My Mad Captains

Frank Kermode remembers the war

I could give you the names of three captains now ’oo ought to be in an asylum, but you don’t find me interferin’ with the mentally afflicted till they begin to lay about them with rammers and winch-handles.

Kipling: ‘Mrs Bathurst’

Call to me all my mad captains. The first of my mad captains was mad in a quite different way from the others. He was unlucky as well as crazy, certainly worthy of a better deal than he got when he found himself consigned, as I was, to service in a sort of parody-navy, though he would have been quite at home in the real one, whereas I would not have found there, any more than in this grotesque doppelgänger, a climate that suited me.

On a certain day, every other Friday perhaps, I can’t remember and it doesn’t matter now, the troops got fell in to claim their pay. When his name was called, the sailor stepped briskly forward, saluted, took off his cap and placed it on the table. His pay would be placed on the cap. The sum would often be less than he had expected because of various deductions, especially what were called ‘mulcts’. This was the archaic word the Navy used to mean ‘fines’. Whenever authority was irritated or distressed by something a rating had done, it would award him a mulct. Ignorant recruits sometimes found it hard to understand that somebody who was professing to give them something was actually taking something off them. It might be a day’s pay or more, and what with one thing and another, it wasn’t difficult for a man to be awarded so many mulcts that he got no pay at all. When that happened an officer, or more likely his writer (the Navy word for a ‘clerk’: the only writers in the Navy were of inferior rank) would cry ‘Not Entitled!’ and put nothing at all on the cap. The relevant entry in the ledger that lay open before the writer was ‘NE’, meaning, of course, ‘Not Entitled’, but decoded by the troops as a North-Easter. The mulcted man would then put on his cap, hand out a parting salute as lively as the one which signalled his approach, about turn and impassively withdraw, unwilling to risk any more such awards by a display of chagrin, dissidence or even surprise. He would then tell his comrades that he’d got a fucking northeaster. The epithet was applied not only to circumstances of disappointment such as this, but also to more agreeable awards like Liberty or what sailors called ‘Leaf’. It was used less frequently in connection with what you might hope to be doing when you got your leaf, and never if the person you were likely to be doing it with was a wife or a steady friend. Worn though it was by over-use, it was especially apposite to northeasters. Sometimes simply to be in the Navy was to be in a fucking northeaster that never stopped blowing. Sometimes it seemed that to be alive at all was to have been born in the teeth of such a gale.

The summer of 1940 might have been a sombre time for a twenty-year-old, for it seemed that, unless the war quickly ended in national disaster (as seemed quite probable), the future consisted of indefinitely prolonged military service. But I remember it as a pleasant time, offering many satisfactions to which, for imperfectly examined reasons, I felt myself to be entitled. As for the future, let that come when it comes. Meanwhile, there were parties, tennis, bathing, love and the ordinary terrors, such as the gamble against the disaster of pregnancy, worrying, naturally, but at the same time enlivening.

In September, during the first daylight raids on the docks, I was summoned from the North to London, and, trotting naked from booth to booth, was examined by a team of perfunctory doctors and then interviewed by an amiably rough-tongued civilian who asked me if I had the power of command, was I a leader of men? This was a topic new to me, and I had never had occasion to form an opinion about it, but I assured him I had this power, and believed that I was telling the truth, for like many people at twenty I assumed that my powers were virtually without limit, though I lacked any notion as to how I might have acquired them – hardly from my father, four years a private, the dispossessed owner of a small off-licence, an amiable man, much liked in his own circle precisely because it would never have occurred to him to lead anybody anywhere; or from my education, small grammar school and redbrick, in which such leading as had to be done was done by other people, who would never have dreamed of asking me to join them. However, in the omnipotent summer of 1940, I felt sure I must have leadership tucked away with all my other unused capacity.

Taking me at my word, the brisk, overworked interviewer sent me to Liverpool to be interviewed again, this time by a scholarly captain, a paymaster captain, his sleeves encrusted with bands of gold lace separated by bright white stripes, his breast bemedalled. This was my first encounter with persons of such high rank, though I soon discovered that in the eyes of ‘executive’ officers, paymasters, or ‘pussers’ as they were called even if captains, were not quite the real thing, despite their being regarded with a touch of superstitious awe because of their overdeveloped literacy, their familiarity with an arcane compendium called King’s Regulations and with the insane naval system of accountancy. But then I was to learn that the real thing was, and perhaps is, not often to be met with.

This captain seemed a rather sympathetic figure, but said nothing, and it took some time for me to realise that this was less because his thoughts were on more important matters, which I would have understood, than because he couldn’t think of anything to say. So I said I supposed he would tell me where I should be sent to be trained. He waved this remark aside impatiently, as if there were neither time nor need for such peacetime luxuries. Then, hitting on a subject, he asked me why I wasn’t in uniform. ‘I have no uniform, sir.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘that will hardly do. Very little can be done without a uniform. You must get one at once.’ It seemed certain that there was more to be said, and I sat still while he continued to ponder. Eventually he walked over to his safe, unlocked it, and took from it what looked like quite a lot of money. This he handed to me, saying, ‘Go to Gieves and order yourself two uniforms, one of doeskin and one of serge. On the serge tell them to sew only half a ring. It is for everyday wear and lace all round would fray the cloth. The doeskin is for number ones. Better buy a greatcoat also.’ He warmed to the subject and speculated that the tailor was unlikely to be able to execute my order in less than a fortnight. It occurred to me to say in jocular mode that the troops recently extracted from Dunkirk had not looked particularly well turned out, but his mind was on the future. ‘So you’ll need two weeks’ leave,’ he said. He unlocked the safe again and gave me more money as an advance of pay, which he correctly assumed I should need to see me through this painful interval. I signed receipts and departed, puzzled but reconciled to the fact that in worlds other than mine they did many things differently.

Accustomed as I had been to living on £180 a year, I had never had so much money all at once, about four months’ normal supply; and I had no intention of giving most of it to the expensive tailor nominated by the captain. Instead, I went to a meaner establishment in Paradise Street and bought a ready-made uniform – in doeskin, the silly choice – and had the gold lace sewn on all the way round. I added a few other things, including a greatcoat weighing about twenty pounds which I was still wearing fifteen years later when I was much poorer. Then I went off to see my girl, which is what in those days we called young women, and we went to the seaside, where we stayed in a small boarding house. Every night the landlady and, as we supposed, her husband, made clamorous love on an unstable bed. This struck us as the right way to behave in these difficult times. I don’t think we were conscious of any worries at all, unlikely though that must seem.

Returning scrupulously on the due date, I sought out my pale, elegant paymaster captain. He seemed abstracted and hardly knew who I was; perhaps, after all, he had other cares, greater and more martial responsibilities. As before, he was stuck for something to say, so he asked me if I’d like some leave; but the money was all spent, and I felt unreasonably sure that if he were once again to unlock the safe that very action would remind him of our past relationship; so I honourably declined the offer, and instead asked if there was any place I could go to in order to learn my job.

After some deliberation he told me to go down to the Huskisson Dock, find a ship called the Sierra, and report to a Lieutenant Taylor. ‘Tell him I sent you to learn the ropes.’ He sat at his desk and reluctantly wrote a letter of introduction. As I was leaving the room he stopped me and examined my uniform.

‘Where did you get it?’ he asked.

‘At Gieves, sir.’

‘You did well to go there,’ he said.

As I walked out of the building, haughtily returning the salutes of passing sailors, I was wondering about HMS Sierra and suspecting that it was unlikely to be the educational establishment I’d have chosen myself, but one thing I knew was that, as I had never had any choice in such matters, it was absurd to expect to have one now. As a matter of fact I was to spend the next two and a half years in that ship, and if I did learn anything I wanted to know I can’t now remember what it was. I did pick up some things I didn’t want to know: to drink far too much; never to speak of women (except of a wife if you had one, or of the wives of colleagues) without innuendo or obscenity; and to deal with the madness of captains.

As things fell out, instruction in this last art began immediately. I found the ship, a bestially ugly thing rearing its bow coarsely above the dockside, held there by cables with rat-guards positioned, I noticed, to deny entry rather than to prevent flight from the vessel, which belonged to a company trading in West African cocoa. It had a top speed of about nine knots and in peacetime had carried back and forth as supercargo a dozen or so passengers in reasonably lavish colonial style. The officers, taken over with the ship, were professionals of a different caste from regular naval officers; a closed society or guild, but more amiable than the passed-over naval officers who emerged from early retirement to supplement and advise them – ‘dug-outs’, they were called, heavy-eyed and gin-glazed, mostly useless but keen on their privileges.

The Merchant Navy officers nearly all had malaria and from time to time would collapse and lie in their cabins shuddering. Once established, I took to visiting them and offering unwanted conversation. They could offer me a few insights, reduce my ignorance of their world, perhaps even of the world more generally considered. For instance, I hadn’t known that in the tropics a man should always put on a jockstrap at sundown and wear a cummerbund at dinner. After a hot day shifting cargo you of course needed a bath, but then you gave yourself the giddy pleasure of the uplift provided by the jockstrap; it was like floating for a moment in the cool of the evening. The tightly-wound cummerbund presumably sustained this effect.

These people also shared certain esoteric jokes which came in series, and when intelligible were clearly obscene. One series featured two characters called Mr Saccone and Mr Speed, names which happened to be drawn from the name of the firm which at that time was the principal supplier of booze to the Fleet. For some reason Saccone and Speed were represented as monkeys in colloquy, with dago accents and an interest in unusual sexual practices. Because I could never join in this game, had never had malaria, never worn a jockstrap, and no doubt for many other reasons, this confederacy of ailing, amiable and experienced officers found me, despite my willingness to please and to visit the sick, quite uninteresting, odd and green, which of course was true. I could understand why they did, which at least was evidence of maturation.

These discoveries lay in the future. As I picked my way across the cluttered dockside and approached the Sierra, I entered a world about which, without admitting it even to myself, I knew nothing. All around were inactive workmen, some evidently responsible for fitting a First World War gun on the poop, others sitting among scattered bits of ancient anti-aircraft weapons, while others wandered about the deck or the dock, manifestly unproductive.

In those early days the authorities were still unsubtle about air-raids. Liverpool had suffered some serious night attacks, but the sirens also sounded at intervals through the day, when there was nothing around except perhaps a plane sent over to have a look at the damage inflicted on the previous night. When these daytime alarms went off, the air-raid wardens rushed about blowing their whistles, and in the docks the noise of riveting and the beat of hammers at once ceased. Since it was by now assumed that no raid was likely to follow, the workmen did not move from their places but got out their cards and played till the all-clear sounded, while the public at large simply went on with their usual business. The workmen apparently had it in writing that they should cease work and take cover during an alert; they scrupulously observed the first part of this order and ignored the second. It wasn’t difficult to understand this – every concession, every petty benefit, had been achieved by laborious union action, and to work when ordered not to would have struck them as treacherous or crazy. It would have been useless to explain to them that this was not the right way to behave when the Empire was under serious threat and the bastions of democracy were crumbling. If the all-clear came just at the moment when an official tea-break was due, they ran the one into the other and sat on in the sun, enjoying the dusty, leisured scene.

One of these unalarming alerts was in force as I reached the ship. A large sheet of steel dangled in its slings, while its handlers reclined on sacks. The crane-driver dozed in his high cab. I had one foot on the gangway when there was a sudden commotion and an officer whom, ill-informed as I was, I could already identify as an RNR commander, hurried down the gangway. I removed my foot. This man had a sharp red face and cornflower eyes – it seems, in memory, that my mad captains all had cornflower eyes. He looked excited but authoritatively angry. Marching up to a group of cardplayers, he ordered them to get up and return to work, pointing out that there was a war on, that ships were desperately needed, and so forth. He said something about Churchill, something about the Hun. The men turned towards him, eyed him curiously, and invited him to fuck off. As if he had foreseen this degree of resistance the Commander now took a pistol from his pocket and pointed it at the group. ‘Get back to your work,’ he said. ‘And for God’s sake try to behave like men.’ At this the men rose, backed away, and as soon as they’d opened a certain distance from the Commander, ran like hell to the dock gate. A cordon of civilian functionaries now appeared from neighbouring offices, smiling nervously at the officer and hinting that such gestures, however well meant, would not in fact advance the war effort, since their likeliest outcome was a full-scale dock strike. He was calm but disappointed. Later, sharing with me a moment of self-reproach, he said he regretted not having ‘winged’ one of them. ‘Then the rest would have pretty quickly toed the line.’ He had been in similar situations before.

He went back on board and I followed. I explained to the officer of the watch that I had been sent to see Lt Taylor. The gunman, who was still there at the head of the gangway, said: ‘Why the devil do you want to see him?’ I sketched a salute and explained my mission. ‘You’ll probably find him in the wardroom,’ he said. ‘And don’t let me see you again with a button undone.’ I was hurt by this because I had spent a lot of time and trouble getting myself up for the part. ‘That’s exactly the sort of thing we have to get right if we’re going to win this war,’ he added. I suddenly realised I was being told off by the captain of the Sierra. I surveyed with distaste the unspeakable mess over which he presided, feeling only slightly ashamed to have added to it.

This was Commander Stonegate, a mad captain, but a gallant fellow who as a midshipman had fought with Keyes at Zeebrugge and more recently won a DSO on the Dunkirk beach. His conduct on the dockside was perhaps partly explained by his having taken part in these bloody actions. He was said, falsely no doubt, to have witnessed the killing by a British officer of 38 out of 40 men who had tried to surrender to the Germans, presumably to encourage the other two. In any case he had seen some bad things. He was just the man for the summer of 1940, an expert in lost causes and forlorn hopes, a leader of men, of men often too cowardly or too stupid to follow him; perhaps he needed to be a bit mad but he was a shade madder than he needed to be. Very likely what pushed him over the top was the extraordinary quantity of pink gin he drank. Of course, there may have been other more private incitements to mania.

Threading my way past the card parties, I eventually found the wardroom, actually a passenger saloon on the upper deck, designated ‘wardroom’ by a freshly painted sign, still unfinished and no doubt waiting, like the rest of the vessel, for the all-clear. Behind the bar was a man who turned out to be Taylor, acting as his own steward. Perhaps the regular barman had taken cover. Taylor was a tall thin man with a very white face, middle or late thirties. He looked quite refined but gloomy. He had been purser of the ship before it was taken over and was now responsible to their Lordships for its supply and secretarial requirements.

He gave me a pink gin and offered me a lamb’s tongue, which he pulled out of an open tin. He explained that he had some time before decided that what suited his constitution best was an exclusive diet of lambs’ tongues. He pointed to several cartons of them, stacked against the wall. ‘They should last me a good while,’ he said, but added that he was worried about maintaining his supply if the ship was sent to inaccessible foreign parts. He carried an open tin everywhere he went, from time to time popping a pale pink leathery strip of the meat into his mouth and slowly chewing it. He told me in his quiet, depressed voice that he knew nothing whatever about the Navy; he found its methods of accounting and even its manner of conducting correspondence quite unintelligible. He complained that he was the very last person the Paymaster Captain should have sent me to. I took to him at once. In his office he pointed to a great unsorted heap of books and papers. King’s Regulations, Admiralty Fleet Orders, Confidential Admiralty Fleet Orders, handbooks explaining how to carve a duck. ‘You’ll find everything in there, I daresay,’ he told me sadly. For his own part he proposed to account for stores, pay and so on, in an ordinary human way. His accounts would be in order, though not in the order recommended, indeed commanded by their domineering Lordships. Probably he would have liked to feed the ship’s company on lambs’ tongues, washed down with pink gin, for this would have made for simpler accounting procedures than the fussily varied diet demanded. Sighing rather attractively, Taylor now said he must get home to his wife. We walked together to the gangway, he carrying gloves and a tin of lambs’ tongues. We saluted and went ashore.

I never saw him again; he died two days after our only meeting, presumably of malnutrition and cirrhosis. He got a rather early and blustery northeaster. By another brilliant expedient of the Paymaster Captain, Taylor’s deputy, a Sub-Lieutenant Hewlitt, was promoted to the vacant place and I took his. Hewlitt was about thirty-five, a grey, clean-linened, brushed sort of man, of most cautious demeanour. He was still deciding whether to marry a woman he had been courting for fifteen years. ‘You need to be sure with women,’ he would say. ‘There’s mistakes that can’t be corrected.’ That was also how he ran his office, checking and double-checking far into the night, unwillingly impressed but also alarmed by the careless pace at which I worked. It was he who gave me that advice about the jockstrap, and he also told me that I must always dubbin new shoes and never entrust their care and cleaning to anybody else.

Our first official duty together was to attend Taylor’s funeral and condole with his astonished wife. It was a quiet affair and was just ending with sherry and cake when Stonegate suddenly turned up. He had been in London for a few days, possibly summoned to explain to his superiors why he had threatened civilian dockworkers with a pistol. Drunk to the point beyond which more alcohol can make very little difference, he approached the widow, took her hand, and said in a grave, confident way: ‘My dear, he can’t really be dead, you know. If he were I should have been officially informed.’ Mrs Taylor looked slightly more amazed than before, but neither wept nor spoke. ‘I suppose eating all that tinned lamb upset him a bit,’ Stonegate continued, as if nothing more was at stake than an unusually prolonged crise de foie. He next explained that to his regret he had urgent business requiring him to leave without more delay, thus, for the moment, denying the widow any further consolation, but he turned at the door and promised to have the remaining cartons of lambs’ tongues sent round to her house.

Next day I took up my duties as his secretary. My main job was to insert a filling of intelligible prose asking for something, or offering humble compliance with some peremptory demand, into the sandwich of grandiose salutation and valedictory obeisance insisted on by their Lordships. We rubbed along fairly well, Stonegate having what I came to recognise as the usual awe felt by naval officers at what they took to be the superhuman powers of otherwise negligible people who, though presumed incapable of anything else, could write letters easily. The rest of the work was more difficult, since no more than Taylor could Hewlitt or I understand the byzantine naval system of accounting. You entered not the true cost of anything but an arbitrary figure selected by authority. The price of beef, for instance, was always the same unless you were told to alter it, and the figure, which memory says was 7d a pound, bore no relation to what we paid for it. In this way it was possible to feed a sailor on 6d a day, as their Lordships required. Of course the real cost had to show up somewhere, and the relation between the two figures was deeply problematic. Hewlitt added everything up, down and sideways, over and over, in a hopeless attempt to resolve the discrepancies, while I swashbuckled across the ledger, alert to imaginary indications of sensemaking, seeking occult rational structures. We made a bad pair.

Meanwhile the ship was somehow patched together and provided with a crew that called for the pen of a Conrad: the sly greaser, the rusé steward and the genuinely naval bosun. There was the dugout lieutenant-commander who recognised in this vessel nothing that reminded him of the Navy except the gin at twopence a shot. Officers had a large daily allowance of spirits, which was nevertheless greatly exceeded. Some would spend most of their pay on booze, sitting all day long in the dark wardroom, smoking duty-free cigarettes and speaking bitterly of the Geddes Axe, that infamous instrument of government which, after the First War, had, in what seemed to them a frenzy of cost-cutting, prematurely lopped off their jobs.

With such helpers Stonegate, inappropriately on Trafalgar Day, got his ship to sea, wearing the white ensign for the first time, its weird crew at their stations. He headed North, spending the long night on his bridge, all dressed up with a white collar and a tie, a gold-spangled cap and a greatcoat. At Lamlash on the Isle of Arran we stopped a while and were given too much drink at too many parties involving eightsome reels and the like, by people who mistook us for hardy adventurers requiring rest and recreation. Then Stonegate was again summoned to London, not, this time, to return. His replacement was signalled. A few days later we heard that, ready as ever with his pistol, he had shot himself. So he got his northeaster. We were never officially informed.