Thursday, July 23, 2020

H.M.S Leviathan - Review

Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg
John Winton was a British naval officer turned author, who in the mid-20th century wrote some successful light comedies about life in the Royal Navy.

The most popular of his books was "We Joined the Navy" published in 1959 and filmed (badly) in 1962. In the early 1960s the book was followed by several sequels; "We saw the sea," "Never Go to Sea" etc etc. Like most sequels these weren't as good as the original, but they were amusing, well written and sold fairly well.

HMS Leviathan was a departure, a serious novel, albeit with some humorous moments. It describes the entire tour of duty that 45-year old Commander Bob Markready spends on Leviathan. The ship is the Royal Navy's largest and most modern aircraft carrier. The novel is written almost entirely from the commander's  point of view, as he becomes 2nd in command after several years of duty in the far East.

Also new to Leviathan is the captain, a man with the ludicrous nickname "Tosser." We quickly learn that the ships maiden cruise wasn't a success and as a result there's been a clear-out of senior officers and some of the men. Both our hero and the captain are amazed at being chosen for this duty:

How did you come to get this appointment, Bob?

The Commander blinked. Evidently Tosser Mctigue was not a man to beat about the bush. "I don't know, sir, to be quite honest. It came out of the blue."

"And mine by God!"

The rest of the novel concerns Bob Markready's attempts to understand the scale and complexity of a modern aircraft carrier, and the motivation (or lack of) from various members of the crew and the officers. He is old-fashioned, earnest and rooted firmly in the traditions and standards of the service. Early on, a cynical but competent officer nicknamed Delicious Joe has some words of advice:

"In a lot of ways it [serving on HMS Leviathan] is like having a job in a factory."
"Oh balls."
Delicious Joe had a quicker temper even than the Commander. "I don't know what you're trying to achieve with all this crap..." 

"What crap?"
"Where have you been these last few years?"

"I was in Singapore for about..."
"Oh my God." Delicious Joe twisted his head, to look away from the Commander. "I don't mean that. I mean the last ten years, fifteen years, while the Navy's been changing. Ever since you joined this ship you've been behaving like somebody who's been away, been asleep, like Rip van Winkle. Now you've woken up and its all changed. The Navy is a job now."

So we're all set up for a straightforward tale of old experienced officer licking a new ship's company into shape with plenty of trials and tribulations a few laughs along the way.

Well not really.

Because Commander Bob Markready quickly emerges as a vicious snobbish bully. Consider this passage, which takes place when he is introduced to one of the Fleet Air Arm pilots:

"Sub-Lieutenant Alfred Stiggins, sir."


It was an impossible name for a naval officer. The Commander could not prevent himself repeating it aloud in astonishment. Alfred Stiggins. He was probably called 'Alfie' in the squadron. It was a name for a band-leader: Alfie Stiggins and his Novelty Mandoliers. Or for a character part in a radio comedy: Alfred Stiggins, the jaunty milkman, with a cheery word and a pinch on the bottom for every housewife. 

"That's right, sir. Stiggins is the name. Pleased to meet you."

The Commander blinked. Pleased to meet you? Stiggins spoke with a noticeable Birmingham or possibly Liverpool dialect twang, similar to Connolly's. Indeed, the thought struck the Commander that in only slightly different circumstances he might now be welcoming Sub-Lieutenant (P) Connolly to the wardroom mess, while Leading Steward Stiggins served behind the bar. 

"How old are you... Stiggins?"

"Twenty, sir."Stiggins smirked. "Not got the key of the door yet, sir, you might say."

Key of the door, you might say?

Rupert Smith had anticipated, ever since the secretary's party, that Stiggins might not make a favourable impression on the Commander at their first official encounter. The interview was proceeding even more unhappily than he had feared. 

"This is Stiggins' first ship, sir."
"That's right sir, first time out on the briny."

On the briny? The Commander winced, and closed his eyes, and turned his head away, hardly believing his ears. The memory of their previous meeting lay like a shadow between them but, still remembering, the Commander had been prepared to let bygones be bygones and begin again, on an officially correct basis. But Stiggins was evidently troubled by no such preoccupations. Because he had met the Commander before he continued to chat with a kind of ghastly affability, not as a very junior officer talking to a senior, but as neighbour gossiping over a back-garden fence. The Commander submitted with growing rage, while longing to be rid of Stiggins. 

"...I'm happy to have met you, Stiggins. Thank you."
"Not at all, sir. Thank you. The pleasure's mine. Cheeribye, sir."

Cheeribye. It was too much. The Commander had struggled to be charitable, to remember that this was the young man's first ship. But this was too much. He leaned forward, his lower lip jutting as he drove each word into Stiggins face. "What the devil do you mean, cheeribye! The pleasure's yours. Pleased to meet you. Where do you think you are? Where do you come from, with your...." The Commander began to stutter in his rage. "...with your extracts from C-cockney p-pantomime..."
Stiggins had believed that he had been keeping his end up with the Commander very well; he retreated, amazed and hurt, to the squadron group. While he talked to the next officer, the Commander was aware of the atmosphere behind him. When he next turned round, he saw their faces: Rupert's squadron were standing in a row, shoulder to shoulder, united in a common unwavering hostility towards himself.

And every modern reader stands shoulder to shoulder with them.

Speaking of the modern reader, what era are we in aboard the unhappy H.M.S Leviathan? Unusually for naval fiction, it's set firmly in peace time. The exact year that events take place isn't mentioned and one of its strengths is how insular and self contained the world is inside the ship. We don't know who the Prime Minister is, although the Suez fiasco is the past. The only outside event that affects the ship's company is a national rail strike that delays the men rejoining the ship after a week's leave. That rail strike is perhaps a clue to the era, as is a description of the sailors off duty and on shore wearing "...tapered trousers, Cuban heeled shoes, and bulky leather jackets with fur collars." That sounds like the early to mid-1960s to me.

John Winton must have known exactly what he was doing when he invented the anti-hero Commander Bob Markready. It would have been much easier to create a more sympathetic character. Yet Winton doesn't do that. At various times Markready is ill-tempered, inflexible, snobbish, and at one point is even a sadistic voyeur . Yet we still root for him, at least most of the time. He's one of the most remarkable anti-heroes in literature, let alone genre literature.  

John Winton (his real name was John Pratt) served as a senior officer on the carrier HMS Eagle and it's easy to see how expert his knowledge is of the Navy in this period. The novel's main theme is one anti-hero's  struggle to cope with the huge social and technical changes that affect the Navy during this time. Readers are torn between wanting Bob Markready to succeed in transforming the ship, and the awareness that he is, in the words of one perceptive character, a dinosaur. Reading some reviews, the book went down well with Navy personnel of the time, and some people maintain that it's still relevant to the Navy today, which is a bit horrifying.

HMS Leviathan is currently out of print, as are most of John Winton's books. Let's hope some sympathetic soul at Amazon or elsewhere converts them to digital-reader format. They're well written and deserve to survive into the 21st century. In the meantime, HMS Leviathan sold well enough to ensure there are plenty of second hand copies out there. Mine is the 1971 2nd edition paperback, published by Pan and cost less than £5. What a great read.


Saturday, July 04, 2020

Independence Day

Today is of course Independence Day in the United States, but unofficially, it's also being called that here in the UK.

That's because the lock-down is being eased still further - the pubs are open today along with hairdressers and also some cinemas. It's hard to know how the public will take this, Boris Johnson has cautioned people not to 'go mad' as he put it.

Personally my money is on most people being pretty sensible. The Bank of England are also cautiously optimistic about our economic future. For once me and the Bank agree - there is tremendous pent up demand in the economy, no sign of mass redundancies yet, and the stock market is buoyant. I'm predicting a V shaped recession, unless you work in aviation or theatre.

Every now and again, I try and read Richard Ford's great novel Independence Day around this time of year. It's an astonishingly good lyrical novel about humdrum ordinary things made magical, and coping with the let-downs and disappointments of middle age. Every time I read it I find something new to enjoy and admire. 

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Friday, June 26, 2020

Free Speech

I'm worried about the effects of the "I'M OFFENDED!" tactic on free speech.

The latest example was yesterday when Sir Kier Starmer, the new leader of the Labour Party, sacked the left winger Rebecca Long-Bailey for the heinous crime of approving an interview which contained an 'antisemitic' (i.e anti-Israel) remark.

Brendan O'Neil puts it much better than me in an article in today's Spiked:

The sacking of RLB by Labour leader Keir Starmer is wrong. It is a shrill overreaction to the mere sharing of an article. RLB’s tweetcrime was to praise the actress Maxine Peake and to share an interview with Peake that was published in the Independent today.

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Thursday, June 25, 2020

Cancelled Summer

So normally this is my favourite time of the year - the long Glastonbury weekend followed by the two glorious weeks of the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

Not this year. 

Quite rightly, a couple of months ago both events were cancelled, Instead, me and "M" are watching classic headliners from past festivals. The BBC are brilliant at this sort of thing, and are promising much the same during the Wimbledon fortnight - a choice of classic tennis matches.

This morning Emily Eavis, the main Glastonbury organiser now that her Dad is getting on, tried her best to put a positive spin on the cancellation. It's full speed ahead for next years's event she explained as this year would have been the 50th anniversary of the event.

Wimbledon is much the same - focusing on 2021. 

Ironically we've had a lovely Spring this year and another prolonged hot spell of weather breaks up tomorrow after today was the hottest day of the year so far; 31C in London.

This is the strangest year I've lived through - it's hard to escape the feeling that the whole thing should be written off and everyone reconvenes on the 1st January next year. 

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Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Out of the Woods?

The government eased many of the restrictions on June 1st, which was a Monday.

After 11 weeks, M went back to work (she's self employed and had suspended her business during the lockdown). Personally, I think we're heading back a bit too early, but people are suffering and after the Dominic Cummings affair, it was going to be hard to persist with the lock down anyway. 

Last Thursday was the last night of 'The Clap' as people so wittily refer to it. It was good to stand outside the front door and applaud the front line workers until my hands hurt. We're looking now hopefully at a gentle return to normal. But it's going to be tough for pubs, clubs, cinemas, restaurants and theatres. I do hope the majority of them survive.

The source for the graph was the ever brilliant Wikipedia

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Friday, May 22, 2020

Crisis Averted (For Now)

The cumulative death figure is shocking and dismaying - we're the highest in Europe, although not per capita. But at least the trend is firmly downward. The graph above is from The Guardian and shows the deaths up until the 8th of May. 

On the 11th of May the restrictions were lifted a bit, and we've noticed much increased traffic and footfall. But it's still much much quieter than normal. Birdsong seems very loud, and I've now been working from home for the longest period ever - 10 weeks.

The worry is now that as the restrictions are eased a little we'll get a rise in cases. Some of the kids will be back in school in early June. Children are traditionally the viral reservoir that feeds everyone else, so this, like so many other government decisions is a partially calculated risk.

Personally I think we'll get away with it, but then I also thought we might get away with under 5,000 deaths, which seems like a sick joke now.  

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Sunday, May 10, 2020

More Data

The United Kingdom has now overtaken Italy to have Europe's highest number of virus deaths.

Now of course we have to be very careful with crude numbers like this. Not every country counts the deaths in the same way, there are misdiagnoses and miscounts and false positives and all the rest of it.

But none the less I feel very disappointed that our country has had so many deaths compared to say Germany. I don't what the reasons are, and no doubt one day there will be a lengthy and very costly public enquiry that will examine the data in minute detail. For now here are my guesses, in no particular order:

High population density - South East England has some of the most densely populated parts of Europe, if not the world.

London - London is one of the world's largest cities with an extraordinary ethnic mix of people, all crammed together and using a large but very crowded public transport system. 

Minority groups - some minority groups, notably Blacks and Asians seem to have an unfortunate vulnerability to the disease. Despite The Guardian's  best efforts, it looks like this is due to genetics more than discrimination.

Care homes - lots of our elderly people go into care homes when they're fragile and vulnerable. This may be in contrast to other countries with more common extended families such as Italy.

But all the above points are really educated speculation; we need more data, and lots of it to be able test theories. At the moment, at least to the general public, this data isn't available.

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