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.

The allegory is inescapable. ‘What is life, sir? A voyage where no one, despite all claims to the contrary – we know not what, if you follow me,’ as one passenger remarks. We heave and wallow over vast oceans to a remote and obscure destination, threatened alike by the universe and our own passionate follies, if you follow me. But nobody need suppose that this author would be content merely to develop that topic. The main event of the story is the dreadful end of a young, newly fledged parson, in religion a naive enthusiast, and socially a feeble toady. The young gentleman’s journal – cocksure, rationalist, blindly patriotic – yields the page to the parson’s last letter. Humiliated by rough treatment at a crossing-the-line ceremony, he loses control, is made drunk by coarse sailors, performs fellatio on a handsome young seaman, and dies, it seems, of remorse. Buried at sea, he is officially said to have succumbed to a ‘low fever’. The young gentleman has made some small efforts to help the parson. Later he unaffectedly credits the dead man with descriptive powers he himself cannot match.

The irruption of such bizarre horrors into a narrative is a typical Golding manoeuvre, and it is not the most impressive aspect of Rites of Passage. Nor is the skilful presentation, in a decent pastiche of the language of the period, of a set of neatly differentiated characters. What is more striking is another characteristic feat: the rendering of life at sea in a warship of 1814, and a superannuated warship at that. Golding is a specialist in the imaginative recreation of archaic technologies – building a Gothic spire, for example. He seems to know how these ships were sailed, how their guns were fired, even how they would rot. Somehow he has reconstructed the technical language of seafaring two centuries ago. Golding has himself commanded a small warship, and part of his work seems to have been done by reading back the current language of seamanship into the past,[*] but a lot more than that was needed to create or re-create the dialect facetiously described by the narrator as ‘Tarpaulin’.

Behind this effort, one can’t help thinking, is a sort of amused reverence for the traditions of the Navy, its rituals and disciplines now imagined as they might have been before Nelson came to overshadow them, and when rum was the carrot and a rope’s end the stick. A warship is still an autocracy, but it was then even more so, the captain a solitary, with power to flog and execute and do anything, as one character puts it, except get you in the family way. Men have characters before they become commanders, and there are captains of many kinds, dandies and thugs, mean men and generous, exploiting or limiting their extraordinary powers. There is plenty of scope for misunderstanding on the part of their inferiors, especially greenhorns like this narrator. He is surprised to discover that the captain keeps a garden on board, and that he gets angry when a young gentleman, so easy of manner, so well-connected, tries to gossip with the officer of the watch or stroll on the forbidden part of the quarterdeck. Much of the mystique, and some of the jargon, survived into Golding’s own Naval days, and, recollected in tranquillity, they have joined in imagination with darker mysteries – mysteries against which they are possibly a protection.

Rites of Passage ends with the parson’s story, but the ship is still somewhere in the middle of the South Atlantic, and although there is no mention of a sequel we needn’t be surprised that one has turned up. Close Quarters has no such jury-rigged ending as its predecessor; it constantly and disingenuously advertises its structural inferiority to the first novel, and stops suddenly, with a puff for a third volume which is to contain adventures even more frightful than those chronicled here. Indeed, there could be more than one sequel, for the ship makes very little progress in the present book, having been stuck in the doldrums, hampered by a luxuriant growth of weed, and stalled by a horrifying accident. However, we can be sure, as the narrator himself tells us, that he at least survived the voyage. (But so, for that matter, did Ishmael.) Certainly the journal he wrote for his patron, and a second journal, now before us, this time written for his own use and even with a view to publication, have come through.

The first volume ‘was a journal that became a story by accident’. This one becomes a story by accident or rather by negligence, when the ship is taken aback. A steam-powered ship cannot suffer this fate, and few may know that the familiar expression has a nautical origin. According to Sir John Richardson, as quoted in the OED, it happens thus: ‘when through a shift of wind or bad steerage, the wind comes in front of the square sails and lays them back against the masts, instantly staying the inward course and giving her stern way, an accident exceedingly dangerous in a stern gale’.

Golding describes the taking aback as if he had seen it happen, which is very improbable, but then he had never seen a spire built or heard a Neanderthaler talk. The accident happened because the officer of the watch went below for a drink and left in his place a stupid midshipman. The helmsmen might have seen what was happening and prevented it, but only at the risk of a flogging, since they would have had to change course without an order. The troubles that ensue are, as the first lieutenant suggests, the direct consequence of a breach of discipline; and they do not end with weed, for the loss of the topmasts makes the vessel into a shorter pendulum, with a disastrous increase in the rapidity of its rolling.

It is his sense of the operation of cause in the microcosm of the ship that gives Golding’s work its authority. Human failure, rancour, ambition and stupidity collaborate with the world’s weather and its marine biology; the danger becomes mortal. Before that happens the ship is threatened by a seeming enemy, which turns out to be a friend, a fast British frigate; drawn together in the doldrums, the ship’s companies make a city in the waste, steal from one another, dine together, hold a ball, the seamen parodying the dances of their betters. A love affair begins between our hero and a young lady aboard the frigate. The guilty officer is silently exchanged for a handsome young fellow who has been having to do with the wife of the frigate’s captain; he becomes an important figure in the continuing story. But all these developments are related to the greater chain of causes, as well as to the development of the obvious metaphor: a white line separates the classes until, in extremity, it is washed away; the banker-like purser continues to calculate risk and profit. More mysteriously, there are the seaman lost overboard and returned by a miracle, and the ghost of the dead young parson.

All these causes, natural and supernatural-seeming, are registered in the body and behaviour of the ship. In the doldrums, becalmed amidst the effluvia of its inhabitants, it grows manes of green hair. Within it, sinister waters sluice around, and the passengers do not understand why; under their feet parts of the deck move eerily in different directions (‘the planking was alive! There was a creeping and almost muscular movement! It was a realisation even more disconcerting than the brutally uneven movement of the whole ship’). The condition of the vessel is intimately imagined, and the scene where the officers attempt what they do not believe has ever been done before – namely, the removal of the weed with a complicated system of dragropes – is a tour de force, ending with a characteristic moment of horror. The condition of the hull may have been brought about in part by war profiteering – economising on the copper nails – but that is but one more in the network of causes. Slowly sinking, the ship can follow only one course: and there we leave it, as the purser seeks to collect his debts and makes yet more deals with the doomed.

To build such a ship in the mind, place it exactly in history, man it with gunners who talk like gunners, with sailors, both virtuous and scoundrelly, who are as far from the understanding of the laity as a priesthood – that is one thing. To give this huge and obsolete creation its own mortality, its own evil, so that it is at once the hope and the terror of those who try to control it, and of those who are passively battered by its inhuman movement – that is another. We have had a suicide in each book so far, and, breaking into the social absurdities, spectral horrors. The only and inadequate response is professional skill, discipline. The outcome is presumably to be, in some sense, comic: but there are intimations of tragedy, even apocalypse, mediated to us in the inadequate prose of the confident, but increasingly understanding, young gentleman. Napoleon is on his way to Elba. The war, and prospects of advancement, seem to be over. Will the wrung ship meet a real human enemy after all? No lover of sea-stories, I look forward to the next instalment of a work that is as original as the idea of the dragrope in mid-ocean.

[*] 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.