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.’

There Rites of Passage and Talbot’s MS book end. He begins another and continues the narrative for his own eyes alone in Close Quarters. All this time the ship has made very little progress, partly because of her extremely dirty bottom, and Cumbershum and Deverel want Summers to ask the Captain to steer for the River Plate to clean her. But in a freshening breeze the ship is taken aback with the loss of fore and main topsails and other damage – Deverel, the officer of the watch, being below – and in the ensuing turmoil Talbot helps the Captain haul on a rope until he is knocked out by a loose sheet. Deverel is put under open arrest and forbidden to drink: the ship can now make little sail and in any case a few days later she is becalmed in a fog. Another ship appears vaguely and, since that they may well drift together, there is the likelihood of a battle. Talbot, now recovered, volunteers to help serve one of the six guns (although she is nominally a seventy-four, this is all she mounts); but he is too tall for the gundeck and in running the piece out he strikes his head cruelly on a beam. He then goes up into the open air and takes a cutlass, feeling uneasy. The other ship, still veiled, is heard to run out her guns. She looms up, huge, and fires, but fires a signal gun: she is HMS Alcyone, a frigate, and she announces Bonaparte’s abdication and the end of the war.

The ships come together: much cheering, great sociability. A ball is arranged, but before it the Captain of the Alcyone, Sir Henry Somerset, and his wife ask Talbot to dinner: he is still somewhat dazed from bangs on the head and heavy doses of the ship’s panacea, a tincture of opium, but he goes and he is instantly enraptured by Miss Chumley, an orphan Lady Somerset is taking out to India. They get along very well, and on returning to his ship Talbot, still very strange, takes over Colley’s cabin to leave his for her. They get on even better at the ball in spite of some trouble from Deverel, drunk in defiance of orders, and they part with something like an understanding. A little later Deverel, behaving outrageously, is put in irons; and Talbot, also out of his wits, but not from drink, tries to take passage in the Alcyone. He is put to bed; the ships part; and when quite a long time later he comes to himself he finds the disabled seventy-four rolling very heavily in rough weather. He goes on deck and finds her shipping green seas; he is rescued from these by a new officer, Benét, from the Alcyone, a handsome golden-haired young man. Then going below to see Deverel (who has in fact exchanged ships with Benét) he finds the middle-aged gunner, alone but for a senile midshipman, and with great truth and sincerity the gunner tells him that although he has some qualities, he knows nothing – he is an objectionable young puppy.

From this time on it is a history of heavy weather, appalling discomfort, hard times and very little progress in these vague southern waters (they never see land and only this one other ship: most of the time they might be sailing in a dream tinged with nightmare), and of rivalry between the conscientious, earnest, religious Summers and the Captain’s new favourite Benét; of increasing difficulties with weed; shortage of food and fuel; increasing danger. Talbot is nevertheless much concerned with his loss – eager to talk about Miss Chumley with Benét (a poetical officer, attached to Lady Somerset) – tormented with suspicion and jealousy of Deverel, now with her.

In the various manoeuvres to clean the ship Benét proposes the use of a dragrope of his own devising: Summers is against it, but the Captain consents; it catches something and a huge weed-covered object towers up and then slides away, sinking, a piece of the hull, not vital but horrible to see. (Golding’s account of its rising into view is a masterpiece.) Shortly after this Talbot goes to his cabin, once Colley’s, and looking through the louvre in the door sees his elderly servant Wheeler standing there with a peaceful look on his face and something like a brass goblet raised to his lips. It is a blunderbuss and with it he blows his head to pieces: Talbot, spattered by brains, reaches the deck and then faints away.

The cabin is uninhabitable and Summers gives him another in the wardroom, in spite of his intense jealousy of Talbot’s friendship with Benét and his assumption that Talbot, having promised his patronage, is now withdrawing it. There is a full, emotional explanation and they are friends again. ‘Hesitantly I held out my hand; and like the generous-hearted Englishman that he is, he seized it with both his own in a thrilling and manly grip “Edmund!” “My dear fellow!” ’ Here the book ends, with the ship not far from foundering, and with Talbot’s MS enclosed in a firkin for survival, together with a postscript saying that his heart is filled with an ambition to launch into volume three and to become a published writer.

Volume three is, of course, Fire Down Below. The ship is still in much the same wretched condition, unable to set sail on the fore or mizzen because not only did she lose topmasts, but, as Summers explains to Talbot, showing him the vessel from the maintop, the step which holds the heel of the foremast is split and the mast can bear no pressure. Many of the people are in a bad way – Prettiman, now engaged to Miss Granham, has been seriously injured by a fall during heavy weather, and Miss Brocklebank, the ship’s tart, is confined to bed in what was Talbot’s cabin. The rivalry between the plodding Summers and the dashing Benét has reached such a pitch that Benét can say to Talbot: ‘You are of the first lieutenant’s party, are you not?’ It is made worse by Benét’s plan for securing the split step with bars of red-hot iron which, contracting as they cool, will draw the wood together with immense force; this will make not only the foremast but also the counterbalancing mizzen usable once more. Summers is against it because of the danger of fire down below: the bars are to go through four feet of timber and the glow in the heart may burst into flame long after the operation.

At length the ship reaches the cold green waters of the forties; they prepare for heavy weather and for the repair of the foremast’s step – charcoal has to be made to heat the iron, a slow process. And at about the same time Talbot decides to go back to his cabin, partly out of a sense of duty: it must not be said in Sydney that he was haunted out of it. His servant observes that the place attracts suicides, and that Wheeler had always regarded suicide as an ultimate refuge. In the cabin – refurbished but essentially unchanged, with Colley’s ringbolt still in place – Talbot has a horrible night in which a voice, his own, says: ‘You could have saved us.’

The next day Miss Granham takes him to Prettiman, who is asleep, heavily drugged: Prettiman utters the frightful cry of pain Talbot has often heard before and slowly comes to his senses. He wishes Talbot and Oldmeadow the Army officer to be witnesses when he and Miss Granham are married by the Captain: Prettiman is sure he is dying and the witnesses are to ensure that his widow is not cheated out of his fortune. Talbot is also to hold a document in which Prettiman states that he has had carnal knowledge of Miss Granham, so that there can be no question of non-consummation. Prettiman, by the way, is no longer the silly little rationalist, eager to shoot albatrosses and prevent people from throwing salt over their shoulders, of the earlier volumes, but a very much more considerable figure.

Summers suggests that Talbot should take the middle watch with him, acting as his midshipman, and at midnight Talbot goes on deck. He learns that their position is far from certain, and that Summers likes to rely on one method of finding the longitude, Benét on another, more advanced. It is an extraordinarily beautiful night, the watch by the jeercapstan singing gently; Talbot tells Summers how desperately he is in love, and they talk about Miss Chumley. At 4 a.m. the watch ends; Talbot goes below and, in spite of the cabin, sleeps soundly, realising only much later that Summers had arranged all this out of kindness.

Then there is the Prettiman marriage – Miss Granham in white looking very well – a ceremony conducted barbarously by the Captain: Talbot is nevertheless much moved and he lies on his bunk in tears. Waking he hears a metallic hammering far below, understands that the hot-iron operation is proceeding (the sea is perfectly calm), and goes down into the hold. He is not allowed to go forward at first but he does hear and see something of it, and when the Captain and Summers go Benét says he may have a look. Talbot is immensely impressed by the vast bulk and vast power, but Benét is engaged on a poem and Talbot cannot induce him to talk about Miss Chumley. He goes to see Summers, who is very low, having been savaged by the Captain for ‘obstructing’ the ingenious and apparently successful Benét: Talbot tries to comfort him and promises his godfather’s support.

With sail now set on all three masts and with a fair wind, the ship makes seven or eight knots on her eastward journey, which is just as well, her provisions having run so low; but Summers remains deeply depressed; indeed, he pays less and less attention to Talbot during the middle watch and eventually Talbot says ‘Silence I can endure, Charles. But an averted face – what have I done?’ ‘You have done nothing. I have been shamed, that is all.’ Yet the next day he is better. He wakes Talbot and leads him on deck. The real forties wind that he foretold has come, and when they reach the quarterdeck it is so strong that Talbot cannot get his eyes to close entirely, while on the poop everything is shattered water, spray and air inextricably combined. Nothing can be seen except for some jelly-like sacks that the hands heave over the rail when Summers has pricked them – sacks that ooze oil to prevent the enormous following seas from breaking over them with such fury.

But oil or not, the ship is flung about, and as the storm goes on and on and on everyone suffers, particularly Prettiman. There is nothing for Talbot to do and he drinks a good deal; so presumably does Benét. At any rate they get into a drunken quarrel outside Prettiman’s cabin – Prettiman has been crying out in great pain these many days – and eventually they thrust their way in, each claiming he has had the idea that Prettiman should be turned with his head to the bows. In his agony the poor man agrees. Talbot puts an arm under him, stumbles, pushed by Benét, and falls on his legs; Prettiman faints; his wife says: ‘You have killed him.’

Frightful weather in which Talbot is of some use follows this, and during the relatively calm but still perilous days that succeed he sees Benét, holding a paper, knock on Mrs Prettiman’s door, go in, close it, and shoot out again without the paper, evidently slapped. Talbot offers her his services, his protection. There follows some conversation from which it appears that Prettiman, who has been said to be dying all this time has in fact had less pain ever since Talbot mangled his leg. After some more or less friendly sparring, she agrees that he may go and see him. He does so. Prettiman is asleep, one hand on an open book. After a while Talbot, seeing the title, cries ‘Good God! Pindar!’ waking the poor man. However, since Prettiman was looking for a line that Talbot knows and finds, they get along quite well. They disagree entirely on the established order, of course, Talbot being much in favour of privilege and subordination, yet Prettiman likes him, sees him as a possible convert, and gets him to read the piece in Candide about Eldorado, the type of colony that Prettiman means to set up in the new continent. Finally he asks Talbot to destroy the certificate of carnal knowledge, which was not true, and to come and read to him.

Talbot complies and presently he finds his ideas much shaken: ‘indeed there were times when it seemed to me that I threw off my upbringing as a man might let armour drop around him and stand naked, defenceless, but free!’ Summers is rather jealous of this new friendship and he dislikes the new thoughts Talbot discusses with him; Talbot for his part perceives that Summers does not quite possess the abilities required in a post-captain and that if he were promoted he might bring discredit on his patron; their relations become less intimate. This and the subsequent brooding lead to Talbot’s reflection that ‘the only quality to the depths of which there could be no limit was my personal meanness!’ A melancholy thought, but one that does not seem to affect his selfesteem for any length of time.

The ship is down to half rations and they wish to get to Australia as soon as possible; they are fairly near but just how near they cannot tell, their chronometers being unreliable and their dead-reckoning uncertain after so long a voyage. The alternatives are lying-to at night and so exhausting their provisions, or sailing on in the darkness and perhaps running violently on shore. There follows a wearisome argument about Summers’s chronometrical and Benét’s celestial navigation, with Benét winning the Captain’s support. There also follows Talbot’s near-conversion to the charismatic Prettiman’s ideas; but when he is directly asked to join the caravan of settlers in the new Eldorado he finds his love for the Absolute less strong than what he calls common sense, and he tacitly declines. Very soon neither Eldorado nor navigation nor yet poor Summers’s jealousy seem of much consequence, because in the middle watch Talbot sees the blink of ice through the dimness one point on the starboard bow: they are sailing straight for it at seven knots.

All hands and almost all passengers are on deck at once and through gaps in the Antarctic fog they see a wall of ice running north and south out of sight, rising as much as 200 feet; and as they watch great masses the size of the ship fall from the precipice. There is a heavy sea, made worse, more irregular, by the ice, and a fairly strong wind. Anderson sets all possible sail to weather the ice; if they touch it they are lost.

The whole of this – the vast personal horror of the ice, its colours when the day comes, the vast blocks falling into the tumultuous sea and shattering one another, the extremity of fear (apparently Talbot and Mrs Brocklebank copulate, hardly knowing what they are about) – is astonishingly well done. The ship is swept so close that falling ice actually takes off a studding-sail and sweeps away a boat. They are racing downhill – they are lost – not at all: they are on an even keel in the calm water to leeward of the ice, a powerful current having swept them round the extremity.

This is the high point of the book. The ship does sail on, presently sighting land within a mile of two of both Summers’s and Benét’s forecasts. They get food from two settlements and carry on with no particular difficulty to Sydney, where their community falls to pieces: Talbot is not even able to say goodbye to the Prettimans. An official comes to receive him – says that there are many letters for him at the Residency – and takes him to report to the governor’s deputy, Captain Phillip, RN. Phillip receives him kindly – is aware of his connections – and eventually grants his request that Summers should be given acting command of the ship.

Talbot carries the acting order to his friend, who is stunned with emotion but whose reaction is also rather disappointing: the voyage has changed him as it has all the others. Talbot hopes that time may ‘restore the simplicity and amiability which had once been so evident in him’ and goes ashore for a drink, feeling lonely. Then he remembers his letters and goes to read them: the first tells him of the death of his godfather and the ruin of his prospects. I will finish with Mrs Prettiman’s words when Talbot finds her in their lodging:

The voyage has been a considerable part of your life, sir. Do not refine upon its nature. As I told you, it was not an Odyssey. It is no type, emblem, metaphor of the human condition. It is, or rather it was, what it was. A series of events.

Whether or not the severe lady was right, it is an enchanting series of events to live with, though in places it is startling.

I say startling, because although the author is very, very well acquainted with the sea, that timeless element, his knowledge of Nelson’s Navy is somewhat less perfect. In 1813, when Talbot was aboard his nameless vessel, the Royal Navy had 244 ships of the line: 164 of them were seventy-fours, like Talbot’s; but his alone has no copper sheathing, no spare topmasts, no surgeon. In compensation she is liberally supplied with anachronisms such as plywood bulkheads, with symbols, and with impossibilities such as bilge-keels and a mizzen maincourse buntline. She is also a ship with variable geometry, poop and quarterdeck sometimes changing levels and the gunroom carrying on into the hold, while the break of the poop is thought the best way to the orlop. The text is freely sprinkled with nautical terms and orders, some of them disconcertingly exact, and the historian may ask: ‘Might it not have helped the willing suspension of disbelief if he had got them all right?’

Then again he may object that the author’s notion of the English spoken in 1813 is flawed: Jane Austen could not possibly have spoken of intellectual snobbery, nor could a senior tutor, full of wine, have grasped the eaglelectern in chapel, muttering; ‘I should have been down had it not been for this bleeding Dodo.’ Nor would his contemporaries have made such very free use of Christian names. Indeed, Golding’s only bow to strictly 1813 English is an occasional ‘you was’ and a little fun with longs’s at the very end.

It appears to me that the answer to the historian would be that Golding does not mind about the suspension of disbelief, nor does he give a lower futtock for literal accuracy. He asks for the acceptance of a certain number of literary conventions or devices, often in his case varying, sometimes superimposed. For him the ship is a place in which his people can be isolated for an enormous length of time experiencing countless vicissitudes in a generally hostile environment and often in great discomfort: the Naval technicalities are there so that the reader may accept the setting, and their inaccuracy is no more important than Garrick’s periwig when he was playing Macbeth. The language clearly is of more consequence than the physical setting, but apart from a few passages it does not jar: the rest is in a particularly chaste and timeless English, with never the slightest trace of tushery – an English wonderfully suitable for those many passages when he is writing at full stretch: when he is, in a word, sublime. That objection can therefore be dismissed.

Yet there are a few other objections. Golding is capable of sublimity, there is no doubt about that: but, like Wordsworth, he is also capable of childishness and longueur. His comic little brothers and midshipmen are worthy of Richmal Crompton; his deeply-held conviction that all nautical expressions are funny all the time wears the spirit almost as much as his tireless use of ‘hutch’ for cabin. And on a more serious level it does seem to me that many of Talbot’s more emotional conversations with Summers are a pity.

With a smaller writer these things would be very irritating; with Golding they are no more than a gnat or two on a sunny day. And if one has Golding’s powers one can also deal with difficulties that are more formidable by far: his hero is not the most lovable young man; the tale is told through letters and diaries, with all the limitations that implies; and the author’s varying attitudes or perhaps I should say his variety of conventions, call for an attentive and acrobatic reader. If it is difficult to go from the deeply-felt, long-drawn-out and appalling cruelty of poor Colley’s death to the atmosphere in which the governess can make her ludicrous remark about his having been a truly degraded man, one who actually chewed tobacco, it is still harder to shift the focus of one’s inner eye from the towering ice that is about to destroy the ship and her terrified people to the block that at the same time facetiously wipes out a comic midshipman and an equally comic purser sitting on a boat on the booms. Other changes come more naturally to the reader who has grasped (as he must do very early) that although Golding uses the penny glass of straightforward narrative to hold in his tale, he does not promise a consistent narrator. This has its disadvantages, but they are immensely outweighed by the possibilities it gives him: he can take his hero seriously or not, he can be jocose about the young man in love, he can do a hundred unexpected things, but above all he can provide wonderful contrasts for his very grand pieces, such as the terrible seas in the Roaring Forties, the murky fore-hold with the blacksmith’s work going on and the glow dimly seen from afar, the confrontation with Billy Rogers. The combination of all these amounts, in my opinion, to a truly noble achievement.