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Writers at Sea

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A friend recently urged me to read Frank Kermode’s memoir Not Entitled – not for the account of a supremely successful academic career in the second half of the twentieth century, nor for insights into the making of a renowned literary critic, but for the account of his naval service. Kermode, I was told, had joined up in 1940. Isolated among madmen engaged on futile, conspicuously wasteful projects in Scotland and Iceland, his war experiences were a small, entertaining testimony to the ludicrousness of war.

My friend’s eager description reminded me of Alan Ross’s Blindfold Games, which I had long meant to read. Ross was the Editor of the London Magazine where, towards the end of his life, hegave me my first books to review. Like many young writers during the previous forty years, I felt both indebted to him and charmed by the way in which he seemed to uphold a romantic ideal of the literary life. I knew it wasn’t all boozing and siestas: besides the London Magazine, he wrote poetry, travel books, memoirs and several books about cricket: it was clear that his continuing independence must have been hard won. His modest panache was the more admirable for the evident respect in which he was held. He seemed to have a great talent for life. But it was a near-run thing because he very nearly died in the Navy in 1942. The incident is described in his attractive, surprising memoir, Blindfold Games, and it was for this that I had long wished to read the book.

I had no preconceptions about Ross’s early life, but this episode is certainly arrived at by an unexpected route. Ross’s father was responsible for ‘numerous coal mines in northern and western Bengal’ and the first section of the book is a lyrical evocation of his Indian childhood, full of colours, sounds and people; of railways and cobras, servants, the smell of cigars and a latent eroticism in everything. At the age of 7, he was sent

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A friend recently urged me to read Frank Kermode’s memoir Not Entitled – not for the account of a supremely successful academic career in the second half of the twentieth century, nor for insights into the making of a renowned literary critic, but for the account of his naval service. Kermode, I was told, had joined up in 1940. Isolated among madmen engaged on futile, conspicuously wasteful projects in Scotland and Iceland, his war experiences were a small, entertaining testimony to the ludicrousness of war.

My friend’s eager description reminded me of Alan Ross’s Blindfold Games, which I had long meant to read. Ross was the Editor of the London Magazine where, towards the end of his life, hegave me my first books to review. Like many young writers during the previous forty years, I felt both indebted to him and charmed by the way in which he seemed to uphold a romantic ideal of the literary life. I knew it wasn’t all boozing and siestas: besides the London Magazine, he wrote poetry, travel books, memoirs and several books about cricket: it was clear that his continuing independence must have been hard won. His modest panache was the more admirable for the evident respect in which he was held. He seemed to have a great talent for life. But it was a near-run thing because he very nearly died in the Navy in 1942. The incident is described in his attractive, surprising memoir, Blindfold Games, and it was for this that I had long wished to read the book. I had no preconceptions about Ross’s early life, but this episode is certainly arrived at by an unexpected route. Ross’s father was responsible for ‘numerous coal mines in northern and western Bengal’ and the first section of the book is a lyrical evocation of his Indian childhood, full of colours, sounds and people; of railways and cobras, servants, the smell of cigars and a latent eroticism in everything. At the age of 7, he was sent to school in England where, in the first annihilating months of homesickness, the strangeness of his Bengal childhood, ‘its terrifying remoteness from what I was experiencing, and would have to go on experiencing, began to dawn on me’. He writes of remembering India through Yeats-Brown’s Bengal Lancer, Fanny Parkes and Kalighat painting. Then suddenly, arriving at Haileybury, his life was consumed by cricket. He was obviously a very good cricketer and he writes about it with verve, but it is the pleasure of watching others that comes across even more strongly than the joy of playing. Invoking Enemies of Promise, he observes that Cyril Connolly’s ‘interest in style revived in myself echoes of a similar preoccupation. The dandyism and mandarin manners that affected me, however, were not to do with literature but behaviour, and, more strictly, behaviour in sport.’ It is an intriguing parallel that leads persuasively into the enthusiasm for literature that burgeoned when he went to Oxford in 1940. The transition has a more formal expression in the fine poetry which divides up the narrative. Joining the Royal Navy as a rating, Ross found himself on the destroyer Onslow on a convoy from Scapa Flow in December 1942. The incident for which I had wished to read the book arrives abruptly at the start of a new section, following a poem called ‘Variety Girls, Oxford’:

‘We’ll get someone to relieve you when we can,’ the First Lieutenant said . . . ‘but for the moment I’m afraid you’re on your own.’ The steel door, ‘X’, sealing off the for’ard part of the ship from the rest, clanged shut behind him. I was truly alone. . . Spray from a huge hole in the port side was spurting in all directions . . . The noise . . . was deafening . . . above the magazine, a bonfire raged, its area of flame checked by the freezing swill at its base . . . Somewhere under my feet two whole gun crews, wiped out in their entirety, began to pile up with the increasing list of the ship.

Ross describes a half hour during which he thought he must certainly die by drowning, fire or explosion, but release came and he stumbled out ‘scarcely able to credit what seemed like a miracle’. He is detailed to a bailing party and the ship eventually limps to Murmansk. The battle is recapitulated in his superb long poem ‘JW51B’.

The rest of his war was less eventful and involved frequent visits to London. He describes himself as ‘an habitué in off-duty hours of the Wheatsheaf in Soho, where Julian Maclaren-Ross reigned’. Afterwards he was stationed in Germany, ‘concerned mainly with interrogating specialist German officers on technical matters’; he was demobbed in October 1946.

Almost exactly the same age as Ross, Kermode had an utterly different childhood. Born in a tenement on the Isle of Man where, in the 1930s, ‘almost everybody was out of work for at least forty weeks a year’, he suffered from the prodigy’s curse, the hidden sense that he wasn’t the kind of son his father would have chosen. Cack-handed where his father was adept, he felt increasingly alienated from his homeland. Still, he wore his clogs, did his lessons, delivered the papers and visited his father at the storeroom where he worked as a clerk. It is an affectionate portrait of working-class life but, at the same time, a tale of constantly felt displacement. When in 1939 he got a scholarship to Liverpool University, it was by accepting an obligation to return afterwards to be a schoolteacher. ‘To renege on that promise would entail returning four instalments of £80, which was unthinkable, though hardly more so than a future as a schoolteacher. . . To be relieved of the necessity either to teach or to repay that enormous sum was about the only benefit I got out of the war, except of course the benefit of survival.’

The only action Kermode experienced was an idiotic episode in the Mediterranean in 1943, when his ship shot down a Canadian aeroplane that made the mistake of flying low over a convoy, giving the crew the impression that the occupants might be Germans in a captured plane. Prior to this he was attached to a ship that spent almost two years in Iceland, supposed to be laying an anti-submarine boom across a fjord. Weather conditions made the enterprise hopeless and, in the end, it was abandoned. The isolation, discomfort, futility and erratic leadership are evoked with laconic wit in a chapter called ‘My Mad Captains’. Later in the war Kermode was sent to America. Whereas Ross stops his memoir when he is demobbed, Kermode goes on to describe his speedy ascent of the academic ladder. He became Professor of English Literature at University College, London, then at Cambridge (where he presided over the structuralist controversy), and later Professor of Poetry at Harvard. He is the author of many works of criticism and has received numerous honorary awards and prizes around the world.

Kermode gives very scanty accounts of his education and of his relationship to literature. He suggests that his formal schooling was pretty basic. On leaving, he worked as a purser on the Liverpool ferry. Then suddenly he is knocking off a book about the eighteenth-century dramatist Aaron Hill and reading Horace in Latin. How did this happen? Obviously he has a brilliant, versatile intelligence and is further gifted with rare powers of concentration, but still there’s something missing – passion, perhaps – the absence of which makes his demurrals a little hollow. A successful trade unionist might not need much of a feel for pig iron, but it is implausible that Sir Frank Kermode should feel so disconnected from literature, so workaday, as his memoir suggests. Ross, though not uncritical, addresses his education with wonder because it framed and nurtured his love of cricket. In his description of discovering literature for himself at Oxford and in the Navy, there is a magnificent sense of a man’s passion starting to direct his life. It is manifest too in his poetry.

The parallels and differences between these autobiographies are fascinating. The authors were exact contemporaries whose lives were radically suspended by the war. Both made their careers in literature, but in quite distinct ways (their paths never seem to have crossed) which appear true to their pre-war background. Kermode says, ‘it clearly didn’t matter whether one got a good or a bad degree – we had entered an epoch where such things were totally irrelevant . . . In thinking back to the early summer of 1940 I feel some of its careless, intense pleasures, all the keener because of the probability that they could never be repeated.’

The contrast between Ross’s Oxford with Larkin et al and the Battle of the Barents Sea is more extreme than that between Kermode’s Liverpool and two years where ‘nothing continued to happen’ off Iceland. But Ross scarcely comments on the violent ruptured instead, he characterizes it with vivid artistry. And it is to mercurial Ross, conjuror of flavours and joys, that I would return.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 27 © John de Falbe 2010


About the contributor

John de Falbe has been selling books at John Sandoe’s bookshop in Chelsea for 25 years. In an article on London bookshops an American writer recently commented: ‘It’s one of the few bookshops I’ve ever visited that made me feel I’d be happy reading any book on its shelves.’ De Falbe is also the author of three novels, of which the latest is Dreaming Iris.

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