The Purser’s Tale

Frank Kermode

  • Home and Dry: Memoirs III by Roy Fuller
    London Magazine Editions, 165 pp, £8.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 904388 47 6

This is the third and last volume of Roy Fuller’s memoirs, and it takes him up to the end of the war. It may sound ungracious, but I can’t help wondering why I find all three books so appealing that the strong implication of finality seems quite unacceptable. Though literate and pleasantly, even amusingly morose, these are not what are commonly called compulsive reads. Not everybody will experience an irresistible need to go on turning their pages. But I do, and would like three or four more, all about the Woolwich, the Arts Council, the BBC and Oxford, with incidental observations on the conduct of the young, the remembered follies of youth, the tiresome defects of age, and so forth.

One reason may be that Fuller, to an even greater degree than most of us, delights in coincidence, in those random and often tenuous connections between people which for a moment give one the pleasant delusion that the world has some order and is even a bit comic. In the second volume, Vamp till ready, he mentions a connection with me so slight as to be almost imperceptible to anybody caring less about such things; it is actually slighter than our real-life relations, though I wish they were stronger. In the first volume, Souvenirs, he spoke of his childhood trips to the Isle of Man. I reviewed the book in these pages, and the coincidence that I was born in the Isle of Man and reviewed his book was pleasant to him. I’m delighted to say that I can strengthen the link. The poet’s mother used, on medical advice, to travel back and forth between Fleetwood and Douglas on the Isle of Man boats. Now in those days I was a purser on those very boats, and, so, familiar with the phenomenon of contract passengers. It’s a reasonable bet that I sometimes examined Mrs Fuller’s contract, or even – since these stoical voyagers were not very numerous – came to recognise her and dispense with the formality. Did we chat? I wish I could say she often talked about her son the solicitor, but the thing has gone far enough.

Another characteristic I find myself looking for with a measure of longing is the sentence of deliberately awkward elegance, very much Fuller’s own but owing something, I believe, to certain not dissimilar contortions in the work of his friend Anthony Powell. Here he is telling us the circumstances under which he allowed to go forward an absurd requisition for flying-helmets – 30,000 for a Fleet Air Arm that probably needed about a quarter of that number. ‘It is no defence,’ he writes, ‘to recall that some of the more commonplace aspects of the appointment still held mystery – a proper form of minutes (“I propose the following minute” was the opening for an underling), meaning of initials and acronyms, whereabouts of liaison officers, departmental sections, other Government and service departments – for having worked in a large organisation the pennies quickly dropped.’ The infolded parentheses, the confusing catalogue, the wonder as to what organisation the pennies worked in before being called up, the suppression of the first person ‘I’ except in citation – all combine to convey a powerful sense of what it is to be a small cog in a huge and inefficient war machine.

A similar artful indirection may be observed in the Fullerian periphrasis, such as ‘the prescribed baksheesh’ for ‘tip’. The most quirky of these is the author’s almost invariable practice of calling anything that has to do with Scotland ‘Hibernian’. A piper enters, playing a Hibernian instrument; the Navy sends young Fuller to Aberdeen, where he enjoys a ‘Hibernian idyll’. Since on other evidence the poet is a football fan, it may be that he was long ago misled by the name of a Scottish team: but can it be that his publisher, Alan Ross, suffers the same inveterate delusion? Perhaps this is one of those tiny harmless in-jokes of which the author is so fond, and which contribute so much to one’s entertainment.

This last volume is mostly concerned with the Navy, a service in which Fuller spent five years. He has retained, or perhaps developed by subsequent contemplation, a certain tenderness for what he likes, using Naval slang, to call ‘The Andrew’. I myself spent an even longer portion of my life in the Navy and, perhaps because I felt no affection for it, have few memories of it, which makes the ease and quality of Fuller’s recall the more impressive to me. He was a radar mechanic, was sent to Ceylon but stopped in East Africa, and eventually came back and ended the war in a cushy Admiralty job with the amazing income of £700 p.a. Though never at sea except in troopships, he saw and heard and remembers enough to bring back all manner of old unhappy far-off things and happily forgotten words: figgy duff, tiddly, tiddy oggies, ammicks, and the best thing of all about The Andrew – namely, leaf. Clearly he really got fell in. On being commissioned, he was put out that the gold braid on his cuffs was but semicircular, and explains this as wartime shortage: but I think the real reason was that full circles tended to fray the doeskin jacket, so that the motive was thrift, a virtue of which the poet often expresses his approval.

I daresay many of these memories arose spontaneously as he wrote, which is why they are more affecting than a more systematic history might be. Sometimes he recalls half-forgotten songs or recitations, like the story of poor blind Nell, who prospers but neglects her loving parents:

Did she send them goods and parcels?
Did she? Did she f – – g a – – s.

Reading these lines, moving as they are, I could not doubt the superiority of the variant version they brought to my own memory:

They sent her books and parcels.
But did she send them anyfink in return?
Did she f – – g a – – s.

It is for the reader to choose, though I am quietly confident.

Of course many memories are more distressing, and what is really impressive is the quiet fidelity with which they are recounted. There is a half-page about the ‘leisurely pace of catastrophe’ at sea, as when in a large convoy two ships are hit, so far away and somehow so unreal that one watches them blaze or explode almost with disinterest, though not without entertaining the possibility of being next on the list. Another truth recalled is of the slight derangement of sense and of dreams attending watchkeeping, four hours on and eight off, at any rate if one had a night watch; a brief experience of the more rigorous routine of four on and four off showed one that the derangement ceases when the whole point of living is to sleep.

Another sensation here recollected in tranquillity is that of deep quiet panic at leaving on an overseas draft, hardest of all no doubt if, like Fuller, you had a wife and a child. For in 1942 or thereabouts there seemed to be no obvious reason to think the war would end in an imaginable future, or that anybody would be concerning himself with getting you back from India or Kenya or wherever, for no discernible cause, you might be going. I myself careered around the world like a pinball, but by chance was never away for much more than a year: Fuller had a longer absence but got back for good and finished the war in domestic content at Blackheath, eating lunch at Schmidt’s or even the White Tower with the likes of Joe Ackerley, John Lehmann and, once, E.M. Forster. Though a virtual civilian, he remembers getting demobbed at Olympia, choosing from the millions of pinstriped suits and raincoats, one of which proved, in his thrifty hands and posh language, ‘longevous’. And I should like here to mention that about the same time I too was kitting myself out for post-war life, but not at Olympia. I had to go to Oldham, where the Fuller story began.

Though he complains a bit about having accomplished so little in these years, Fuller’s ruling passion was writing. Considering how nearly impossible it was to find the place and the will to write, he did what seems to me an enormous amount. He published his second volume of poetry, The Middle of a War, in 1942, one of the best books of the time, and immediately recognised as such. The author complains of its ‘scruffy paper’, but looking at my copy (second impression, 1942) I see that it has yellowed and crumbled less than some much younger books. Much of the pleasure of these memoirs comes from remembering The Middle of a War and A Lost Season, which followed two years later. Fuller was also writing prose, and here reprints a narrative called ‘The People Round About’ which I read I suppose nearly forty years ago, yet recalled well enough to anticipate the surprise of its concluding line.

Though written in a determinedly relaxed manner (‘I daresay I could write a bit about evenings in the POs’ mess, though monotonous’), these books give the poet an outline unassertively his own. He admits a youthful tendency to get up to tricks and even to go in for a bit of dodging; once he even lost his temper, though the occurrence was evidently unusual and is remembered as such. And it is a certain purity of response that best defines him. Most survivors of his generation will share his sense that one should let determined things to destiny hold unbewailed their way, and look with some kind of happiness at the unpredicted shapes their lives have taken. Fuller sometimes represents this happiness as a sort of disillusion, looking with pity on the socialist dreams of his nonage and with contempt on the actual ruin of post-war youth. ‘Perhaps my whole life could be depicted in terms of the destruction or modification of public and private illusions,’ he wrote in Vamp till ready; and now: ‘I have always considered generalities about one’s spiritual state from time to time of little validity, most epochs of one’s life requiring one simply to soldier on, anything less landing one in a state utterly foreign to one’s being.’

Fortunately, soldiering on may be held to include the business of validating experience by writing about it, and doing so in this idiosyncratic way, very literary yet always marked by the ancient Lancastrian mistrust of affectation and by a straightfaced sense of fun – of the ‘comic nature of minute-to-minute existence’, letting the longer view descry what it may. That is why these books are both credible and memorable, and why they need sequels.