boom and took on the storm with the after hatch open. Sierra got a terrible mauling, lacking power to keep head on to the sea, even if it had always been possible to know where the sea was coming from. At the worst moment of the gale I noticed an effect I have since read about, though it would be impossible to describe it fully – it was as if the entire surface of the sea had been raised up and suspended like a cloud over another turbulent surface.

Though still lacking experience of such marine extremities, I don’t think I was far out in thinking that the ship could hardly live in such a sea, and that a man certainly couldn’t. As I sat in the wardroom, feeling more and more gloomily certain of dying very shortly, Archer descended from the bridge, dressed in duffel coat and balaclava. Abandoning navigation to his subordinates, he was evidently not tortured by any consciousness of a mistake on his part. He poured himself Scotch. ‘Well, Comody,’ he said, ‘it seems we’ve fucking ’ad it.’ He was quite serene. We watched the battering of the ship and its rapid and dangerous festooning with ice. For hours it seemed quite hopeless, but eventually we staggered into Reykjavík, spectacularly damaged. We never made contact with the distressed boom-layer, and I can’t remember what became of it. We stayed in Reykjavík for ages and forgot about the boom.

Reykjavík in those years was, I suppose, another part of my education. The arrival of the Americans quickly changed the character of the place – dollars did it, and jeeps full of stuff from the PX, but also the demeanour of these new invaders, a sort of unexamined confidence, an inability to think of foreign parts as unlike America in any way that could not be put right simply by assuming its unimportance. When we had first tried out the nightlife of the town we’d gone to the Hotel Borg Saturday-night dance and induced local girls to take the floor with us. But policemen moved in and quietly took the names of the girls, which, we were told, were printed in the newspaper on Monday as additions to an official list of prostitutes. Perhaps they continued to add to this list until it included the names of almost all the women under 40. But in fact the reserve of the women was not broken down until the Americans inconsiderately changed the culture, after which there were many agreeable temporary ménages and many liaisons of a more casual kind.

The beneficiaries were of course mostly the Americans, since they were far more numerous and had much more money. I had not at this stage of my life encountered many Americans, even singly, and in the mass they seemed remarkably alien. Their army seemed a harsher institution than ours, loudly exacting a discipline that for the time turned the soldiers into foul-mouthed robots. It was on the quay at Reykjavík that I first heard, with astonishment and even shock, the language in which American soldiers habitually expressed, with a kind of mechanised misery, their apparent loathing for the Army, for women, for the world they found themselves in. The words they used are now quite commonly heard on the lips of the polite and gently nurtured, but in those simpler times they seemed very startling: cocksucker, motherfucker, cunt and asshole used as insults. These exiled Americans seemed obsessed with shit, and had developed an idiom that has persisted in colloquial American to this day: it depended on a sort of partitioning or disorganising of the human body, as if to give offence by refusing to treat a person as entire, so that you shouted, ‘Get your ass over here,’ or kicked ass, or chased tail. The synecdoche of insult, we rhetoricians might call it. Of course it served merely as everyday linguistic currency and nobody took offence or was entitled to. But it seems I was still not fully hardened to the life and speech of men among men and found it darkened my mood or my mind.

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