3 May 2009


The R.M.V. Scillionian

As a landlubbing schoolboy, my first ocean trip was an occasion of interest and excitement. We were going on holiday to the Isles of Scilly, and the usual way to get there was on the R.M.V. Scillonian, a flat-bottomed steamer. She had to be flat-bottomed because of the shallowness of her berth at the main island, St Mary's.

We departed from Penzance at mid-morning. The month was August and the day sunny and warm, though a stiff south-westerly was blowing. I noticed that the stern was attended by an unusually large and eager crowd of gulls and, because of my interest in bird-watching, I left my family to their own devices and went to the rear of the vessel.

We had only just got under way. The crew were busy with this and that, and not wishing to impede anyone I found myself a vacant spot near the rail before pulling out my binoculars. Behind me, set into the deck, I had noticed and then given no further thought to a curious metal construction, a sort of square funnel about three and a half feet high, furnished with an overhanging pipe – a bit like a drinking fountain. Partly surrounding it was a tangle of steel cabling.

As we emerged from the lee and into deeper water, the number of gulls increased yet more, just as if they had been loitering all over the district, waiting for the ship to leave. Herring and great black-backed gulls predominated. Squawking, yelping or silent, they were fascinated by the broad, white, bubbling wake: and as we got yet further out and I realized we were at last on the open Atlantic, they were joined by gannets and fulmars. This was going to be good!

The breeze had strengthened and there was a little spray, but not enough to cloud my lenses. What did make observation difficult was the growing swell. As I say, I had never been on a proper ship before and the sensation was new. ... All the way up ... all the way down ... all the way up ... all the way down ... all the way up ... Faithfully transmitted by the flat-bottomed hull, the regularity and amplitude were fascinating, caused as they were by moon-drawn combers which might have started in the tropics. A Manx shearwater appeared, and then two more. I took out my notebook.

Most of the passengers were on deck; some, like my family, had taken cabins and gone below. In breaks from my gazing, I noticed that not a few of the passengers were looking increasingly unwell. Then a man bent himself over the handrail and vomited.

He had apparently committed some sort of solecism, because he was immediately approached by a crewman who gave him a plastic washing-up bowl from a short stack he was carrying in his left hand. The crewman, aged about thirty and shabbily attired, proceeded to hand bowls to anyone who wanted one, and when he had exhausted his stack he went and got some more.

This poor wretch had the worst job in Cornwall, or England, or Britain, Europe even, or the world: when the bowls had been filled he had to carry them, two at a time, to the metal funnel and empty them. At the very first emptying the birds became even more animated. The overhanging pipe was by now pouring a stream of seawater into the funnel, flushing the contents down and, as I now realized, out, via a hatch a few feet above sea-level.

The previous night we had been lucky, and prosperous, enough to stay at the Abbey, one of the best hotels, if not the best, in Penzance. Our breakfast had been sensible and delicious. At other hotels and guest-houses in the town this may not have been the case. There, perhaps, the ritual of the Full English Breakfast had been observed.

The ritual unfurls as follows. Having entered the dining room, the communicant is greeted by any others who may be present with the phrase "good morning", repeated as necessary until he has gained his numbered table and his seat. Next he, or others, will say "looks like rain", "turned out nice again", or "bit of a breeze today", whereupon the room will lapse into silence, broken by low, half embarrassed murmurings from those tables holding more than one communicant.

Now enters the celebrant, in the form of the landlady or her husband, who makes enquiries of the newly arrived concerning their requirements as far as breakfast is concerned. Details vary, but the usual menu is this: orange or grapefruit juice (tinned) to start, cereal with milk and sugar, a cooked breakfast and, to finish, cold and soggy toast cut into triangles to be eaten with a scraping of butter and a ditto of largely rindless marmalade parsimoniously mined from a thimble-sized canister. To help all this down, working just like our seawater pipe, is a pot of strong tea served with milk and sugar, to taste.

The cooked breakfast is worthy of note. It comprises one fried egg, two or three rashers of greasy bacon, half a grilled tomato, a sausage. In the more depraved houses of worship there may also be half a slice of fried bread and even, speak it softly, a serving-spoonful of baked beans.

The whole meal then sits on the stomach while the gastric juices, never ones to shirk a challenge, go into a huddle and confer. The breakfast, meanwhile, becomes increasingly alarmed. Why is it so dark? What is that horrid smell? What does my future hold? Oh, if only I could regain my freedom and the light!

Normally, as you know, its fate is sealed. But today, inside those passengers who had accepted bowls, sundry breakfasts were sensing the possibility of hope, even salvation. With his nereids and his foamy train, hoary Neptune was coming to their rescue.

But you should never trust a Greek god. They are a bad-tempered, treacherous lot, and Poseidon – to the Romans, Neptune – is no different. He was going to set the breakfasts free, right enough, but only because he wanted them for his familiars, the birds.

It was the sausages they especially prized. Not that the rest of it was rejected, this revolting chum being tipped time after time into the funnel by my grumpy companion, working as he was in a Force Six south-westerly while contending with a tangle of cables that seemed intent on tripping him up.

I was far enough away that I saw no reason to move. I felt not the slightest qualm, and to my pleasure realized that I had been born with an immunity to seasickness. I was thirteen, in the A-stream, and brimming with the omnipotence of youth.

It is now necessary to move the narrative on. I am one quarter Irish, which explains this annoyingly polysyllabic loquacity as well as the discovery, when I finally visited the Auld Sod, that I adore the place. Rain-sodden and corrupt it may be, small, infested with priests, its politicians mealy-mouthed and loathsome, but there is something about Ireland and its people to which I respond at an atavistic level. I ascribe this to genetics. Despite my pathological Englishness, when I first saw the green patchwork of Erin from an airliner's seat, I thought "home".

Anyhow, in my twenties I conceived the idea of living there. I thought it a good plan to buy a fishing boat and take anglers out for day-trips. I wanted particularly to live at Kinsale.

I knew nothing whatever about sea-angling or boats, and not much more about Kinsale, which I had visited only once. Its location is picturesque, on the southern coast, with a superb natural harbour whose environs are largely green. The town with its Georgian architecture is a delight. I saw myself in a pepper-and-salt turtleneck sweater, drinking Guinness in one of its many bars, exchanging the craic, then going home to the lovely, red-haired, milky-skinned colleen whom I should have undoubtedly met and married. I gave less thought to the babbies that might have ensued, or to the day-to-day business of earning a living. Once I had the boat, everything else would drop into place.

I am not quite the dreamer you might suppose: I was not going into this venture alone. No. I had a prospective partner, a very good friend, who was just as interested in this nonsense as I was. He would put up half the cost of the boat – or be liable for half the loan, more like – and would take it in turns with me to stand at the wheel.

Before making a detailed business plan, a spot of due diligence is useful. We decided that one of us should reconnoitre.

From Heathrow I flew to Cork. I got into an elderly Mercedes taxi driven by a large and helpful middle-aged woman. We set out for Kinsale. I asked her advice about accommodation and learned that little was to be had, despite the fact that we were well before the holiday season and I had been expecting vacancies. There was a Hollywood fillum being shot on location around Kinsale, and the fillum people had filled up the hotels. But she did know of a guest-house where I might find a bed.

I have stayed in much worse, and the landlady was kind. In the evening I decided to go for a drink at the main hotel and there, sure enough, in the large and mirror-lined bar, were the fillum people, standing around with wine-glasses, the actors – some of whom I recognized – now and then taking surreptitious and satisfied glances at their own reflections.

I slept reasonably well and in the morning was served not with a full English, but a full Irish breakfast. The Irish certainly know how to stuff themselves. The homegrown produce is first rate and I couldn't resist any of it. The packed lunch looked just as tempting. In plenty of good time, I set out for the quay and secured the place I had booked on the N., which turned out to be a somewhat decrepit craft twenty-five or thirty feet long. I was issued with my sea-angling rod. One by one the other tourists arrived – notably a corpulent German in one of those black plastic trawlermen's coats – until there were seven of us all told, including the skipper.

Assisted by his boy, who remained ashore, he cast off and we chugged out into the harbour. The sky was overcast and a sort of resentful, oily film covered the water. It began faintly to drizzle. Just as with the Scillonian, when we emerged from the shelter of the headland, the swell started to grow.

Our quarry was the mackerel. The skipper knew just the place. He stopped the boat, parked it, or whatever the term is, and may have let down a sheet anchor, if I remember aright, or even knew what one was. At any rate we were in one spot. Unexpectedly he did not switch off the diesel engine. He left it ticking over, perhaps because it was a bugger to start and he did not fancy being lost at sea. The craft, as I have said, was somewhat decrepit and I could smell fumes.

We tourists got on with our fishing. My line disappeared into the greenly translucent swell and I had nary a bite. I found myself feeling not exactly OK. Queasy is the word. Meanwhile the others were regularly hauling mackerel on board. It seemed to me pointless and disgusting, not to say cruel, to kill these beautiful animals for such little reason. If they were to be eaten, that would have been another matter: but this was so stupid. I was especially appalled by the German, who seemed to have a knack for this, and at intervals swigged milk from a pint bottle. He said nothing except "ja" or "nein", although later he may have said "Gott in Himmel!"

Look here, there's no point spinning this out any further. What with the swell, the fumes, the taciturn skipper, the flopping fish and their blood and scales, the revolting German, and not least the collapse of my dream, I began to feel really awful. Worse. It may have been before, or just after, I threw up, that I wished myself dead. Whatever depths of dejection or despair I have reached since (and there have been many) I have never so fervently and thoroughly wished for oblivion as then, there, on that repulsive boat. I had taken an instant dislike to the skipper. It occurred to me, as I slowly and permanently reeled in my line, that my proposed boat would have operated in competition with him and with several others, natives whose livelihoods depended on their hard-won trade. That being so, might my boat, one night, have mysteriously burned itself down to the waterline, or simply disappeared and been sunk?

At thirteen, even eighteen, you imagine yourself invincible. There is nothing you cannot achieve. All you have to do is set your mind to it.

Your first intimation that the world might not agree often takes the form of an envelope with the wrong exam results. Or it could be some other form of rejection: hundreds, even thousands, are available. After the first, there are others. Sometimes you have to reach your mid twenties before the message gets fully through.

As the aeroplane descended, coming in to Heathrow, I found myself smiling. I was looking down at the scruffy landscape of reservoirs, gravel pits, rubbish dumps, traffic and pylons in which that sprawling airport is set, glad to be home again and very glad now to be, at long last, on the right route for adulthood.


Benjamin Duffy said...

Very enjoyable! "Whimsical," "loquacious," and "laugh-out-loud funny" are not terms I have associated with most of your work, yet you pull them off as well as you do anything else.

Anonymous said...

Great story. And now here you are. Did you ever get a colleen at least?

Richard Herley said...

I did, but she wasn't milky-skinned, more the sultry type, and she got away in the end, alas!