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.

Once, in 1941, I travelled with him from the Clyde to Reykjavík in a Polish troopship. At that time shipboard life was still anachronisticaly luxurious, for officers, that is. We played bridge all the way. One evening when a North Atlantic gale had cleared the saloon of landsmen, he was playing a delicate hand, gleaming with sure expectation of success, and with only a couple more tricks to make, the ship pitched so violently that he was hurled from his seat and thrown across the saloon. By the time he had picked himself up and got back to the table, the cards were in a muddled heap, but he sorted them out into the original hands, replayed the game, and, slapping down the cards from where he stood over us, won his last tricks and crowed with joy.

The main reason why I qualified for inclusion in his pleasures was that I wrote his letters. His semi-literacy gave me some authority, for he regarded correspondence with the Admiralty as the most daunting part of his job. In the early days he would laboriously draft letters with a blunt pencil on a signal pad. They were usually complaints about the impossibility of laying booms – which is what we were supposed to do – with inadequate equipment and too few auxiliary craft, in a location and in weather conditions which would have made the process close to impossible even under the most favourable circumstances. (I think this was true, and the complaints justified.) The drafts would start like this: ‘Being as the flotations what you promised int come,’ and continue in the same style. For a while he cavilled at my translations into formal and slightly archaic Admiralty English, but he soon came to depend on it and paid me many ironical or obscene compliments. ‘What the hell are you, Cosmos? A fucking poofter?’ It was fortunate that he did not know I wrote poems and songs and tried to play the violin. Before long he just told me what was wanted and left the correspondence entirely to me.

So his dependence on me increased. I ran his social life, tidied up his professional business, and explained the King’s Regulations. In return he was, in his way, open-handed, though what he offered was never a gift resulting from an intuition that one would like it. We were once staying in an Edinburgh hotel and had drunk till the bar announced closing-time. He had manoeuvred the rounds so that I, who had bought the first, would also be liable for the last, traditionally a double. It was the sort of tease he enjoyed, and helped by a crony called Commander Drinkwater, always Drinkwhisky to Archer, he made the most of it. On my pay – then, I think, 13 shillings a day – this was quite a serious mulct, and I may have shown that I was a bit upset. So later he made his kind of amends. The party continued in his hotel room, where we were joined by some girls, provenance unknown – he had a knack of surrounding himself with young women, not whores, but willing on terms to go to bed even with this hideous old man (for so he appeared to me). I went off to my room and was just going to bed when he burst in, collarless, fly open, leading a girl who didn’t seem the type, being young, and showing signs of shyness. ‘’Ere’s one for you, Cosmo. I’ve got ’er sister.’ This was the first of several occasions when he made or tried to make sexual choices for me. The girl and I chatted uneasily for a while and she slept in a chair. In the morning Archer discovered from her sister that we hadn’t done anything; he roared with laughter, dragged the girl into the bathroom, and emerged a few minutes later with his penis on display, the girl following dishevelled, with an odd shamed gesture. He told the story of this night many times, with variations and embellishments, all emphasising my sexual incapacity. ‘Cosmo never got in it all night!’ he would crow.

His first real act of command was to take the ship to Rosyth, where we were to spend a month getting ready for our great boom-laying mission. My girl came to Scotland and we lived in a workman’s house in Dunfermline; it was a good time but arduous. At six, in the dark of a Scottish December morning, I would take a packed, smelly bus to the dockyard. By 7.30 I’d be aboard and having breakfast, waiting for the relay of yells summoning me to the presence. Archer would go over the pleasant excesses of the previous evening and deride me for bringing a redundant woman to Scotland. Then he would tell me what needed to be written. By four o’clock I’d be on my way home, again in the dark.

This routine was interrupted by seasonal festivities, including a grand Hogmanay ball. I watched Archer clumping round the dance floor with the Admiral’s wife. The Admiral, Dalrymple-Hamilton, was a member of a well-known navy family, and was known to Archer, who at some point had served under him at sea, as Dollyrumple-Amilton. While dancing he seemed quite at home with the great lady, laughing and speaking, with a courtly bend, into her ear, though he became formal and submissive during the ceremonies of departure. It struck me that very senior officers, the real thing, and their women got on more easily with subordinates like Archer than with reserve officers, even if the latter were apparently more suitable socially or had any number of useful skills. Regular officers had internalised sketchy but fairly reliable profiles of people like Archer, and would not be inclined to question his manners or deplore the absurd unctuousness of the simpering Herbert. At worst they were extreme examples of familiar types. Moreover, it could be assumed that they would obey any order to the letter, and contrive to do so without damaging their own interests. They belonged, just as the Admiral belonged, and his wife, too. They were like upper servants in some grand household, organised as a hierarchy normally benign, though capable of being severe on any gross infraction of discipline. Everybody concerned accepted this arrangement, regarding it as completely natural.

Archer certainly understood such relationships without needing to think about them. He understood the exact measure of liberty he could take, indeed ought to take, on a licensed occasion like the Hogmanay ball. He knew how to look up and, as it were, by the same instinct, how to look down, how to treat inferiors with a sort of uncaring kindness, a humorous indifference that might, in the end, be seen to serve their interests as well as his own. It was all to do with belonging, very complete, quite unavailable to the keenest of outsiders, of whom there were many, pantingly aspiring. Nobody could possibly have thought I, though certainly an outsider, was keen or thwarted, except in my desire not to be in this galère at all.

However, there was no escaping the fact that I was with, though not of, this set-up, and small reason to think I should be out of it for a long time to come. The safest assumption about the war, in the winter of 1940-41 and for at least three years after that, was that it would never end, or, at any rate, that a life different from the present – an absurd, quite comfortable servitude – was to be had only in daydreams of which one was ashamed.

Like many another, I would gloomily consider my position. I had been born only a year after the end of the previous war. Around me were men who had actually served in that earlier war, so that military or naval service seemed to them the natural and even the desirable mode of their existence – men to whom the interwar years were a mostly miserable interruption. Their way of life was in principle incompatible with mine. But I already had experience of incompatible ways of living, with quite violent changes from one to the next. I was born at home in a house lit by gas, sharing with many others an outdoor lavatory. Films were still silent. More people had maids than cars. Names were still being carved on the new war memorial, an imposing presence on the seafront in Douglas. Men removed their hats when they walked past it. There were quarrels about whether somebody who simply happened to have died while in uniform, or even years later, from a sickness contracted during service though probably not arising from it, should have his name inscribed there. Limbless, shell-shocked and poisoned men were everywhere. November 11 was a day of general mourning, in which even children took part. They attended the bleak memorial services with weeping women and mutilated, bemedalled survivors, singing the hymns which everybody everywhere was at that moment singing, observing the silence solemnly commanded by the firing of maroons, a silence full of the noise of gulls, the last national ritual in which all took part, belonging, because involved in the deaths of many young men. This was a community where people stopped to chat with mourners in the street, and because of complicated family ties and friendships, and acquaintance with the friends of friends, everybody had a pretty good idea of what everybody else was doing and suffering.

Removed from that community to a univertsity where community was based on high spirits and competition among lively strangers, one was settled into another world, very different but in its way congenial. But there were still some old ties: to get onto the boat at Liverpool was to run into somebody with whom one might chat about brothers and sisters, deaths and births. The second war made a bigger difference. It meant an immersion in another culture, and this was true for everybody except possibly for regular soldiers and sailors (though even their lives were changed). It was certainly true for shelter-dwellers and conscripts. For the former there was the forced patience of the queues and the miseries of the blackout; for the latter there was the company of men whose company they would probably in no circumstances have chosen. It was like being sent, in consequence of some awful parental mistake, to the wrong school, of which you could not learn, and could never even wish to learn, the lingo and the rules and the customs. There was not a resumption of the ways of the old war, nobody any longer used such a word as ‘comrade’, unaffectedly spoken by veterans. It seemed that everybody felt the need to resist everybody else; there was no personal warmth and a good deal of unmotivated hurting. Orders would be carried out impassively, and with a measured compliance that could feel like a silent criticism, as if the will of the person issuing the order could be done so exactly that obedience would seem to demonstrate how pointless it was to have it executed at all, except as one more strand in the wartime rope the Navy was tying itself up with. For you always felt that the Navy could only have met its own standards of discipline, efficiency, polish and community in peacetime, the very time when you couldn’t possibly have got into it, even if you’d wanted to.

The parties at Rosyth and Edinburgh were the end of pleasure, and by January 1941 it was time for even Sierra to do something. We sailed for a secret destination, known only by the Admiralty, the ship’s company, and a fair number of wives, girlfriends and filles publiques, to be Iceland. Archer got us there, and there we remained, under his curious care, for almost two years.

It had not been foreseen that we should pay so long a visit. The British had occupied Iceland primarily to prevent the Germans from doing so; it would have provided them with an admirable submarine base. The British would also find a positive use for it. Our mission was to lay an anti-submarine boom across the mouth of a great fjord. Hval Fjord offered a huge harbour, big enough to accommodate the Home Fleet and numbers of American warships (they were already involved in the Atlantic though not yet officially combatant), and after the Russians entered the war that summer, the large, and largely doomed, convoys preparing for their fearful trip round the North Cape to Murmansk. All this shipping could rest secure behind the boom, which was covered by an artillery battery on one of the promontories, about two miles apart, that formed the mouth of the fjord.

Or that at any rate was the idea; but we never got the boom laid. It looked simple enough on maps and charts, and mariners weary from the Atlantic liked to think they could rest behind it. But for almost two years we struggled to lay the boom, and when we left, it was still unfinished.

Boom defences are huge, clumsy assemblages of nets and flotations, held in position by great triangular lumps of concrete and having a complicated bit in the middle, a gate you could open to admit your friends. The materials for the construction of the boom were lifted out of Sierra and put in place by specialist boom defence vessels, small ships with forked stems sticking up from the bow like snail’s horns. They looked more like dredgers than anything else but were quite distinctive. They were commanded by trawler skippers, patient drinkers hardened by the North Sea but hardly more overjoyed at hard labour in the cold and dark of the Icelandic winter than our own malarial officers. In January the daylight lasted no more than three hours (in cool midsummer this became 22 hours and was almost harder to bear). Now and again there might be a day or two when conditions allowed something to be put down exactly where it was meant to go. On the evenings of these wonderful days Archer, who used sometimes to go out in a boat himself and work on the boom, would appear to be quite proud of his skippers.

They were, after all, good seamen; but they weren’t equal to this job, which turned out to be like those torments devised for malefactors in Tartarus. Gales, rarely forecast, would funnel savagely down the fjord – Sierra once even dragged her heavy moorings and went aground on one of the few sandy beaches of the fjord. On these occasions the incomplete boom would be torn to pieces and the flotations blown out into the ocean, where they provided target practice for passing destroyers. The heavy gear was lost. These crises occurred, in the nature of things, when Sierra was almost empty. Weeks and months might pass while we waited for new supplies from Scotland, and during these times we had almost nothing to do except occasionally to remind their Lordships of the scale of the problem and the danger to their ships, which continued to sail confidently into the harbour. Admirals and commodores were understandably angry, though their anger was unjustly directed at us, when they discovered the true state of affairs and had to send out destroyers, which ought to have been resting, their companies piped not to watchkeeping but to leisurely making and mending, to patrol the entrance to the fjord.

Archer now suffered undeserved rebuke, and all about him there was much bad temper and embarrassment, but he remained uncannily cheerful. He would send ribald signals to passing ships, draft urgent requests to the Admiralty (‘Being as they int no more flotations ... I ave the honour to request supply most urgent’), and pass the rest of the time fishing. He was delighted by the swarms of dab and codling in the fjord – you simply threw a line over and hauled them in. Sometimes he would pipe a watch to fish, and an hour or two later there would be more fresh fish than the entire ship’s company could eat. He would arrange boxing tournaments in the empty hold, with Herbert as a pompous, buffoonish MC. Once Herbert addressed the spectators as ‘gentlemen’ and was publicly reprimanded by Archer; you don’t call ratings gentlemen, only officers.

We were all desperate for something to do. Books ran out, we scoured the ship for old bits of newspaper to read. So the film-shows commanded by the Old Man were welcome, though you always felt they had been put on for his personal satisfaction and that he merely found it convenient to let others have a look. Sometimes it seemed the whole war had been put on for the same purpose.

Much of his time was spent in quite passionately doing something that was certainly of no benefit to anybody but himself. He had what seemed an inordinate interest in stores, not just duty-free drink and cigarettes, though these were important, but groceries of every kind. Reykjavík, where our supplies came from, was about thirty miles away by sea – you went round the coast in a little popping drifter. These trips were frequent, for mail had to be collected as well as general provisions, and of course stock for the bar. In Reykjavík you could also buy some things for yourself in the Naafi or, with luck, at the PX, the more generously endowed American equivalent. Archer spent large sums on goods of all descriptions. Cases of tinned soup and peas, sacks of flour, large consignments of whisky and cigarettes arrived frequently and were the occasion for many jokes and some amazement. As the months went by, the supplies filled his cabin, first the bedroom, then the outer room. Cases, carefully stowed and secured, were stacked around the handsome double bed. As time went by, there was hardly room for me on my morning visits; we would converse over the food mountains, and I would rest my notebook on packing cases. The place looked like one of those storerooms you occasionally glimpse through a window or an open door in a supermarket. Still he added to the collection, as if intending to have at hand, for his own private consumption, the food and drink of a thousand ordinary men.

For a while I found something pure, gratuitous, occasionally farcical about this dedicated acquisitiveness. He might have collected stamps with the same devotion and they would not have taken up so much space; for there seemed no point in his hoarding all this stuff except the mere pleasure of collecting it. Perhaps it was because this hobby was so engrossing that he seemed not to share the ennui, the sexual privation, the hangovers and the self-disgust that afflicted almost everybody else. The other exceptions were the doctor and a midshipman, who had been at Winchester together. These Wykehamists contentedly passed the hours walking the deck together, rarely speaking to anyone else, and then only with an evident effort of tolerance. They admitted to one mild regret, not shared, I think, by Archer, and that was at their not being involved in the fighting; but Winchester had no doubt hardened them to such disappointments, and anyway, they seemed sure this privation, like that of their schooldays, could only be temporary. So indeed it turned out to be, for much later on I ran into the doctor in Algiers and he had got a medal for doing something brave in a destroyer. The midshipman, he told me, was dead. In those days the wind blew from all quarters.

It was a time of futility. Some people got very drunk and fought one another. One amiable Geordie drank himself into a stupor and woke many hours later to find that his genitals had been polished with bootblack. A blacksmith – an important man in boom construction – ran mad with a sledgehammer, evaded feeble attempts at capture and killed himself. In winter months it wasn’t even safe to go ashore and play football on the lava shore – you could be cut off by one of those unpredicted savage gales and probably die on the beach. The conditions made inevitable many dreadful moments, especially for anyone with my hopeless fear of heights, when one had to get back on board up a rope ladder from a wildly pitching cutter. In the weak, darkless summer weather you could go for a walk on hills that turned out to be no more than huge heaps of sharp stones.

For 48 hours every two months you were allowed to take the popping drifter to Reykjavík. In those days it looked like a shanty town, with much corrugated iron, built, no doubt, on an older, less ugly settlement. The cathedral sometimes offered music. There was quite a good bookshop, with English books, and a hotel, justly described by W.H. Auden in the book he and Louis MacNeice wrote about Iceland as not the kind of thing you like if you like that kind of thing. The only drink was sherry, imported from Spain under some mutual trade agreement and exempted from the general prohibition of liquor.

The Icelanders quite reasonably regarded us as having invaded them. They had been pretty sure that somebody would, and when it happened, and they woke at dawn to hear aeroplanes overhead, they turned over and went back to sleep, not caring who was coming, supposing, perhaps mistakenly, that occupation would mean much the same whether it was German or British. In the early days they refused to speak to us, and the troops could only look longingly at the Icelandic girls, or stulkas. All that was to change with the arrival of Americans in 1941, but for the time being there wasn’t much reason to spend your 48 hours in Reykjavík, beyond, that is, the need to escape from the ship and her company.

Contact with the world at large was by letter, though occasionally an acquaintance might visit the fjord in a ship that actually moved. I was asked to lunch aboard the battle cruiser Hood by a gunnery sub-lieutenant whose girlfriend happened to be a friend of mine, and was hustled from the table into a launch when it suddenly became known that the German battleship Bismarck was at sea. I had enjoyed being shown around this beautiful but aged and imperfectly armoured ship, whose whole purpose at that time was to destroy the German raider, though among her officers there were those who doubted whether she could hope to do it. Three or four days later Hood made contact and, hit by a single shell, exploded, all but three of her company of some seventeen hundred being lost. This was as near to great actions as I had come, and I felt my association with the disaster, remembering the ship itself and some of those who had given me lunch and then died in her. Theirs was the sort of experience that, without luck, one might expect to have as a fighting sailor: the real thing, the cold blast.