Book Review by Chris Hopkins.
Anthony Thorne was a novelist before the war with two successful novels to his name: Delay in the Sun, 1935, and Fruit in Season, 1938 (both re-published by Penguin). After joining the wartime navy, he was selected as a ‘C.W.’ – a ‘Commissioned Warrant’ – a status given to an Ordinary Seaman who was thought to have officer potential, but who had to serve at least three months at sea ‘below decks’ before taking up their officer- training place at a shore establishment, if recommended by the ship’s commanding officer (see Brian Lavery’s Hostilities Only: Training the Wartime Royal Navy, Conway Maritime Books, London, 2004, chapters 13 and 14 for an account of the scheme). This could be a strange experience because CWs had to fit in temporarily at least as ‘ordinary seamen’, while knowing they had provisionally been singled out to be officers. Anthony Thorne’s novel is very much about this experience. He is sent to an AMC (Armed Merchant Cruiser – a passenger-liner lightly armed and transferred into Royal Navy service), which for much of the novel acts as a convoy escort, but is also used as a troop-ship to deliver ‘pongos’ (Navy slang for soldiers) to overseas theatres.
At the beginning, the nameless narrator (soon individualised by the mess as ‘Thorney’) is clearly entering a world which is new and strange to him, and there are early hints that his strong interest in the relationships of individuals and groups springs from his sense that he has a concealed difference: ‘Now I must speak to them, and I expect I shall be awkward and jaunty because I don’t wish to betray myself’ (p.1). The 1945 paperback continental edition published by Zephyr Books (‘not to be introduced into the British Empire or USA’) gave the game away on the dust-wrapper front flap: ‘the author is an ordinary seaman in for a commission’, but the original Heinemann edition did not explicitly name ‘Thorney’s’ in-between status until page 185 (in a 188 page novel). Nevertheless, there are many earlier clues to a difference in status. Thorney’s early faith in his mess-mates is buoyed up by the fact that they deliberately don’t make any fuss about his possible differences. He is grateful that the mess-leader Stripey (a nick-name derived from his long service or, more properly, good conduct, stripes) is from the beginning ‘conventionally hostile’ (p.2) and that helps – the narrator thinks: ‘Now be careful, Stripey. Favour me in nothing, or you will add to the barriers that I have to pass’ (p.3). Eating some dubious left-overs, Thorney feels that he is being accepted as ‘a newcomer to the mess who doesn’t care what he shoves down his throat, though he has a blasted college voice and hands that aren’t yet a sailor’s’ (p. 3).
However, everyday life throws up many challenges: Thorney is puzzled by a word he doesn’t recognise when soon after his arrival there is a ‘crisis’ as Stripey demands that he contribute his ‘noods’. Thorney then realises that each new seaman joining is meant to add to the display of ‘pictures of naked or semi-naked women’ on the mess walls and ceiling (p.17). Luckily, ‘culture’ comes to his rescue, when he remembers that he has an Arts magazine containing two photographs or ‘Artistic studies’; nevertheless, he fears that ‘my noods have let me down badly. They have something which I am afraid will be mistaken for Class’ (p.18). Eventually, his mess-mates ask him the question which he has ‘so often dreaded’:
‘What did you do in Civvy Street, Thorney? What were you before you joined the bloody navy?’.
Olsen is staring at me. Stripey looks up. Whiskers leans over the table to hear. Knocker and Bungy pause with wet plates in their hands. Whacker Payne opens an eye…
‘I was a writer’.
And then, realising that for sailors a ‘writer’ is a clerk, or an accountant, I add, for I don’t want to tell these men anything but the truth:
‘A writer of stories.’
There is a startled pause. Nothing hostile about it: they are just working that out. You buy stories at a shop: they come from a firm. It’s difficult to think of somebody sitting down to write them …
‘What kind of stories, Thorney? Crime or Spicy?’
Well, Crime or Spicy, take your choice. There’s evidently no alternative. (pp.45-6).
Here Thorney is the unwilling centre of attention. He is anxious that the men will not understand his answer, correctly, in that for them the idea of authorship as a job is unfamiliar, but once they have absorbed this novelty, they are able to fit him quite readily into a familiar genre schema – he must write one of the two fiction genres they know – thriller or risqué. Class-difference is thus negotiated, and the scene ends with renewed solidarity as the sailor Whiskers offers to lend Thorney his current risqué book: Fig Leaves Forbidden. This title (I take it to be invented) perhaps also reinforces the idea that among true comrades there should be nothing hidden – a theme already invoked by Thorney when he thinks that he must tell these men only the truth, even when it draws attention to his differences.
There is a good deal of reference to reading to pass the time, but there is also a running gag about Thorney being more prone to reading than others. Whiskers notes that Thorney ‘is terrible with books’ (p.45), and he is indeed trying to read Conrad’s Typhoon (1902), but ‘for some reason’ (p.13) has not yet found the peace to do so. Thorney’s ease with literacy makes him both useful and an outsider. He becomes a scribe:
I am a professional letter-writer… Hell’s bells, why on earth didn’t I tell them that in private life I was an acrobat? … Knocker White is breathing down the back of my neck, a photograph in his hand. Whiskers edges towards me with a writing pad… (pp. 64, 66).
He cannot help but notice that from his perspective the written language of the sailors has its limitations – Nobby Clark is stuck with a letter he is writing to his wife and after three lines can only think of concluding, ‘I wish you was here’. Since the ship is at sea on active service, Thorney quite reasonably queries this, ‘But you don’t do you? You wish you were there’ (p.65). Nobby says, ‘Now you’ve messed me up proper’ and Thorney has to help further with a now co-produced letter:
We start to catalogue the charms of Gladys Clark … and using I’m afraid a number of horrid clichés: but these I think she will forgive, may even like them and out of it all some sort of feeling does emerge (p.66).
Clearly, there are comic possibilities here, drawing on age-old literary assumptions about a hierarchy of articulacy in the alleged language competence of different classes. This seems potentially at odds with the admiration Thorney expresses for the ratings and his urge to gain full membership of the group, though perhaps this is best thought of as a pastoral effect – they are simpler but nobler than the more sophisticated man who observes them. Equally, Thorney does apply the scrutiny afforded by his middling position to the officer-class which he is destined to join. Bungy Williams wonders whether the officers really enjoy their shore leave. Thorney thinks their ‘pleasures are organised and follow an easy, well-known pattern’ and his imagination of their composite conversations ashore suggests that he is just as critical of officer-class inarticulacy and cliché:
‘Your war going well?’
‘How are things back at home?’
‘What about a game of golf this afternoon?’
‘Make a fourth at bridge?’
Do you know Rodney?’
‘Have you met Blake?’ (p.83)
The last two questions are, of course, naval jokes since the names could be first names or surnames, but are also the names of distinguished eighteenth-century and seventeenth-century Admirals, and of past and contemporary capital ships.
Thorney is very aware of the danger of his sense of solidarity being seen as sentimental rather than real; in a letter to his wife he does describe sailors as sentimental, but then thinks that ‘he should have qualified it’ (p. 173). After a long period of slow convoy escort duty, the much praised comradeship of the mess deteriorates, so that admiration and realism are both in play: ‘It’s just as well that we have not far to go. Another week and there’d be murder on the mess deck. The surrounding tables have already sent several casualties to sick bay’. (p.176) Even his particular mate, Knocker, falls out with Thorney and for the first time his long unmentioned CW status is held against him:
He thinks me aloof, bored, superior… ‘Never mind Thorney, not much longer to go before you’re an officer… in a few months’ time you’ll have more gold braid than that. And nice sheets to sleep in. And lovely grub. As for us, we’ll get no promotion this side of the [ocean] (p.178).
Thorney is hurt because there is some truth in the facts of the accusation, but disgusted because it is underhand, a breaking of the voluntary social contract he has especially valued:
His tactics sicken me. He is constantly reminding me of something that I’m trying to forget – that in a little while I shall sell them all for a mess of pottage with a little chopped parsley on the top of it. (p.178)
Nevertheless, the final part of the novel returns to the initial sense that the lower deck is a uniquely sociable society, and a possible model for other societies. Thorney knows that his lower deck experience is to come to an end and feels it intensely: ‘there is nothing like them I have ever known or am ever going to experience again …something has happened inside me and I feel a love of them and cannot speak’ (p.183-4). Thorney believes that he at least has learnt some powerful lessons from his experience. An officer talks to Thorney about what he might have learnt as a CW:
His voice is charming. But it is a voice that I know, and it does not reach the inside of my head. I am still listening, I suppose, to the Welshman, the Cockney, the Yorkshireman. These are the voices that I hear most … I am an Ordinary Seaman. I have a broom in one hand and a sponge in the other, orb and sceptre of lowliness (pp.42-3).
Thorney has, for the moment, gone over to the lower deck, and regards himself as having learnt something of great social value. I enjoyed this novel (or novel/documentary?) a great deal. It gives much less of a view from the bridge than Nicholas Monsaratt’s later The Cruel Sea (1951), and is more like J.P.W. Mallalieu’s Very Ordinary Seaman (1944), which also centres on a CW, and which I can also recommend. Like C.S Forester’s The Ship (1943, reviewed by George), both these naval novels made a contribution to ‘the People’s War’, by negotiating, up to a point, male class-differences.