My Mad Captains

Frank Kermode returns to the war

Up in Sunderland I reflected that Sierra got rid of its captains at a pretty impressive rate. I speculated about the fate of the next one and the possible forms of his mania. Would he be insensitive enough to last longer than his predecessors?

He not only outlasted them but outdid them in many other ways. Commander Archer had not been with us long before he had caused everybody to agree that he exceeded all rational expectation. Up the gangway he came, his face grim and fat, his mouth the shape of a drawer handle. He gleamed from head to foot, skin scrubbed, clothes valeted, boots glittering. He wore many rings and had a great deal of luggage. It was plain that only the best, and a lot of the best, was good enough, and enough, for him. After dinner he descended to the wardroom, which commanding officers enter only by invitation. He responded to the invitation by being loudly cordial, though somehow in a rather dangerous way. His eyes were cornflower blue, but hard to discern, the smallest eyes I have ever seen. He looked like a fat, well-turned-out pig. He brought drinks grandly and drank himself with apparent abandon, meanwhile weighing everybody up and looking for victims. It soon appeared that he had no use for the simple conversation of friendliness, seeking only to exploit or tease.

He brought with him from Portsmouth a warrant officer who had devoted his life to acquiring the shameless skills of sycophancy. He hung around his boss like the Fool round Lear, but unlike the Fool, he never said anything even obscurely critical. Herbert represented a stage in Archer’s own career, during which the way to get on was, as they say nowadays, to kiss ass, which Herbert was willing to do all day long. Archer, long past the stage of doing the kissing himself, needed his ass saluted with just that perfectly servile regularity, and although he treated ’Erbert with amused contempt, he was in a slight degree dependent on him. There was a kind of sympathy between them, obscurely rooted in past service, some of it in the battleship which had carried the Prince of Wales on his then celebrated and lascivious trip round the world. At that time Archer had been a chief petty officer and Herbert a petty officer, or perhaps only a leading seaman.

Their sense of status was quite unlike that of temporary officers; they were mindful that there was a real navy, in which they had served and made their way; they were inexplicitly contemptuous of its wartime travesty, though well aware that they owed their own advancement to its existence. What remained from the good old times was a teasing amiability on Archer’s part and Herbert’s shameless obsequiousness. But they modified this behaviour to accord with their new ranks, modelling themselves on what they took to be the manners of their former superiors; hence a finicking disdain, and an assumption that one was entitled to the best of everything. What they didn’t imitate was the tiny flame, almost invisible by daylight, the spirit of a certain noblesse oblige. They probably believed that sentiment had its origins in an upper-class conviction that ratings were naturally as well as institutionally and socially inferior to officers, a conviction they had long since rejected. They were, however, quite clear about the advantages of rank, and if for some it had entailed notions of honour, they were prepared to dispense with those notions and replace them with guile. So much they shared; but Archer was ruthless and would always get what he wanted, and Herbert, wasting his days giggling, grinning and capering about, defying odium, would never achieve the transformation of his thin warrant officer’s stripe into a solid band of gold.

On the whole, the lower deck disliked having an Old Man who had originated there, because they feared, quite reasonably, that he knew too much, and also that there were some matters of which he knew all too little. Time was to show that he was far from being a good seaman and that he would use his autocratic office for nobody’s benefit but his own. But he took his rank very seriously, which was enough to compel everybody else to do the same. It must have been bliss for him to have, at his great age (he was, by my guess, a fat, florid fifty), a command of his own, even if it was the lumbering Sierra with its miscellaneous and dispirited ship’s company.

Archer ruled from the large and handsome cabin provided by the shipping company for its civilian masters. Somehow, in the interval of retirement between his first and second fits of naval service, he had made some money and boasted of owning boarding-houses in Southsea. Now he set up as a maritime pasha. He would summon me from my distant office not by telephone and not by messenger but by opening his door and bellowing my name. Anybody within earshot would then repeat the cry, and eventually it got to me, ‘Como!’ he would yell. Or ‘Cosmos!’ He never bothered to find out my exact name, or anything else about me, though we necessarily had quite a bit to do with each other, and in some ways I became part of his milieu, always required at his frequent revels and rarely excused from his nightly bridge table.

When the mood was on him he would play cards round the clock, drinking heavily throughout. He never troubled to study the principles of bidding, but was the best player of a hand I have ever known. This discrepancy caused his partners much annoyance, prudently concealed, since he made many overtricks, missed rubbers and failed to bid slams. It was as if the playing of the cards suited his idea of cunning, his power to divine weakness in an enemy’s professions, whereas he was content to leave the sissy business of bidding and making valuable contracts to the uselessly educated middle classes. He would sit there, tiny eyes gleaming, cuffs starched, never tired, never drunk despite the tumbler of whisky constantly refilled, jeering at signs of ineptitude in the other players, berating his partner, and uttering a stream of obscenities in his big cracked voice. Certain sayings were triggered by specific stimuli; if a high soprano voice came over the radio, everybody would turn in his direction and wait for his comment: ‘She’s got an ’air acrorst ’er quim.’ Having to make this and other such remarks did not affect his concentration on the cards.

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