Fire and Ice

Patrick O’Brian

  • Fire Down Below by William Golding
    Faber, 313 pp, £11.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 571 15203 1

William Golding’s new novel, Fire Down Below is the third volume of a trilogy, the other parts being Rites of Passage and Close Quarters. The trilogy is about a voyage to Sydney in 1813, and a bald, merely literal account might run like this ... On the first page the hero appears, Edmund FitzHenry Talbot, an unformed young man of good family who is going out to help govern New South Wales in an aged line-of-battle ship, Captain Anderson commander, and who has been given a book in which to record his journey by his godfather, an influential peer. The ship also carries some other passengers, the more or less genteel in little cabins aft and the emigrants in the forecastle. With the exception of about fifty pages the trilogy consists of Talbot’s account, and in it he describes the cabin-passengers, the officers, the servants and an occasional emigrant or foremast hand. He pays great attention to class, finding most of the passengers and officers rather common, the exceptions being Miss Granham, a governess in her thirties whose father had been a canon; Mr Prettiman, a social philosopher, something like Shelley in background and political opinions but middle-aged; and a Lieutenant Deverel. Talbot is strongly conscious of his social superiority; he shouts or yells for his servant; he very soon lets it be known that his godfather is a great man and that the great man will see his journal; and he is capable of congratulating the First Lieutenant, Summers, who has been promoted from the lower deck, ‘on imitating to perfection the manners and speech of a somewhat higher station in life than the one you was born to’. It is true that later he acknowledges the words were ‘insufferable’ and enters into a warm and indeed emotional friendship with Charles Summers: but the remark gives the general tone. He is soon known as Lord Talbot.

Among the remainder of the passengers there is a dissolute old painter called Brocklebank and his alleged wife and daughter, a waning theatrical beauty with whom Talbot has a brief, ludicrous affair. There is also an Army officer, and an unfortunate, foolish, excited young Anglican clergyman of humble origin, Mr Colley, who is presumably a homosexual unaware of his condition and who looks up to such people as Talbot with the utmost respect, while Talbot finds his person and his obsequiousness repulsive.

In this ship the quarterdeck may be walked upon only by invitation, and the Captain is not to be spoken to first: standing orders to this effect are posted up but neither Talbot nor Colley reads them and both disobey the rules. Talbot, by flourishing his godfather, gets away with it and is even treated respectfully, but the incident so angers Anderson, a tyrant and hater of parsons, that he is barbarous when the socially negligible Colley appears; at an ill-judged second appearance he is more barbarous still and at a third knocks Colley over and virtually flings him off the quarterdeck.

Talbot, vexed by the Captain’s dictatorial attitude, obtains permission for Colley to hold a service – lamentable – but Anderson’s disfavour is heavy on the poor man; it influences most of the people aboard, and when the ship crosses the equator the gentlemanly Deverel and the loutish Cumbershum, masked and dressed as devils, come for him in his cabin, terrify him, lead him blindfolded up to the sail filled with filthy water for the ducking – the rite of passage – and there give him over to horseplay so rough, ill-natured and humiliating that he has to be carried back to his cabin. All this takes place while Talbot is lying with Miss Brocklebank: he knows nothing of it. Colley recovers, faces Anderson on the quarterdeck, makes him acknowledge that he was ill-used, obtains an apology from the two lieutenants and permission to address the people in the forecastle, crew and emigrants.

Talbot sees Colley going forward in full ecclesiastical dress; presently he hears applause; then laughter; then uproar. All the passengers are watching from the quarterdeck and soon the tumult rises to such a pitch that a midshipman is sent to order Colley to his cabin. Colley emerges, drunk and naked but for a seaman’s shirt, supported by Billy Rogers the Handsome Sailor: he pisses against the bulwark in full view of the genteel passengers, and then turning he blesses them in the name of the Trinity. He is removed. Talbot sees him once more, still extremely drunk and happy, on the way to the lavatory with paper in his hand. After this Colley remains in his cabin, lying on his bunk, unmoving, unwashed, clinging to a ringbolt in the side. Several days later Summers tells Talbot that the parson is in danger of death and, after a conversation about English class, privilege and responsibility, asks him to visit Colley: noblesse oblige, says he. Talbot goes, speaks quite kindly in spite of his reluctance – no response at all. He goes again with Summers: he has no more success but he does notice that Colley has moved some papers from his writing slab. Summers says that Colley is willing himself to death and hints at something very nasty in the forecastle. Talbot returns to the cabin alone and takes the papers from their hiding-place. That same day he dines with Anderson and Colley dies.

Talbot reads the papers, which are part of a letter to Colley’s sister, lacking the first pages and of course an end, and for the first time he learns the full extent of Anderson’s evil conduct and his incitement to cruelty; but at this point he knows nothing about the possible sodomy, mass rape or something nastier still. Anderson, wishing to cover himself, holds an enquiry with Summers and Talbot as members, and at this enquiry he says that Colley may have suffered a criminal assault by one or God knows how many men. Billy Rogers is questioned and denies any knowledge; but when asked by Talbot what men might be suspected of ‘this particular form of interest’ – ‘Buggery, Rogers, that’s what he means. Buggery,’ says the Captain – he replies, ‘Shall I begin with the officers, sir?’ and the enquiry is closed. Colley is buried. Wheeler, Talbot’s aged servant and probably the Captain’s informant, disappears. Talbot convinces himself, on the basis of a misunderstanding on the part of Miss Granham and Mr Prettiman (now much attached) that poor drunken Colley committed ‘the schoolboy trick’ of fellation on the Handsome Sailor and died when he remembered it, for as Talbot observes: ‘Men can die of shame.’

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