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The Rim Worlds

... out on the Galactic Rim things are very iffy and if you fart really hard your're liable to blow yourself on to an Alternate Time Track.

A Bertram Chandler.






















The Mentor

Grimesish Grumberlings, Nothing Like a Good Whinge

I am not a whingeing Pom.

I am an ex-Pom, now an Australian citizen, who whinges long and loudly on certain subjects, among these being slovenly or even non-existent research. A while ago my wife and I were among those present at a National Book Council luncheon at which the Guest of Honour was James (Shogun) Clavell. On Susan’s left was an author of cookery books (whom I had last met in Japan in 1977) and on my right were two lady librarians. While plying her chopsticks Susan talked cookery and I, while plying mine, talked books. First of all, of course, the two librarians and myself had a good whinge about that politician whom I always refer to as “Fraser’s pet hamster” and the proposed, iniquitous sales tax and the printed word. Then the ladies had a whinge about the damage done to books by borrowers. I contributed a few horror stories myself. More than once, in the recent past, I have taken from our local library books dealing with military history in the mid-1880s and discovered that illustrations which I should have found useful had been torn out by persons or persons known.

The librarians whinged about borrowers who write comments, usually unkind, In the margins,

I confessed that I am such a borrower.

The temperature dropped several degrees.

I justified my acts of defacement - if so they may be called - by saying that I consider it my duty to steer innocent readers back on to the right track after they have been steered off it by some incompetent or ignorant wordsmith.

For example, there is one quite good writer of thrillers. His service in the Royal Naval Reserve is alleged to have made him an expert on maritime matters. All right, all right, he may have been an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve - but in what branch? My guess is the paymaster branch. I still remember the gyro compass, invented by some fantastic Arab navigator, in one of his stories. The period was the early 1880s and the vessel aboard which this remarkable instrument was being used was a clipper ship. The author (understandably) was rather vague about the details but, apparently, the rotor had to be spun by hand. The average reader would know nothing about gyro compasses. I, however, do, and have papers to prove it.

That book contained not only a navigational absurdity but a gross historical inaccuracy. Some mention was made of the Opium Wars. According to the novelist these wars were fought to save the poor, heathen Chinese from the horrors of drug addiction, with the brave men of the Royal Navy playing the Good Guys. According to all the history books that I have read the part played by the Royal Navy was to ensure that the profitable - to British merchants - Opium Trade continued despite the efforts of the Chinese government to put it down.

There is one writer whose research cannot be faulted. (He is a professional historian, which helps.) That is George MacDonald Fraser, the author of the Flashman novels. Now and again he writes of something about which I have rather more than a layman’s knowledge - for example, Flashman’s use of Congreve rockets against Russian ships in Flashman At The Charge - and I can’t find anything to whinge about at all. Perhaps I may, some time in the remote future, have a whinge about Fraser. He sort of half promised me, quite a while ego, that he would have Flashman among those present at the Siege of Glenrowan.

I sincerely hope that he keeps that promise.

But this article is about the sinners, not about the (very few) saints.

The average writer of sea stories, either of the here-and-now variety or historical, is a sinner whose experience, all too obviously, is confined to a couple of trips on the Manly Ferry (or the British or American equivalent thereof). There was one bright boy who had his sailing vessel steering a Great Circle course in Cromwellian times. I’ll not bore you with navigational technicalities but, as a holder of a Certificate of Competency as Master of a Foreign Going Steamship, I assure you that it just couldn’t be done. A sailing vessel is at the mercy of wind and weather far more than is a steamer. Too, steering a Great Circle course requires very precise navigation. Before the invention of the marine chronometer only latitude could be determined with any degree of accuracy and the determination of longitude was little better than guesswork. And Harrison, whose marine timekeeper made accurate navigation possible, was a contemporary of Cook, not of Cromwell.

A recent World War II novel really annoyed me. I whinged about it aloud as well as putting unkind comments in the margin. Susan said, “Don’t complain to me. I didn’t write it and, after what you’ve been saying, I certainly shan’t read it. Get it off your chest on paper.”

Well, the “hero” of this epic is a drunked American owner-master of some utterly improbable rustbucket blindly shambling around the Caribbean during the early days of World War II, before the entry of the U.S.A. into that conflict. Shambling around almost as blindly is a German commerce raider, a converted passenger liner, the incompetent crew of which succeeds in sinking an American cruise ship with the loss of all on board with the exception of two passengers, female, who are picked up by Captain Slade - that was the name of the “hero” - when he blunders on to the scene of the disaster.

Slade, although his ship is of American registry, takes it upon himself to wage a private war upon the raider. It was his motivation that was so utterly incredible. Apparently he had played a minor part in a major maritime disaster just a couple of years prior to the outbreak of World War I. Somehow it had weighed heavily upon his conscience; he thought that he hadn’t done all that he could have done. Over the years he had become an alcoholic, drinking to forget.

And this major maritime disaster?

The loss of the Titanic.

Slade, an American citizen, had been a junior officer aboard that vessel.

The White Star Line, the owners of Titanic, were a British shipping company. Their masters and officers were all British citizens. Titanic, just did not have any American officers, no matter how junior.

Illustratration from The Mentor 36But back to World War II and a sort of action between Slade’s ship (he had managed, - rather improbably, to “borrow” a small calibre cannon) and the German. The German had 6” guns, the extreme range of which was apparently little more than one mile. During World War II, during a tour of duty- as gunnery officer of a troop ship, one of my toys was a very old 6” gun which had seen service during World War I. With it I could lob a 6” brick seven - seven,
not one - miles...

The arch criminal, though, is Mr. Forsyth, who made his name with The Day Of The Jackal. (In the unlikely event of his reading this he will probably cry all the way to the bank. After all, he can afford a castle in Ireland while I have to be content with a small flat in Potts Point. Mind you, I’m not complaining about that. I’d sooner live in the city of Sydney than anywhere in Ireland. As a matter of fact we did think of moving to Ireland after my retirement from the sea; in that republic income derived from any of the arts is tax free. We decided, however, that we should not care for the climate - meteorological, intellectual, moral or whatever.)

Mr. Forsyth is an extremely competent thriller writer. What annoys me about him is his publicity, in which his thorough and meticulous research is made much of. Thorough and meticulous- research my left foot!

In The Day Of The Jackal, which is concerned with an assassination attempt on Big Charlie with a professional, mercenary killer employed by a -group of disgruntled French colonels, mention is made of a previous attempt engineered by one of those same colonels. (Or he could have been a general.) It was to take the form of an ambush, with sharpshooters lying in wait for de Gaulle’s car. Daylight, or lack of it, played an essential part in the planning. The scheme came unstuck because the colonel (or general) had used the previous years Nautical Almanac to calculate the time of civil twilight, as a result of which he was twenty minutes out.

At this juncture I put on my professional navigator’s hat. If, by some mischance you are caught in mid-ocean on New Year’s Eve without next year’s Almanac you can continue to navigate with the old one, making only very minor corrections. Even if you made no corrections when calculating the time of twilight
you’d be no more than seconds out.

Much to my surprise the makers of the Day Of The Jackal film spotted Forsyth’s absurdity and did not use it.

Mr. Forsyth’s next book was The Odessa File. Frankly, I quite enjoyed it but was told by friends with some expertise in the fields that it covered that it was full of absurdities.

But I found plenty to be annoyed about in The Dogs Of War, in which Mr. Forsyth made it glaringly plain that all that he knows about ships and maritime procedure could be written with a felt-tipped pen on his little fingernail.

There was one series on ABC TV which annoyed me very much when it first started, although after the glaring error had been spotted and corrected I became a Faithful Viewer. That was The Oneidin Line. There were merchant captains and officers wearing Standard Uniform, cap badge, sleeve, braid and all. The period was early 1880s. Prior to World War I there just wasn’t any Standard Uniform for the Merchant Navy. The big companies had their own uniform trimmings. In the average tramp windjammer people, regardless of rank, just went to sea “to wear out their old clothes”.

After 1918 Standard Uniform was introduced. Some of the big companies adopted it, although retaining their own cap badges. Some of the big companies retained their own sleeve braid and buttons as well as cap badges.

Recently, in Wellington, I paid a visit to the Head Office of the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand to request help in my research for the Ned Kelly novel. My intention was (it has now been carried out) to seize that Company’s crack trans-Tasman liner Rotomahana and make her the flagship of the Navy of the Republic of the North East. Already I had been supplied with plans and specifications of the ship but I thought I would just like to know what the Company’s uniform was in the 1880s. The Company Archivist showed me a glass case containing various Sacred Relics. Among these was a sleeve band bearing four stripes of gold braid with the middle two cunningly twisted to form a central diamond.

“This is what the Company’s masters wore on their sleeves,” I was told.

“This,” I said, “is what the Company’s masters still wear on their sleeves. But it was not introduced until 1918 at the earliest. I want to know what they wore in, say, 1885.”

Shortly after my return to Sydney I received a large envelope from Wellington. In it were group photographs of the master and officers of Rotomahana. The Company’s cap badge was the same then as it is now. It was the only thing that was the same. The caps had gold chinstraps. (Today they are patent leather.) The only person with gold braid on his sleeves was the master and he had just one band, of the same style as that worn by a sub-lieutenant of the Royal Navy He had no “scrambled egg” on the peak of his cap but the cap band was gold. His chief officer had three narrow stripes of gold braid on his cap band, the second had two, the third had one and the fourth had to be content with his gold chinstrap. The engineer officers’ caps were similarly decorated, although with gold cord rather than gold braid.

I admit that all the above didn’t make one scrap of difference to the story but it helped me get the feel of the ship and the period.

Back to whinges - I still remember an occasion when one of mine really bounced back on me. It was some years ago, in Auckland. An old friend and shipmate, now master of a dry cement carrier on the New Zealand coast, had asked me out to his home one fine Sunday. At that time the NZBC was rebroadcasting a BBC series of radio talks called Science Fact And Science Fiction. After dinner my host switched this on, thinking that I should be interested. The subject, this evening, was Communicating With Aliens. Well, the speaker was saying his piece on the radio and I was saving my whinge. “Why doesn’t the stupid bastard read some intelligent science fiction?” and so on and so on.

And then, in that impeccable BBC accent, “The problem was handled in a most ingenious manner by A Bertram Chandler, in his short story The Cage...”

My host and his family collapsed in helpless laughter and I shut up.
Originally Published in The Mentor No: 36 - Jan 1982