“And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,”
From Sea Fever by John Masefield
There is a romance to the age of the tall ships, a time of courage and skill, with the excitement of exploration and discovery. Peril, whether from privation, the sea itself, or pirates, was never far away.
I had the good fortune to work with the Royal Navy for a year, at Her Majesty’s Naval Base in Portsmouth. I even got to sail on a destroyer from Gibraltar and across the Bay of Biscay. Every morning and lunchtime, I would walk by HMS Warrior and HMS Victory. We held a reception for the project on HMS Warrior, and took the tourist tour of Nelson’s flagship.
The ships have changed, but it seemed to me the navy had not. The sense of duty, the pride in their service, and the sheer weight of tradition was everywhere. There were obvious signs: a saddle of beef being piped into the officer’s mess on Trafalgar night, not standing to toast the monarch (by the way that is still a thing, at formal dinners at university we would always stand and toast the Queen).
But more than that, there was an air about the place, a sense of what it meant to be in the navy. There was a reverence for steely-eyed captains charting their course across grey seas under leaden skies, and ribald tales of shore leave in the flesh pots of the East. They are fiercely proud of being now, and always in their history, a meritocracy.
I remember the return to Portsmouth aboard HMS Nottingham. Instead of easing in gently, the captain put on a show, steaming to the dock then throwing the engines into reverse, as close to a hand brake turn as several hundred tons of steel on water could manage. He was wearing a santa hat and guiding the ship in himself. I heard, very clearly, a bluff old senior officer say “Well done, Nottingham.” The praise was for the ship, and the crew, but especially the captain, who was and is, the ship.
There is no sailing in Like Clockwork; I have not researched that well enough, and I am too much a fan of Hornblower and CS Forester to attempt it without plenty of preparation. But I hope some of that sense of the character and romance of the navy comes out in the story. And if one of the characters turns out to be fallible, I think that fits as well. At that Trafalgar night dinner, there was a speech, probably the same one that is given every year, which acknowledged Nelson’s heroism and acumen but also his shortcomings in matters of the heart. They know their hero had feet of clay, and for a writer, those are the best kind.
Ali Abbas is a writer, photographer, and carpenter from London. He has travelled widley but still lives in the suburb where he was born. It’s hard to explain what he does for a living, the common term is Policy Wonk.
His love letter to London, “An Absolute Amount of Sadness, has been published by Mad Scientist Journal in its Fitting In anthology.
Photo Credit “Battle of New Hearthglen Harbor” by Skaxis