Futtock Nadgering Contest

I recently stayed in one of my favourite hostelries, the Old Faggot, a pub in Much Binding in the Piddle, a village in North Devon. It was an ancient hostelry going back to the reign of Ethelred the Unsteady, as were most of the patrons ever since.

Iolanthe Mandergarst the landlord, an old crony from escapades in Bristol opium dens, asked me down for the annual futtock nadgering contest, an old Devonian custom consisting of catching an errant futtock and then nadgering it.

On my day of arrival Gertrude Splinters Spittle the local pole dancer blocked my passage. She was hanging from a lintel over the door practising moves of an extraordinary nature involving a horse harness, a bucket of wallpaper paste and the Bishop of Bath and Wells equerry, a particularly well-endowed chap with a pleasant smile.

I watched as Gertrude made inroads into the very soul of the functionary’s garments whilst he remained transfixed, enshrouded as he was, in very pleasant flock wallpaper.

Eventually, I made for the bar, eager for my gin and Avgas heart starter. Iolanthe’s wife, a comely wench of undiluted habits welcomed me with salvos of wind and an enigmatic grimace, her unique way of making one feel at home.

Quivering Meg and Eunice Throbwalloper a duo of very little repute were setting up their equipment on a small stage, a plank of wood balanced precariously on two chairs.

They were an odd couple, Quivering Meg with long dank hair circumventing a long face like an upturned canoe and Eunice Throbwalloper a girl with a penchant for tattoos of a particularly graphic and revolting nature. They were about to entertain us with their latest hit ‘The girl with emphysema.’

Iolanthe, the landlord, stumbled through the doors carrying a plate of frog legs and St John’s wort, a speciality of the house, claimed to stimulate the sex drive of rock lobsters, goat herds and inhibit the urge to vomit up the main course of Marinated senna pods in aspic.

The actual futtock nadgering was in full cry by the time I ventured outside in a state of discombobulation after I gave a rendition of ‘Eskimo Nell’ in what I deemed to be a quintessential mellifluent tone.

Septic Jake, a retired spittoon engraver, clouted me on the snozzle and complained bitterly that the said rendition lacked empathy. I was lying down at the time and could only nod in acquiescence.

While the scrimmaging, involving the good burghers of the parish ran hither and thither searching for futtocks, I ran hither and thither and ran into Emily Freeaneasy wearing what looked like a strip of lagging from a discarded drain pipe. She looked like a public convenience at the best of times, this wasn’t one of them. I often wondered why father married her.

I gave her half a crown and she went off mumbling towards the beer tent. I headed for the stage where the Oil Drum Terrace Knee Tremblers were playing a selection of Brahms Variations and Fugues on Themes by a Mr Handel.

It was well received by the audience comprised mainly of The Countryside Guild of Village Idiots and Mavis Crabthrobber their devoted eighty five year old groupie.

Dear Mavis she had recently competed in the over eighties nude annual hedgehog squat championships in Lower Groping in Cornwall and come second to her mother-in-law, sprightly ninety eight year old Fifi la Bootstrap, a semi-retired lap dancer and leading role in various French postcards.

As afternoon gradually suffocated into evening Henry Slackbutt the Electric Druids bouzouki plucker and redundant rickshaw driver fell into a cauldron of simmering futtocks when attempting to dance the Darjeeling one-step with Yeti Puke, a trampolining acupuncturist with a declining cliental.

Fred Caughtshort, champion barbed wire hurdler until his tragic accident, attempted mouth to mouth resuscitation but was thwarted by thwart called Freddy Scrotum a wizened retainer and out of work lamplighter waiting for gas to make a comeback. What happened to Miss Puke isn’t worth mentioning.

The evening drew to close when Whispering Ermintrude, who normally earns a living perforating lavatory paper, gave us a veritable cornucopia of unmelodious songs for senile lovers.


The English Pub of my Youth

The Bull, the village pub was their meeting point. In those days back in the 1950s and early 60s, there were a number of bars in most pubs, developed from the feudal system of a single bar and adding bars as the social strata or class-consciousness of the population emerged. Opening and closing times were lawfully established during the 1st world war, due in no small measure by well-paid munitions workers, mainly women, popping out for a ‘quick one’, resulting in dud munitions for our brave boys at the front and a complete disregard for any ‘health and safety rules’, such as there were, in the factories.
So, here we are fifty or sixty years later in the British pub where smoking was obligatory and no piped music or television disturbed the hum of conversation mingled with bursts of laughter which caressed the jovial ambience.
My local, The Bull, a village hostelry, was a good example of thousands dotted around the country. A public bar for manual workers where beer was the mainstay, a lounge where both sexes mingled and included a carpet and chairs as well as posh drinks like rye and dry, gin and tonic and advocat. Crisps and peanuts were usually available. Tucked away near a lavatory with the occasional vase of faded chrysanthemums and faded photographs of Queen Victoria was the snug, a bar ostensibly frequented by very old ladies sometimes accompanied by very old men with very old comfy chairs and lots of port and lemons and sweet sherry. Then there was the ‘gentleman’s only’ bar. It was, in essence, a self-regulating gentleman’s drinking club dispensing beer and spirits, but no food of any kind not even a packet of crisps. Quite often the bar itself was administered by a barmaid. Usually, a lady of uncertain years with exquisitely coiffured and lacquered hair, face plastered with makeup, feisty when hassled and non-committal when not. Moderation of language was reflexive, social class was varied; bank managers, solicitors, members of the clergy and bookmakers mixed with farm hands, lathe operators and hospital porters. So long as one accepted the protocols and were something of a character, you were welcome.
During the week-day opening times, a self-disciplined overlapping rotation between the ‘early door’ drinkers was evident. At ten twenty-five in the morning, the ‘early door’ imbibers could be found shuffling around the pub’s threshold with fervent symptoms of dehydration until they heard ‘mine landlord’ throw the locks back on the door at ten thirty. Their lurch towards the bar turned into a fair imitation of the start of a horse race at the drop of the starter’s flag. Those desperate chaps, now assuaging their thirst in the in the ‘Gent’s Only,’ were followed half an hour later by a brigade of retired chaps with shopping bags half full of fresh fruit and vegetables on their daily need for ‘wife absenteeism’, a long-standing agreement that the husband would ‘pop out’ for a bit of shopping while his better half scrubbed the floors and suchlike. The ‘early door’ ensemble rarely stayed after one o’ clock. They were ostensibly, if not god-fearing men, wife fearing, and needed a tipple of ‘heart starters’ for medical reasons among others.
On a Sunday morning, when the licensing laws decreed pubs should open at noon and close at 2.pm, the vicar, after the morning service and delivering a mind numbing sermon, would pop his head into the melee and be given a half a pint of bitter, then vanish, the local bobby, in mufti, would have a pint and depart, usually to the public bar and have another. Wives were conspicuous by their absence on Sunday lunchtimes. Cooking duties prevailed.
Sunday evening opening hours twixt 7pm and 10.30 were times of reflection for most imbibers. The husbands having consumed six pints of ‘Banks bitter’ then vast quantities of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding followed by a siesta and an afternoon tea consisting of plates of jam sandwiches and current cake were ready for the evening session. This session had to be crammed into about 3 hours. The various bars, with their traditional social class distinctions prevailing as per mid-week sessions, although animated somewhat by instinctive indigestion reflex actions of a noisy and malodorous nature.
I learnt the gentle nuances of village social etiquette in the ‘Gent’s Only’. I learnt that unless you are a murderer or child molester your background doesn’t matter. I learned never to talk about politics or religion. I learned the signs of the imminent disgorgement of the six pints of Bank’s Bitter I had drunk with gay abandon on an empty tummy and the advantage of hiding behind an oak tree in the car park while performing the actual purging.

An Essay on Essay Preparation.

Upon formulating the necessary ingredients for an essay we should, before kickoff, satisfy the following criteria.
Firstly one must be sitting comfortably; I find a partially inflated car tyre inner tube to be ideal padding. Placed on the seat of my portable commode it gives one a feeling of aggrandisement plus, of course, alleviating of any possibility of exploding haemorrhoids taking one’s mind off the job in hand. It is said essayist Charles Lamb started the trend by sitting on a pig’s bladder, which assuaged the pain caused by an exquisitely painful carbuncle on the fundament. What it did for the pig isn’t recorded. This, in turn, led to a number of hostelries to be named after the renowned writer’s posture.
The visual aspect, the background and the lighting should be in absolute harmony. I sit next to a window overlooking a valley and just within sight of our own Pig and Bladder pub, which gives me the added incentive to finish the bloody essay before closing time. Pin-ups of Betty Grable, Winston Churchill and Mae West adorn the walls together with a photograph of mother-in-law, used as a dart board, with darts affixing scraps of paper as reminder notes to feed oneself and the dogs occasionally. Well-stocked shelves of supportive tinctures of an alcoholic nature and various versions of the hemp family are essential for boosting failing creative juices.
The need for absolute silence from any human sources around the home is crucial. I send the memsahib away for the duration to a home for the bewildered usually for a couple or so weeks, or until the need for washing dirty plates, cutlery, socks etc., mounts up to an insurmountable level and call her back for a couple of hours. Vomity Evans, a very friendly barmaid, will function in this capacity if the Memsahib desists.
This need for silence does not, of course, preclude the need for music. Samuel Johnson, before the invention of the gramophone, used to employ a bagpipe quartet to play popular tunes of the day in near proximity for inspiration. In this enlightened age, we have a massive choice. I personally employ Mr Johnston’s method, what was good enough for him etc etc.
The mode of dress, or undress, matters considerably. I believe Marcel Proust was wont to work completely naked, apart from a strategically placed pickelhaube. I prefer a silk smoking jacket, cravat, cavalry twills, plus fours, and deerstalker. Clothing gives one a feeling of poetic rhythm, or in my case warmth.
It is not a good idea to leave the workplace for food whilst engaged in composing. Leaving the room, even for a second or two, throws one’s concentration, disperses any ideas that are forming and leaves one open to abuse from spouses. So a couple of platefuls of fodder should also be at hand to ease any hunger pangs. Victor Hugo, who knew a thing or two about essays, was a trencherman of the first water, he had platefuls of frog’s legs and snails at his fingertips. While not advocating such delicious trifles, for me a dish of pickled beetroot and a slice or two of spotted dick pudding is adequate sufficiency.
At this stage of the proceedings, all the basic accoutrements for writing a rip-snorting essay are now within ones grasp. One can now vigorously attack the qwerty with the knowledge that once a subject is decided upon there is no excuse for lassitude. I find two or three games of solitaire and free cell are undertaken to free up the joints before embarking on the actual essay. What the essay is about now depends on one’s mood. If no preconceived ideas are held, I suggest a long stare out of the window. Ralph Waldo Emerson was known to stare out of the window for days at a time. What he was staring at is not recorded but rumour has it that his next door neighbour, a lady of ample proportions, was prone to sunbathe in her garden au naturel in all weathers, which may account for his habit. I stare at grazing sheep, a habit which has brought some comment from the village inhabitants and even a visit from the police but after explaining that I gained inspiration from their svelte locomotion, it seemed to satisfy their unwarranted assertions.
Pour yourself a heart starter and try to recall the ideas that flooded into your conscious last night just before Morpheus played his part. You promise to remember them, but can you, I’m buggered if I can. Try as you might the most wonderful scenarios you could possibly imagine refuse to surface. The promises to always take a notepad to bed every night in case of such eventualities never materialise. I took a biro to bed once and managed a few scribblings of magnificent concepts on the pillow, but woke up in the morning with a face resembling an over ripe aubergine and a scream from a hysterical memsahib. T. S. Eliot was lucky. He used to talk in his sleep and employed a shorthand typist to sit by his bedside and record every utterance. Apparently, she made a fortune in later years by publishing his other thoughts, those totally unconnected with essaying.
For the serious essayist, there are probably a number of thoughts nestling in the hard drive or flash stick. The trouble is in choosing one that suits one’s present state of mind or sobriety. The choice is sometimes taken out of your hands by a pre-ordained subject requisite. This can be tricky but the accomplished essayist can manoeuvre any subject, even those that bear no relation to the proposed subject to one of insurable interest so long as the subject is mentioned occasionally. George Orwell, for instance, wrote many an essay, one, his 1946 essay ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’ was adapted from a former essay entitled ‘A Horrid Cup of Coffee’ and ‘Riding Down from Bangor’, modified from another piece entitled ‘Cavorting with Dawn from Cardiff,’ and got away with it. With the expertise apparent in Literary Endeavourists, this should be a piece of cake, which is possibly a good title for an essay in itself.
Whatever title one decides on, there are one or two hints that may be considered before deciding. It is advisable for the title to have some connection with the content. Virginia Wolfe, for instance once submitted an essay entitled ‘What every woman really wants’. The content describes how to assemble flat-pack furniture; but that’s Virginia for you. Thomas Carlyle submitted an essay entitled ‘A Treatise on Quadratic Equations’ which had very little to do with the content by telling the reader, in graphic detail, the mating habits of wandering Bedouins. So be very careful; it is very easy to wander off into realms of fantasy. I have wandered off into paroxysms of psychotic hypnosis, usually after half a bottle of gin, on more than one occasion when an idea forms that has no relevance to the subject at hand, but the fingers twitch, the qwerty is fondled and before you know what has happened a thousand words appear on how to erect a chicken coop titled ‘The Life and Times of Thomas a Becket.’

So good luck my dear friends and pleasant qwerty stroking.

Four Old buggers in a Barge

Whilst philandering through Shakespeare’s wondrous countryside at less than walking pace, with the sun bursting through the harlequined willows with softly waving dappled applause. With the slap of water softly caressing the bows and the counterpoint chink and gurgle of glasses being refilled, we gently bounced off the canal banks towards, who knows where. We certainly didn’t. Every so often, a shout of encouragement from fellow bargees broke through the consciousness and met with a gentlemanly doff and although sometimes of a vitriolic nature, nothing broke our reverie, us four old buggers in a barge.
We were on a mission. The fact that after the first day we had all forgotten what the mission was, apart from the need to replenish ourselves with ale from canal side Inns, didn’t really matter. The locks presented no problem, we just waited until some young blades came along and for a glass of something or other did all the pushing and pulling paraphernalia for us four old buggers in a barge.
Eventually, after a few days, we found ourselves in Stratford, still wondering about the mission. Was it the scroll I asked myself, but the thought was dispelled after an evening of somewhat lively wassailing in the White Swan (Dirty Duck to the locals). It was here that we replenished our essential vittles and even bought a little food. The exit from the Stratford dockage was somewhat fraught. Although by ricocheting off various moored vessels, creating a few quite uncalled shouts of abuse and screams of pain, we eventually left that most venerated town, us four old buggers in a barge.
The return to our place of launching was a replica of the aforesaid up voyage. The Inns visited on the up voyage were pleased to see us on the downward and although much mirth was apparent, for our progress, or lack of it, had been noted by the canal folk, we all arrived safely, albeit somewhat in need of liver transplants. Us four old buggers in a barge.

The Lower Groping Shindig

2017 Lower Groping village Shindig. A festival of scribbling, music and poetry.
The Venue. Myfannway’s Barn. Back of the Pig & Bladder, Lower Groping.
Date to be announced.
Dress worn out Tweedyish
Opening time about 10.30 a.m.

LOWER GROPING, described in the Doomsday book in 1086 as a rural community of inebriates has largely maintained its reputation without recourse to sentiment or modern plumbing. Bounded on four sides by Upper Groping and Sideways Groping, the village has steadfastly maintained its own identity as a haven for literary dexterity, as the carved communications on walls and ceilings ably testify.

THE PIG & BLADDER was also mentioned as a ‘house of good repute’ with ill-reputed pursuances.

THE BARN although lying derelict since the ‘hundred year’s war’, was renovated substantially in 1943 by sex starved G.I’s and the ever willing Mavis Crabthrobber’s grannies. Both of ‘em.

Initially, the barnyard will welcome guests while a musical rendition of hip-hop Welsh military fugues played by the Prince of Wales’s Regiment, Foot and Mouth Division. Accompanied by Quivering Meg on the tuba and our old friends Henry the Bold and Dick the Outrageous on bongos. Dancing anything quicker than a slow waltz is not recommended as the cobbles are not exactly even. However ‘wellington boots’ will be provided (for a small charge) if the weather is inclement.

As they enter the barn guests shall be presented with a Welsh leek and pin at no extra cost. Points of interest, a colony of bats hanging from the eves and medieval sheep droppings etc., will be pointed out by usherettes Enid Pratnimble and Ethel Whimsy. Straw bales will be provided for your comfort as will Enid Pratnimble and Ethel Whimsy.

Five busty barmaids in traditional busty costumes will circulate throughout the opening, and indeed throughout the whole shebang, with foaming jugs of ‘old and filthy’ the traditional ale that became notable after King Canute imbibed four jugs full with great gusto before attempting to turn back the Atlantic ocean. For those of an abstemious nature in the alcohol department, another five equally encumbered village maids will circulate with Blodwyn’s euphoric effects sausages on sticks. Later they will circulate with munchies.

The Performers (so far)
PRATLOO At the start of their prestigious European tour this ensemble of chaps from America will perform their intoxicating syncopated rhythms.
SHARI JO LEKANE-YENTUMI. Our own Poet Laureate from America will give a rendition of her latest, and possibly her oldest rhymes. (Shari has hinted at the possibility of doing a ‘dance of the seven corsets’ whilst performing)
THE DUKE OF EDINBURGH. Now with time on his hands after princely duties, Frightening Phil, as he is known in avant-garde circles, has been an avid follower of hip-hop-jazz. He will regale us all with risqué sea shanties and even more risqué thoughts on virtually everything else.
THE ROLLING SCONES. Four throbbing lummoxes from the cake shop with noisome intent.

An update on various matters.
Good news on the line up. Harmony Nudging the author with ten best sellers still on the bookshelves is going to entertain us with tales of romance during a visit by Queen Victoria to a local coalmine hereabouts.
My design for a revolving stage powered, by a complex system of gears and suchlike, by the River Og as it flows aristocratically down the mountain sides in a series of gentle waterfalls, has been moderately successful. I had geared it for two revolutions per minute. However, owing to a near monsoon during the night the river swelled and cascaded down the valley in savage rage and tumultuous torment. This increased the revolutions of the stage to seventy five-eight per min. Unfortunately, Blodwyn Freeaneasy was rehearsing the Lower Groping Pink Floyd tribute band on stage in the early hours with the Bish of Bath sucking the trombone. The stage rotated faster, they apparently held on for dear life until jettisoned off in all directions like a rocket-salvo. Never mind, I shall install a clutch mechanism in the next few days.
Other artists booked so far include:
The Electric Druids, a bunch of chaps painted green with oak twigs adorning their instruments.
Two Gentlemen from Veronica, a play about two blokes and their mother, I suppose.
The massed bands of the Noise Abatement Society performing their top hit ‘Silent Night.’
The Memsahib’s treatise on the differing hypnotic effects of tree sap depending on type of tree.
Whispering Ermintrude with her songs for senile lovers.


No 5 Joining and Leaving

There are two particular agonies that occur in a Seafarers life and neither has anything to do with loss of life or shifting cargo. The first one is awful because it rips you away from the bosom of your family, or in a few cases your favourite barmaid. That phone call, or rather the torture of waiting for that phone call from the Shipping Company, which ends your leave and gives you joining instructions. You know it’s going to come, you know your days are numbered, but all the same the wait is agonising. Once it comes and you summon up the courage to pick up the receiver, the veil lifts a little, you start to tune in, you’re mind is already halfway there and you sometimes even begin to look forward to it.
The second agony is exquisite. You wake up in the morning, on board ship and know that today is the day you go home on leave. Or are supposed to, but as we know, getting home can sometimes be exhilarating or conversely horrendous, depending on your state of intoxication, as we shall see later.
Of course, the reverse is sometimes true. I have known men count down the days and hours to get away from the nagging wife, screaming kids, mortgages, gas bills etc and paradoxically go all maudlin when the time comes to step down the gangway for the last time, to go on leave, back to the nagging wife, screaming kids, mortgages, gas bills etc.
The journeys to and from the vessel are fraught with pitfalls. In the former case, it is highly likely that you will join up with a shipmate en route. This can lead to disastrous hazards, not unconnected with alcohol. A Captain I know spent four days travelling by train from his home in Cornwall to join a ship in London with a shipmate. Somehow they went via Liverpool, Leeds, Glasgow, back to Liverpool then Edinburgh and eventually caught up with the ship in Rotterdam.
Swivel, a second Engineer acquaintance, so called because he was very cross-eyed, once joined the wrong ship in Hamburg after a heavy night in the Red Light district. He didn’t realise it was the wrong ship for three weeks, and nobody told him because they couldn’t catch his eye.
This brings us to paying off. There you are, bags packed, signed off articles, waiting at the head of the gangway for your relief to show himself. You wait and wait, the ships about to sail and still no relief. The pilot is due on board, the engines are being tested, and the message comes through that the Company wishes you to stay on because your relief is being held in custody by the airport police, for making lewd advances to an Air-hostess.
It has been known, quite often, for the chap paying off, to enlighten his superior Officer with a few home truths about his table manners, personal hygiene, working methods or wife’s morals. This enlightenment is usually undertaken on the last night on board, during a last drink with the lads. I knew a Fourth Engineer once, so desperate to get off, after staggering into the Chief Engineer’s cabin at four in the morning and regaling his superior with a diatribe of such monumental invective, that he grabbed a passing docker and bribed him ten quid to impersonate his relief for half an hour while he made his escape.
Another indication of imminent leave is called the ‘Channels’ This peculiar phenomenon manifests itself in the inability to sleep when approaching your home port, which in British terms meant the English Channel. The sight of shipmates wandering around the vessel in a dream like state when they should be asleep, very often muttering can seem very bizarre to the uninitiated.
Wives are sometimes summoned to collect their respective spouses if the pay off port is the home country. This can lead to all sorts of complications. It may have sounded like a good idea when first proposed. Have a look at the ship, meet the other chaps, have an enjoyable drive back, stop off for a nice meal, bit of shopping, etc etc, but in reality to come on board and find your husband comatose after the previous night’s paying off party is not an auspicious start. It usually goes downhill from there. The wife finds herself also lumbered with a couple of other shipmates as well as their entire luggage who are also going on leave. The fact that their respective homes mean a detour of a couple of hundred miles doesn’t enter into it. It was a smashing thought cooked up the night before in a fit of euphoria. ‘Of course, the wife won’t mind, only too pleased.’ And it has the added bonus of being able to stop off at a number of watering holes en route and not have to worry about breathalysers.
A Chief Mate of my acquaintance, who lived in Ipswich, told me that he once had a lift home in a Third Engineers car driven by his wife, together with an effeminate Chief Steward from Birmingham, when the whole plan backfired. The Third’s wife turned out to be an absolute lush; she could down six pints before they’d knocked the froth off their first. The journey, a pub-crawl from Avonmouth, via Birmingham, to Ipswich, took two days and in the end, they got so mixed up, the Chief Steward was dropped off at the Mate’s front gate in Ipswich and the Mate ended up in the arms of the Chief Steward’s boyfriend in Birmingham.
Paying off in some foreign port with the added delight of having to spend the night in a hotel, because there isn’t a flight home until tomorrow, is full of pitfalls. The euphoria of leaving the vessel is enough, then add to it a large wad of money, blokes you know who are also in the same frame of mind and a recipe for some form of disaster is writ large in the annals of legendary sea lore.
We paid off in Singapore once and were booked into a hotel until flights home could be arranged, and as is the way of things the paying off party started on the ship and then progressed into the hotel bar, before even finding our rooms. Our Captain was the epitome of Captaincy in all respects and spent the whole time on the ship in a sober, responsible state of mind with no hint of a wayward demeanour. However, he entertained his relief, an old friend and colleague with conspicuous intemperance and arrived at the hotel in a state of some distress. The Chief Officer and Second Mate were half carrying the poor man and had the decency to take him as far as the lift in this multi-story hotel and deposit his luggage around him before the need for a quick drink overcame their sense of duty. They were knocking back their first Singapore Slings and had completely forgotten their erstwhile Captain as he soared upwards towards an unknown fate.
We all left the bar after an hour or two, with the intention of grabbing a couple of hour’s kip before getting ready for the evening’s delights. The lift was called and as the doors opened we were met by the sight of our dear Captain in a state of undress, with suitcase contents spread across the floor and in a high state of indignation.
‘Thank god you’ve come,’ he said, after focusing, ‘They’ve given me a bloody rabbit hutch of a room with no bloody bed, no bloody windows and what’s more, complete bloody strangers keep opening the bloody door and staring at me.’
And so we leave the ship, full of good intentions. The planned kitchen extension, drawn out meticulously on the chart table. The rockery with the water feature, a pump filched from the engine room store ready to fit, in the suitcase. The wallpapering, the new bathroom suite. Winning the lottery. The desperate search for a shore job…the list is endless.
The road to hell is paved with these intentions; none of them ever come to fruition. The weeks shoot by, the dreaded time approaches. Then Hell suddenly phones ‘Had a good leave,’ it says, ‘Please join the MV….’

No 4 Wives and Sweethearts

The wife’s perception of her seafaring husband can contrast totally with his shipmates’ view. The very nature of his calling is instrumental in fostering this concept. It’s an unnatural life in essence for a married family man, and a seaman’s wife has to be a very special person to accommodate the ‘on-off’ relationship required when her husband spends over half his married life away from home. The coming together of wives, husbands and the sea usually happens in the home port, when wives came to visit the ship for the duration of it’s time alongside. It is a time fraught with intrigue and subterfuge.

‘My husband has never touched a drop of alcohol in his life,’ I was once told by a very severe looking Second Engineers wife on one such visit, while she was waiting for her husband to meet her in the saloon.

I didn’t tell her that for the last fifteen years to my knowledge, her husband never touched anything else and at his very moment was sleeping last night’s debauchery away in the shaft tunnel. ‘My husband and I decided not to have children because of the nature of his work, and besides, he is not of a very passionate nature,’ is another favourite expounded by wives of a seemingly serious disposition.

Oh really… then why has he paying allotments to mothers of children in every port from Durban to Vancouver?

‘Of course, without my husband this ship would fall apart, the Company couldn’t do without him,’ said one wife, who was under the impression that her husband was the Chief Mate.

Is that right…Then why do we call him Steward while he makes our beds and serves at the table?

One Captain’s wife, on one surprise visit, was greatly surprised to find articles of women’s lingerie in her husbands’ wardrobe. Her husband, a gentleman rake of unparalleled magnitude was also a quick thinker. He needed to be.

‘I have to confess,’ he told her, ‘of a desire recently, to dress up in women’s clothing from time to time to relieve the stress of the job.’

His wife, a pillar of society in her hometown, a Lay Magistrate and all round ‘do-gooder’ believed him and took him away for a month’s golfing holiday in Scotland to relieve the symptoms!

There’s a well-known toast in the Merchant Navy, ‘Here’s to wives and Sweethearts…may they never meet.’

Except they do meet occasionally, and not only wives and sweethearts but wives and wives, and on occasion wives and boyfriends The boyfriends and boyfriends concept happens more times than I care to mention.

It is not uncommon for innocent junior officers having to pretend that the lady lying in his bunk is his girlfriend, put there quickly by his senior because his senior’s wife has arrived unexpectedly and he has had to think quickly.

On one ship I had the honour to serve on, the Chief Officer managed to keep a wife, two girlfriends and an irate husband apart for four days by living and sleeping in the chain locker, while the rest of us made excuses for his absence.

Talking about chain lockers, on another ship we were always surprised to see the girlfriend of the bosun seemingly be the first on board in every port we berthed in from Antwerp to Cape Town.

‘She must have some money,’ said the Captain one day at lunch. ‘All this travel must cost a packet.’

It only transpired long afterwards that she never left the ship. She was regally looked after by the bosun, living secretly in the forecastle. He and she paid off in Antwerp after four months and a good time was had by both!

Of course, wives are allowed on most occasions to join their husbands for a voyage or two. This in my experience is always a disaster. The sea seems to do something to a women’s libido. It may be the motion of the ship, it may be boredom, but it’s probably seeing her husband as he really is. Or rather seeing how his shipmates really are and coming quickly to the conclusion that’s how her husband must also behave when he’s out of her clutches.

Some wives leave the ship early because they’re fed up, some leave the ship because they’re seasick and some leave the ship with one of their husbands fellow shipmates.

One Second Engineer’s wife, in a ship I was serving on, conducted an onboard affair with the Chief Officer mainly in his cabin wardrobe because that’s where she seemed to spend most of her time while her husband scoured the ship for her. He found her in the end after a tip-off. She was stark naked, in his wardrobe, holding a large G and T and pretended to be sleep walking!

Then we have the bossy sort of wife who wants to organise the recreational habits of the crew. In essence, this means she wants control of the ship’s bar. This results in cabin drinking and invariably defeats her objective.

It has also been known for previous abstemious wives to become raging alcoholics within a very short space of time. A case of if you can’t beat ‘em…join them.   It’s a bit unnerving to find the fifteen stone wife of the Second Mate snoring her head off in your bunk when you come off watch.

‘Dear John’ letters from wives and girlfriends also cause amusement; mainly because they are expected and often even hoped for. They always start off in the same way; telling you about the weather, then about the chap they’ve met and how much you would get on if you ever met him. We used to pin them up on the ship’s notice board for all to read.

‘One a  third Engineer from Swansea, who spent a great amount of his time at sea, in order to avoid his scheming girlfriend, eventually received the customary ‘Dear John’. It was short and to the point and said ‘Dear John, couldn’t wait, married your father, love Mother.’

A Life Tramping No3


‘God made Deck Officers. It took an Act of Parliament to create Engineering Officers’ was, and is probably still, an oft-quoted phrase used by Merchant Marine Deck Officers worldwide.
My riposte to this perception, as an Engineering Officer was ‘It’s us that drive the ship chum, you just point it!’
The wise Captain always goes out of his way not to alienate the Chief Engineer, and it’s the wise Engineer that ensures that the Captain’s shower water is at least warm.
If they leave the sea before the liver rots, and the years allow a change of job, wise Captains become pilots or insurance salesmen and wise Chief Engineers become Marine Surveyors or plumbers. However, most Captains and Chief Engineers stay at sea until they retire and foster the ‘Oil and Water’ syndrome.
When a ship’s company are locked up in a steel box for months on end, personalities clash, it’s inevitable. And you would think the older, and more experienced the seafarer becomes, the more the understanding of human passions and their intrinsic bellicose qualities would grow. That time would mellow the older sea dog; he would grow older and wiser.
Not so! The longer the voyages and the older you get, the wider the gap between Deck and Engine room personnel. And it all starts from the top.
In twenty-five years of roving the seven seas, on anything from brand new eighty-five thousand tonne bulk carriers to six hundred tonne rust buckets, with the most wonderful characters of every nationality going, I know why. It’s Empire building. Let me explain. The older you get, the higher up the ladder you climb. Eventually, you end up as the Captain of your own vessel or conversely Chief Engineer and as time marches on you tend to stand still. You’ve reached your peak; there is no other summit to surmount.
After a couple of years at the top, the novelty starts to wear off and the rot sets in. And so does cirrhoses of the liver in many cases. Of course, you go through the motions. After all, you’re in charge, but the motions have had a long time to stereotype. You know it all, that’s why you’ve been given the job, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Time doesn’t stand still. In a fast changing world, new innovations in all aspects of shipboard life from navigation aids, to cargo handling; from computer designated maintenance scheduling to intricate engine management systems come thick and fast.
And always more blasted paperwork, more ISO rules, more Health and Safety regulations and new human resource procedures …the list is endless. Gradually your ways become obsolete, your junior officers know more than you do. The worm has turned; you become the person you swore you wouldn’t when you were climbing the ranks.
Now the defence mechanism kicks in. Blame the other bloke; it’s never your fault. After all, you’ve seen it all, done it all, your faculties have never been sharper…have they? It works both ways. The Captain blames the Chief Engineer and vice versa. And the sooner the respective departments know where the blame for the latest cock up lies the better. That is when you start Empire building.
This passing of the buck worms its way throughout the respective departments, it’s like a slow acting virus. The junior officers of both departments know their respective heads have lost the plot, but loyalty comes into play. That’s the Empire. This aspect then filters through both the Deck and Engineering branches until, in extreme cases, open hostility exists.
This hostility manifests itself in various forms. I have, as a Junior Engineer actually spent a whole night chaperoning a Chief Engineer around a port’s red light district while the Captain roamed the same port’s streets with a loaded revolver, looking for him. The cause of the argument is lost in the mists of time but had something to do with a bet involving a girl and a case of beer when they were both cadets together and always surfaced when a minor disagreement on board the ship blossomed into a manhunt. The next day they shrugged their differences off and carried on working together as they had for years. It was the most natural thing in the world.
While at sea the Officers saloon is a veritable hotbed of hostility if the two four ringers are at loggerheads. I watched with fascination one lunch time when in the middle of a verbal diatribe between the Captain and Chief Engineer, the latter rose to his feet to emphasise a point and shot his full set of dentures into the Captains soup. Without a pause, the Chief leant over and picked them out of the purple-faced Captain’s bowl with his fingers, plonked them back into his mouth and continued his tirade.
Another manifestation of hostilities between the two parties is silence. Nobody speaks. Notes are rather passed for the salt or pepper rather than actually have to converse with the ‘other side’. It’s the same with orders from or to the bridge; all done through third parties because the respective heads were not on speaking terms.
Then there are the petty retribution aspects. The Engineers have a powerful arsenal at their disposal. Turning off air conditioning, turning off heating, turning off sanitary water pumps or in extreme cases poisoning the drinking water: as it is well known that Engineers only drink beer and never wash.
The Deck department’s favourite method of being bloody minded is to bugger the Engineers about with ballast pumping. Especially pumping out tanks that are already as dry as a bone, but because they can’t be bothered to actually sound the tanks they leave the onus on the Engineer to squeeze the last drop of rusty water out and then get the poor bloody Engineer to sound the tanks for them. Another trick is to not signal ‘Finished with Engines’ when the vessel berths. The Engineers hang around the telegraph, cursing, but can’t move, and all the time the Deck Departments getting fixed up with taxis to go ashore. By the time the Engineers emerge they find an empty ship and no bloody taxis.
A very notable facet of this enmity between warring Captains and Chief Engineers is a very strong love/hate relationship. The two antagonists have usually sailed with each other for years and years. Neither of them would sail with anyone else. Very often they are respective Godfathers to each other’s children. Sometimes they are related through marriage. They go on leave together, they join the ship together and they grow old together. And they know each other better than their wives could possibly do. After all when you reckon it up they’ve spent most of their lives together.

A Life Tramping No 2

No 2 Soojin Stanley

Stanley (Soojin) Penberthy, from Cornwall, a lovely stout, ruddy-faced chap who would have been more at home as a Holiday Camp comic, had been elevated from cabin boy on board a fishing boat to Chief Engineer over a period of about half a century. During that time he had spent about thirty years as a ‘Professional Third.’
To be a ‘Professional Third’ is to join a venerable body of men who generally have no wish to climb the seniority ladder, that or any other type of ladder come to that. And, not just because of indifferent talents in the machinery domain.
Some of the ‘Professional Thirds’ I’ve sailed with have a profound and deep-rooted knowledge of their particular ship’s machinery and its idiosyncrasies, most of which they’ve had a hand in ‘modifying’, in order that nobody else knows for example, how a particular ‘ballast pump’ actually pumps, or how to start the main engine. This knowledge of how particular things work in the engine room is their closely guarded secret and keeps them in a job for many a year.
In others, what hampered or curtailed their advancement, if they wanted it, is any mechanical knowledge. What you might call as having a ‘mechanical bent’ was as alien to them as some Chief Officers I know chartering their way to the wheelhouse.
Stanley was one of the latter. He knew it, he didn’t care and he was one of the happiest men I’ve ever met. No matter that his ability to read and write was severely hampered by senile dementia setting in before he had mastered the alphabet, he got round that problem like he got round every problem, by laughing it off. He even had a nephew, Adrian working in the Company, but more of the famous Adrian later; he deserves a chapter on his own.
Stanley’s rise through the ranks involved a masterful stroke of good luck, which entailed him saving the life of the Company Chairman’s wife, who, after a party on board, had fallen into a harbour and was on the point of drowning when Stanley fished her out with a marlin spike. From that moment on his climb up the seniority ladder was assured. Whether he wanted to be called a Chief Engineer is neither here nor there. At heart, he was still a ‘Professional Third,
By the time I met him he was the Chief Engineer onboard the twenty-year-old ‘MV Winchesterbrook a three hatch general cargo vessel, of the magical 1598 GRT which classed it as a Coaster. The Middle or Home Trade Articles allowed a certain laxness in certification for the Officers and Dispensations were the order of the day.
The ship itself was of undoubted inherent robustness, it had to be, what with all the weird and wonderful repairs and maintenance that the vessel endured, during the last ten years under Stanley and Co.
I joined the vessel in Newhaven, as a third trip Third Engineer after two trips as an Extra Fifth Engineer ‘Deep Sea’ with grand ideas of the sanctity of rank, the invulnerability of status and a certain mode of dress code.
I donned a white boiler suit and found my way down to the Engine Room. Sitting on a toolbox was a portly fellow, red of face and a thin circle of red hair circumnavigating his ears. He was dressed in a pair of long johns and string vest. In his hand I noticed a paintbrush. On the engine room plates was a tin of black enamel paint. He was painting his shoes.
‘Morning,’ I said, ‘I’m looking for the Chief Engineer.’
‘Hell,’ he exclaimed, looking me up and down. ‘I weren’t ‘specting a Surveyor.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m the new Third Engineer.’
‘Hell,’ he said again, ‘you gave me quite a turn there my flower…can you write?’
‘…er yes.’
‘Proper job,’ he said picking up where he had left off, painting what I could now see as his working shoes. ‘I be goin’ ashore when I finished ‘em’,’ he continued.
‘It might seem an odd question,’ I asked, ‘but why do they need painting?’
He gave me a quizzical look as though I was half demented and said, ‘You never ‘eard of painted black leather shoes my flower.’
The question hung in the air for what seemed an eternity, and then I finally twigged, Patent…he means patent leather. Luckily I had enough gumption not to pursue the matter, which was just as well, as this was the Chief Engineer.
Later, I was sitting down in my cabin, wondering what I’d let myself in for when Stanley arrived with half a dozen beers and told me.
‘Now my flower,’ he said, ‘you said you can write?’
‘I can,’ I told him.
‘I don’t like this ‘ere writin’ caper, there’s too much. What I like doin’ best is soojin’.
‘Washing?’ I said.
‘Soojin’…aye… washin’.’ A far away look came into his eyes, ‘Nothin’ better than clean engine room plates and clean engines and all that other machinery stuff down below.’
After a few beers Stanley, or Soojin, as I found out he was universally known, came to the point. In short, if I did all his paperwork he would do all the soojin. The fact that the ship possessed a Donkeyman who usually did the ‘soojin’ had nothing to do with it; he was relegated to pure mechanical work.
The Second Engineer was an Irish lad, who although of a mild disposition was well past retirement age but possessed a Second Engineers Ticket which covered the Department of Trade’s requirements for this class of vessel to sail Middle Trade. He was extremely arthritic and hardly ever got as far as the Engine Room. When he did, it needed all our combined efforts to help him up back to his cabin again.
He was, however, invaluable with advice, which he gave out from his bunk, regarding the attributes of the various pubs and bars that we would encounter in our next port of call. More often than not he would be the first down the gangway and into the said pubs and bars when the ship tied up, having had a miraculous cure for his poor old joints answered by divine intervention after praying to some obscure Saint.
The next three months went by very amicably. Soojin found all the engine room logs and abstracts neatly written on his desk every week. I found a case of beer in my cabin, courtesy of Soojin every Friday, and the Donkeyman did all the maintenance.
Soojin never seemed to go on leave. This was the time of ‘A’ Articles, when leave could be cashed in or accumulated. The Owners didn’t seem to mind, and neither apparently did Mrs Soojin. The ship ran around the British Isles and near Continent and occasionally ventured as far as the Baltic and the Mediterranean, she had the cleanest engine room in any Coaster in the British Merchant Navy.
Of course, there were moments of anxiety. Some Deck Officers, especially those from ‘Deep Sea’ origins couldn’t quite grasp the working methods of the Engine Room and often made disparaging remarks, especially at meal times. Soojin usually disarmed them with incomprehensible Cornish logic which included calling everybody ‘my flower’.
Soojin eventually went ashore, when new regulations came in, he was well past retirement age. He had saved enough money to buy a small guesthouse in Penzance, it’s called…well guess.

A life Tramping

Cavorting across the seven seas in various states of delicacy for twenty-five odd years has prompted me, twenty- odd years later, to ask why?
Well, it was the glamour. The glamour of the South China Sea that got to me, listening to an old sea dog I knew, telling yarns of the South China bloody Sea and the jolly good time he had there. He was the cellarman at my local pub the Mead House in Penzance, an old priory. Listening with awe, whilst sitting on an upturned barrel sipping half pint glasses of highly intoxicating mead, to tales of gun running, opium dealing, white slave trading and other ebullient traits. There I sat, surrounded by hundreds of cobwebs in a dimly lit Cornish cellar as shadows of god knows what flickered across ancient granite walls There I sat entranced perceiving oriental brigands, lascivious Suzie Wongs. It fair took a young lad’s fancy.
And tramp I did. Sailing from port to port, picking up cargoes in old rust buckets of dubious stability crewed by shipmates of dubious sanity. Put the elements together and a swashbuckling life of heigh-ho on the ocean waves seems writ large.
The owners of these tramps were usually dubious as well. Sometimes they were the captains of the vessel, sometimes shadowy figures living in the back streets of cities dotted across the world dealing in cargoes that sometimes varied widely with those entered in the ship’s manifest. Just tramping round the world, taking your time, ensconced with a sociable set of like-minded blokes was a nice way to spend half your life. Not for us the hectic schedules of Container ships, nor the ‘Tanker Twitch’ which is a universal symptom of all Tanker and Gas Carrier crews worldwide. No rush, no hectic schedules, no irate agents or Charter Companies screaming and certainly no wives.
Herewith then a series of tales. most of which you won’t believe unless you’ve tramped yourself. Then you will nod your head knowingly and say,’that reminds me.’

Something like this…
‘I think we’ll go the nice way round,’ said Farmer John, through a hole in his froth covered beard. John wasn’t a farmer, although his rotund figure and very red face coupled with a natural affability made him a dead cert for one. He was a gourmet as well as the Captain, and the nice way round was, on this voyage, his idea of a ‘Grand Tour’ of bars and restaurants stretching from the north coast of Spain through the Straights of Gibraltar and all points east until we reached our destination which happened this time to be Cyprus.
The ship’s officers happened to be sitting in a pub, two hours after closing time in Hull, an exotic port shoved right up the Humber. The crew, Cape Verdi Islanders, were dotted around the town battened down with various girls of dubious virtue. It was pouring down outside and very dark. We looked out of the window and could see the ship with gangway half askew as the vessel rose with the tide and through Farmer John’s beard a blast of beer-laden fumes erupted, which just about summed up all our feelings.
We had been waiting for five hours for the pilot to board the ship, a rather nice and comfortable 1,500 tonner carrying general cargo vessel christened ‘M.V.George Armfield’. Who or what ‘George Armfield’ remained a mystery. Although rumour had it, he was little-known Goalkeeper who once let in nine goals whilst playing for Norwich against Wolves. Anyway, we would be summoned by a blast on the ship’s whistle, when the pilot arrived, blown by the only man left on the board, the Donkeyman a seventy-five-year-old Cardiff Arab who was too infirm to negotiate the gang- way.
I think it was at this point in the proceedings that a course of action was devised, we always prepared a plan for such eventualities, an act of retribution against the miserable weather. We ordered another round and discussed the ports of call. It seemed to be a good idea, this time, to get across the Bay of Biscay first, and then by chance, have a number of surreptitious machinery failures very near various ports with a tradition of gastronomic excellence on passage to our discharge port in Cyprus.
I was Second Engineer on this voyage and to go the nice way round seemed like a very good idea after eight pints of ale. The Mate thought so as well as he indicated by kicking the Second mate, who had slid underneath the table three hours earlier, and told him to get various charts out, in readiness for the gastronomic dawdle through the Mediterranean.
The third Engineer, Denzil, a lad from Camborn was not widely travelled. His experience of shipping was confined to the King Harry Ferry in Falmouth; a backwards and forward trip of a hundred yards. In fact, he’d never been further than Plymouth in his life until today when he joined the ship. His only work so far was to get the beer in.
A knock at the back door drew our attention. It was the pilot. He said he was unable to get on board as the gangway was now ten feet off the jetty as the tide had come in and nobody had lowered it. He was invited to join us for a quick one and of course, he agreed. Eventually, we stumbled back to the ship and after one or two fractious moments with errant crew trying to smuggle ladies of the night on board we managed to detach ourselves from the quay and set sail. After dropping the pilot off in the estuary and headed down the English channel towards Ushant and thence the Bay of Biscay.
Three days out the Chief Engineer, a grizzled individual who was on his fifteenth Discharge Book and made a point of finding the engine room at least once a trip made his first appearance, we knew he was on board, we could hear him snoring. He sat down at the breakfast table in a three-piece suit and said he was going ashore for a haircut. (This is the seaman’s equivalent of telling your wife you are taking the dog for a walk) It was gently pointed out that he would get rather wet as we were half way through the Bay of Biscay. He glanced out of the porthole, grunted and went back to his cabin.
Santander was the first port of call where we had to call in and pretend to repair a shaft bearing that was running hot. There we feasted on particularly good oysters’ sautéed in Cointreau. Next port of call was Gibraltar, where we took on fuel and the Mate took on rather a lot of his own.
Sardinia was rather a letdown, we stopped there for a dodgy fuel pump but the prawns in margarita had an adverse affect on the digestive system. Sicily was memorable for crayfish marinated in calvados. We had to stop there for imagined urgent repairs to the gearbox. Malta where we needed repairs to an oil cooler, was memorable because the Chief Engineer appeared again in his paying off suit and announced, that he was going to visit ‘The Gut’ as he, ‘Had many old friends there from his war years’. We saw him three days later while we were dining in a rather nice restaurant on scallops in a very good aquavit source; the Chief Engineer was being escorted by the police back to the ship at the time.
We had a fanciful problem with the shaft generator next, just off Crete, and called in for a delicious meal of lobster flavoured with an exquisite retsina dressing. Denzil, the Third Engineer excelled himself on this occasion by ordering a Cornish pasty and getting rather huffy when he was shown the door.
Finally, we headed for Cyprus. We missed it, and stopped a fishing boat to ask the way. The Boat’s Skipper informed us it was two days back the way we had come, but not before we exchanged three bottles of Johnny Walker for a rather nice basket of prawns which the fishing boat skipper cooked for us while we exchanged pleasantries. They went down very well with a Riesling we had picked up on a similar voyage a few months before.
Eventually, a couple or so days later, we arrived at our port of discharge and while lying alongside the berth, we settled ourselves in a seafood restaurant, with a lovely view of the port ‘I think, as we’re loading in Palermo for Antwerp,’ said Farmer John, over a plate of squid in brandy; we’ll go back via……