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Aural Delights Nov 2008

The A Bertram Chandler Story UFO is now available as an audio podcast from Starship Sofa Aural Delights No 48


Around the World in 23,741 Days

If anybody cares to do his sums he will discover that this opening paragraph is being written on my 65th birthday and that when I made my own calculations Leap Years were taken into account. Sixty five is, I think, as good an age as any for an autobiographical exercise. It is supposed to be retiring age—although the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand retires its people at the age of sixty three and writers, of course, never retire. Come to that, I seem to have been on the Company’s pay roll for quite long periods each year since I was turned out to grass. Still, sixty five is a good vantage point from which to look backwards over the years and the miles. Such a lot has happened in the last six and a half decades and so much of it has been of absorbing interest to a science fictioneer. And so much of it all has been incorporated into my own writings.

My quite notorious unrequited love affair with airships, for example...

One very early—but remarkably vivid—memory I have is of a Zeppelin raid on London during World War I. can still see the probing searchlights, like the questing antennae of giant insects and, sailing serenely overhead, high in the night sky, that slim, silvery cigar. I can’t remember any bombs; I suppose that none fell anywhere near where I was. It is worth remarking that in those distant days, with aerial warfare in its infancy, civilians had not yet learned to run for cover on the approach of raiders but stood in the
streets, with their children, to watch the show.

I remember, too, the British dirigibles R33 and R34 which, in the years immediately after the (so-called) Great War were almost permanent features of the overhead scenery; the country town in which I spent most of my childhood—Beccles, in Suffolk—was not far from the airship base at Mildenhall. A little later, after I had commenced my seafaring apprenticeship, I saw Graf Zeppelin, then maintaining her regular trans-Atlantic service, a few times.

I have other aviation memories too. As a very, very small child I watched from my perambulator the British military aeroplanes—the old ‘flying birdcages—exercising on and over (not very far over!) Salisbury Plain. That was just prior to World War I. During World War II, home on leave, I watched fleets of heavy bombers streaming east to hammer German targets. Also, while on leave, I once again experienced air raids on London—including, towards the end of hostilities, those by the Vi s, the flying bombs, and by the V2s. Quite a few people were inclined to get hostile when I was enthusiastic rather than otherwise about these latter weapons, claiming that they were, after all, no more (and no less) than working models of moon rockets.

War rockets—much smaller ones, of course—were among my toys during a long spell as Armaments Officer of a troopship. I liked them, of course, but they never liked me. Whenever I had occasion to use them the most horrid things would happen but never to the enemy...

But autobiographies should start at the beginning.

I was born on March 28, 1912 in the Military Hospital in Aldershot, England. If anybody should ask what a seaman was doing being born in an Army Hospital I can only reply that I wanted to be near my mother. My father, as a matter of fact, was a soldier in the Regular Army. He was one of the first of the many killed in the First World War. I have no memory of him. Nonetheless, as the inheritor of his genes, I owe very much to him. Had he lived in a slightly later period he would certainly have been a fan, possibly a science fiction writer himself. I still recall my discovery, in the attic of his parents’ house in a village called Brampton, in Huntingdonshire, of a trunk full of his books. Without exception these were all early science fiction and fantasy—the old, yellow-covered Hodder & Stoughton paperback editions of Rider Haggard, the Strand Magazines with serialised Wells and Doyle and another long-defunct periodical called The Boys’ Own Paper with SF serials by lesser but still readable authors.

My father was a professional soldier and I became a professional seaman but, had he survived that utterly stupid clash between rival imperialisms, we should have had very much in common.

After my father’s death in action my mother, with my younger brother and myself, went to live with her parents in Beccles, a small, quiet town on the River Waveney. I was exposed to education there and some of it must have caught—a smattering of mathematics sufficient to enable me to navigate a ship, a rough working knowledge of the principles of English grammar. Even now I feel slightly guilty when I, knowing full well what crimes I am committing, split an infinitive, start a sentence with a conjunction or finish one with a preposition.

My first school was the Peddars Lane Elementary School. In those days the free schools in England did little more than to prepare their pupils for entry into the lower echelons of the work force at the age of 14 and to teach them to fear God and honour the King. Fortunately it was possible to win a scholarship to an establishment operating on a somewhat higher level. This I did, gaining entry to the Sir John Leman Secondary School. In the 1920s the secondary schools did not quite have the same status as grammar schools which, in their turn, were socially several notches below the private schools and the “public” schools. The class system of the England of those days was rigidly stratified. Nonetheless the Sir John Lemanites did tend to put on dog, considering themselves a cut above the students at the local grammar school. After all, our swotshop had been founded way back in the days of Good Queen Bess by one of her merchant knights...

But I’ve said before—and I say again—that those who say that their schooldays were the happiest days of their lives either are bloody liars or have very short memories. Still, as most of us do, I got by. I was a dud at sports and, to this day, regard the sports pages of the daily and Sunday newspapers only as convenient wrapping for the garbage and save on the electricity bill whenever any sporting event—even cricket!—is shown on television. Luckily, too, the Sir John Leman School, although it had its football and cricket elevens, never took sport seriously, It was known as a “swot school,” the accent being on education.

(*It was real football, Association (Soccer), not Rugby. I maintain that the notorious Rugby schoolboy who started the absurd game bearing the name of his scholastic institution by breaking the rules of the sport, picking up the ball and running with it, must have been none other but Flashman. It was just the sort of thing he would have done!)

My pet subjects were English, in which I always came top in examinations despite my vile handwriting, Chemistry, in which I always came top in the Practical examinations and Second—because of my vile handwriting— in the Theoretical ones, Mathematics, Geography and History, in all three of which I made consistently high scores. In those days there was no Biology and Physics was no more than instruction in such abstruse subjects as Mechanical Advantage. I was always bottom in Scripture—schoolboy gropings towards an agnostic viewpoint were not encouraged—and very near the bottom in French. (To this day I have an intense dislike for that language.) However my consistently good marks in English and the various sciences ensured my steady upward progress.

Almost my final memory of the Sir John Leman School is that of a crucial point in my life. If I had not been brainwashed by my reading of English school stories, in which the myth of schoolboy honour was always perpetuated, if I had not assumed that Miss Deeley, the Science Mistress, would do the right thing by her teacher’s pet, my subsequent career would have been entirely different. I should not, at this moment of time, be sitting in my caravan on the premises of a nudist club on the outskirts of Sydney writing this. I should never have experienced the very real joys and the occasional terrifying responsibilities of sea-going command. My World War II service would have been entirely different; should I have been a soldier, an airman, a back room boy? Probably I should have become a writer, a science fiction writer, but the Rim Worlds would never have been shown on the star charts of our mythology and Commodore Grimes, that Twentieth Century Anglo-Australian shipmaster displaced in Time and Space, would never have inflicted his prejudices upon readers in just about every country from Japan to the Soviet Union, the long way around the world. There might have been a Doctor or Professor Grimes, chemical engineer of the far future turning base metals into gold or watee into wine or whatever...

But to return to Miss Deeley and my first—but not my last—Big Black Mark...

There was a very important examination Those who passed would move up one form to sit for Matriculation the following year—and with Matriculation there would be the chance of a university scholarship. Those who failed to make the grade would have to stay put for another twelve months, to try again I knew that I should make my usual poor showing in French and Scripture. I knew that I should do well enough in my good subjects to achieve promotion Unfortunately (fortunately?) I was not yet wise in the ways of the wicket world.

(Am I now? Mphm?)

As I’ve already said, Chemistry came in two parts: Theoretical and Practical. Theoretical Chemistry examination consisted of the working out of complicated (for those days) equations. Practical Chemistry was much more fun. Each candidate was issued with his own vial jar or dish of some fluid, goo or powder and was required to carry out standard analytical procedure to determine the composition of the test specimen. Acid or alkaline? Soluble or insoluble? Flammable or nonflammable? And so on and soon and so on.

In the laboratory were the usual benches, each with its two sinks, its pair of Bunsen burners, its duplicated vessels and instruments. During the examination, presided over by the Science Mistress, there was to be no, repeat, underscore and capitalize NO, talking.

We all collected our specimens and took them to our benches, lit up our Bunsen burners. I was just about to apply heat to a small sample of the goo that I had been given when my bench-mate—a rather dim lout called George Martin—looked apprehensively at the dish of blue powder that he was supposed to analyse and whispered, “What do I do with this?”

No, I didn't make the obvious rejoinder. I merely whispered back, “Shut up, you bloody fool!”

Miss Deeley—as I recall her she was a bespectacled, dried-up, spinster schoolmarm—pricked up her ears and demanded, “Were you talking, Chandler?”

I admitted that I had been, thinking that the clot Martin would at once confess (a) that he had initiated the conversation and (b) that I had given him no advice as to what to do with his specimen. But he remained silent. So much for schoolboy honour. Nonetheless I was not worried. I knew that Miss Deeley knew that I was the form’s star chemistry student and would not be asking anybody’s advice on how to carry out a simple task of analysis.

I had a shock coming. Oh, I was top in Practical Chemistry as always but all my marks were stripped from me because I had broken the No Talking rule. This meant that owing to my extremely poor showing in my two unfavourite subjects—Scripture and French—I should not be moving up a grade but would be obliged to mark time for another year.

Looking back on it all, putting it down on paper, I have suddenly realised that for many years I have thought of Miss Deeley—when I have thought of her—with unjustified harshness. I remember how more than once, as a subordinate, I have had my decisions overruled by superiors and how, as master, I have, at times, overruled my officers. Had Miss Deeley been in a position of overall command she would doubtless have conducted an enquiry and ascertained who said what to whom, and why. I think now that she was not allowed to do so and that it was the Headmaster, “baddy” Watson, who was the author of my downfall. As well as acting in a supervisory capacity he conducted the Scripture classes and, furthermore, took them seriously. I must have been his bete noir. And then he was presented, on a silver tray, garnished with parsley, the Heaven-sent opportunity to smite the youthful infidel hip and thigh. He took it.

Not for the first time I say, with heartfelt conviction, “Thank God I’m an agnostic!”

Digressing slightly, now and again I argue with Susan, my second wife, about religion. She is an atheist. She accuses me of being, in my heart of hearts, religious in spite of my professed agnosticism.

I suppose that I am, really. I admit to being a Mobrist. MOBR is an acronym: My Own Bloody Religion. Take Swinburne’s “Holy Spirit of Man,” add Wells’ “Race Spirit,” flavour with infusions of Darwinism, Marxism and Buddhism, put into the blender, switch on and leave well alone except for, now and again, adding other ingredients such as Forteanism. And, even, Vonnegutism. So it goes.

Picking up the main thread once more—I did not matriculate. So I did not get the chance to sit for a university scholarship. So I did not become—as otherwise I probably should have done— an industrial chemist.

The prospect of having to seek for employment in a small country town in the England of the late 1920s did not appeal to me. Had I been in the possession of at least the Matriculation certificate things would have been a lot easier; as it was my smatterings of education fitted me only for a job as an office boy or something similar. The only avenue of escape from the town—and from that stratum of society into which God had seen fit to place me—was the sea. So it was that shortly after my sixteenth birthday I was apprenticed to the Sun Shipping Company—called by its maritime personnel the Bum Shipping Company—of London.

Pause for the filling and lighting of my pipe and for reflection. Is this, I ask myself, the autobiography of a writer or a seaman? But the sea has been my life for so long and, as the late and great John W. Campbell once told me, my stories are “costume sea stories” rather than real science fiction. If I had not become a ship’s officer and, eventually, master there would have been no John Grimes. If I had not served on some of the less pleasant trades of the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand there would have been no Rim Worlds.

When I first went to sea I was not yet a writer although I had become an avid reader of science fiction. I had discovered Wells in the school library. There were my father’s books. There were the cheap Woolworth’s editions of Jules Verne. There was Hugo Gems-back’s Science And Invention with its Ray Cummings and A. Merritt serials and then, when Gernsback realised that a lot of readers were buying his first magazine only for the fiction, there was his new venture, the amazingly durable Amazing Stories.

I was hooked, from my early teens onwards, but it would be quite some time before my own private vision of the future would include a picture of myself as a science fiction writer. The pinnacle of my ambition—one never attained—was the captaincy of a Big Ship. I have served in such as an officer but have commanded only relatively small vessels.

In the Nineteen Twenties—and the procedure is probably much the same today—entry into the British Merchant Navy could be made through a variety of channels. If your family was well-to-do you went to one of the posh pre-sea training schools: HMS CONWAY, HMS WORCESTER or the land-based Nautical Academy at Pangbourne. The big liner companies recruited their cadets from these. If your family was not well-to-do application was made to the Shipping Federation and if that body was satisfied that you had attained a reasonably good standard of education you were apprenticed to some tramp company as an STS—straight to sea— officer candidate. You could, of course, start your seafaring career on the lower deck, beginning as deck boy, rising to ordinary seaman and then to A.B. (able bodied seaman) and then, once you had completed the mandatory four years’ sea service, sitting for the Certificate of Proficiency as Second Mate of a Foreign Going Steamship. Even though the Merchant Navy is far less class conscious than the Royal Navy the percentage of officers who have “come up through the hawsepipe” must be about the same in both services.

My first ship was Cape St. Andrew, a coal burning tramp steamer of about eight thousand tons deadweight capacity. Her owners named their vessels after headlands around the coast of South Africa, in which part of the world they had commercial interests not directly connected with shipping. They owned coal mines in Natal; whenever possible we bunkered with the Company’s coal. They owned a crayfish canning factory, but this delicacy was far too good for the likes of us. They owned, too, a jam factory in England, and their canned conserves and preserves, definitely not in the luxury class, were always to be found in the storerooms of their ships.

Somehow I’ve gotten on to the subject of food so I’ll stay on it for a while. Today’ amen take for granted things that, in my early days, would have been regarded as the wildest luxuries. Very few tramp steamers were equipped, in the Twenties and Thirties, with domestic refrigeration. They had, instead, a huge icebox on the poop which, prior to departure from a port, was stocked with blocks of ice and with fresh meat, fish and vegetables. For the first week the food would be quite edible. By the end of the second week it wouldn’t be so good. During the third week people would be ignoring the meat and making do on boiled potatoes. Eventually the master—those old tramp captains really had their owners’ interests at heart!— would reluctantly order that the remaining contents of the ice box be sent to feed the sharks and that the preserved foodstuffs be broken out. At first the canned meats and fishes would be, relatively speaking, gourmet fare but, before long, everything would taste of tin.

Other delicacies would be salt horse straight from the harness cask (salt beef, actually, pickled in brine) and dried, salted cod. These were not as bad as they sound. I am always disappointed by the sea pie cooked and served in modern ships in which fresh meat is used. A real sea pie consists of layers of salt meat, sliced potatoes and sliced onion encased and cooked in a suet dough—a sort of savoury steamed pudding, actually. It is good. And the salt cod, which is procurable even now, I still enjoy.

Then there was “gallery.” This was marmalade. The legend was that the marmalade supplied to ships—to tramp ships especially—was made from the sweepings of orange peels from the galleries of theatres and music halls. It may well have been true.

But it wasn’t the nicknames that, at first, put the apprentices off their food. In that ship we messed with the officers, at the foot of the long saloon table. The Master sat at the head, of course, and carved the joint. I still haven’t made up my mind regarding Captain Puzey. Was he a seaman who owned a farm (run during his absences by his wife) to supplement his salary or was he a farmer who came to sea to make the money to save his farm from bankruptcy? He rarely wore uniform and, whilst the ship was in temperate waters, clad himself in a sort of Farmer Giles outfit in rough tweed, complete with leather gaiters. And how did he (at first) put us off our tucker? Easily. Whilst carving the joint he would discourse learnedly upon the many and various diseases to which whatever animal it was that we were supposed to be eating was susceptible.

The vessels of the Sun Shipping Company carried lascar crews, recruited in Calcutta. As a result of this I acquired a taste for curry that persists still.

But life at sea isn’t one long Cook’s Tour unless you’re a cook yourself. (Or Captain Cook.) I was supposed to be learning the seaman’s trade, not eating my head off. It has been said (probably it is still being said) that tramp steamer apprentices are no more than cheap labour; legally speaking they are (or they were, in my early days) apprentice seamen, not apprentice officers. Nonetheless, as well as chipping and scraping rust, washing paintwork, polishing brass, cleaning bilges and all the rest of it they are trained in the real seamanlike arts such as rope and wire splicing (this latter very much a lost art these decadent days!). They are required to study navigation, signaling, meteorology and all the rest of it.

One thing still sticks in my memory, still slightly rankles. As I have said, the vessels of the Sun Shipping Company carried lascar crews who were, of course, Moslems. If we were in any Asiatic port during a Moslem public holiday we, the apprentices, would rank as officers, not crew. If we were in any port during a Christian public holiday we would rank as crew, not officers. On the other hand the Chinese carpenter, who was a follower of Confucius, got all the holidays...

Oh, well, old Chippy was worth a damn’ sight more to the ship than we were. A fascinating character who claimed—truthfully, I think—to have been a pirate in his youth. (Piracy on the China Coast persisted until the Communists brought their own brand of law and order to China.) And he was certainly a bigamist in his later years with one wife in Canton and another in the Chinese enclave in Calcutta.

Cape St Andrew was a round-the-world tramp rarely returning to England. Calcutta was not officially her home port but she seemed to be there more often than anywhere else. Her main employment was the Calcutta coal trade—black diamonds from the Bengal mines to the small ports on the West Coast of India, to Colombo in Ceylon (as it was then called), to Madras, on the East Coast, and further afield to Hong Kong and Whampoa, which was an anchorage port half way up the Pearl River to Canton. (Attempts at piracy were still quite common on the Pearl River but nobody bothered us.) During my apprenticeship I was only in Australia once; we loaded a cargo of grain in Fremantle for Calcutta. I was only in the U.S.A. once; we loaded jute in Calcutta for New Orleans, then cotton in Houston, Texas, for Kobe, Osaka and Shanghai. (This, to date, has been my only visit to Japan but, as my Japanese fans are promising a Rim-Con in my honour I shall probably revisit that country, as an author rather than as a seaman.) Even though we seemed to steer clear of Japanese ports we were frequent visitors to Shanghai, usually with cargoes of sugar from Java. It was on one of these voyages that I was under fire for the second time in my life. (The first time, of course, was during that Zeppelin raid on London in World War I.) The Sino-Japanese War had broken out. (Or it may have been one of the preliminary skirmishes.) We were proceeding down river. There was an artillery duel between Japanese cruisers and the forts at Woosung. We had to pass between the combatants. The ships courteously ceased fire until we were clear, the forts did not. The trajectory of the projectiles was high enough so that there was no real danger but it wasn’t a very pleasant sensation to hear those shells whistling overhead. (The next time that I was under fire I was aboard the vessel actually being shot at, but that was many years later.)

There were voyages to Rangoon and other ports in Burma to load rice for Java. There was a voyage to Odessa, in the Black Sea, to load or to discharge something or other; I forget now. My main memories are the bitter cold—it was midwinter—and of the International Seamen’s Club where, bribed with music, rye bread and sausage and excellent heavy Ukrainian beer we listened to the usual Marxist propaganda spiels. Actually it was all just the same as the Church of England’s Missions to Seamen with alcoholic beverages served instead of tea.

It was in winter, too, that we were in Trieste, in the Adriatic. The main memory is of the bora, the bitterly cold wind that sweeps down from the Italian Alps. A lazy wind, somebody said. It’s too tired to go round you so it goes through you.

As well as the Calcutta Coal Trade there was the Calcutta Salt Trade. Salt, manufactured from sea water, was loaded either in Aden, at the entrance to the Red Sea, or Port Okha, on the North West Coast of India. Loading completed, the hatches would be sealed by the Customs. Discharge was at the Salt Moorings, river berths in Calcutta. Every ounce of the precious commodity would be weighed and tallied out under Customs supervision and, at the close of each day’s work , the hatches would be resealed. The rate of discharge depended upon the briskness or otherwise of the salt market. The reason for all this red tape was that in those days, the last years of the British Raj, salt was the one thing that everybody, no matter how poverty stricken, had to have and the customs duty on salt was the only way to ensure that the entire population contributed to the upkeep of the British administration and military forces in India.

So my apprenticeship went on. Apart from being shot at (well, over, actually) in other people’s wars and the occasional China Sea typhoon it was a relatively quiet life. Finally, our time having been served, the other three brats and myself were shipped home as passengers from Calcutta in one of Harrison’s cargo liners. (The Harrison Line was one of the companies maintaining a regular service between London and Calcutta.)

With others in the same age group but from varying backgrounds—tramps, liners, oil tankers—I attended the King Edward VII Nautical School, which also had boarding facilities, to complete my studies for the Second Mate’s Certificate of Competency and managed to convince the examiners that I was a fit and proper person to hold such a qualification. Shortly thereafter I re-entered the service of the Sun Shipping Company as Third Officer.

I was still reading all the science fiction that I could lay my hands on but never dreamed that I would one day be writing the stuff.

My new (?) ship was Saint Dunstan. Actually she was owned by the Saint Line, which was a subsidiary of the Sun Shipping Company. She was old, old and scruffy. (Cape St Andrew, a new ship when I joined her, was by comparison a luxury liner.) She didn’t get round as much as Cape St Andrew did and, as I recall it, spent practically all her time on the Calcutta Coal and Salt Trades. I swotted hard and passed, in Calcutta, for my First Mate’s Certificate of Competency without having to go to school first. (Actually the “First Mate’s Ticket” was little more than a recapitulation of Second Mate’s work with the addition of Ship Stability, applied hydrodynamics.)

It was while I was in Saint Dunstan that I somehow got bitten by the writing bug and, in Calcutta, purchased my first typewriter, an ancient but serviceable Remington portable which lasted me for many years. (I got bitten by other bugs, too. I sat down on a wicker-seated chair in the shop to try the machine out before buying it and the bed bugs in the wicker work had a real feast on the backs of my legs; it was during the Hot Weather and I was wearing shorts.) And yet I had no burning desire to become a science fiction writer, or any kind of fiction writer. My ambition—a weird one, I admit now—was to become a free lance journalist. I did succeed in selling short articles and occasional light verse to newspapers and to the British Nautical Magazine. None of this output has, so far as I know, survived. This is no great loss.

RarangaWhen the term of the ship’s Articles of Agreement ran out I was among those officers who had no desire to sign on for another three years. I returned to the U.K. from Calcutta in a Brocklebank liner and, the times being what they were, found it hard to obtain suitable employment after I had taken a holiday. Nonetheless I did not regret leaving Saint Dunstan. In my career I have served in three outstandingly scruffy ships. Saint Dunstan was the first. Then there was the Shaw Savill Line’s Raranga, one of the last of that company’s coal burners, of which vessel I was Second Officer during the latter part of the Second World War. (But Raranga I rather liked. Apart from anything else she gave me the inspiration for Giant Killer.) Finally there was the Union Steam Ship Company’s Kaimanawa, of which I held command. Although she was oil-fired she was one of the last of the company’s steam—as opposed to motor—ships. She had been built during World War II and looked as though she had been built during World War I. Her accommodation was primitive. Her hatches leaked. Her steam winches were so noisy as to make thought—let alone speech!—impossible during cargo handling operations.

To return to the period immediately after my return to England from the Indian Coast... Times, although improving, were not yet good. For a while I, with two other shipless officers, was a tally clerk at Ford’s Dagenharn plant in Essex. Then, my mother and brother having moved to that island, I was a kennelman in Jersey. (The British Channel Island, not the American state.) I must have learned quite a lot. In later years, when I was Chief Officer in the Shaw Savill Line, people shipping small animals out from England to Australasia would try to get them on to whichever ship I was mat the time.

PakehaThen Shaw Savill were wanting officers. First they were asking for people with Master’s certificates who were from either Conway, Worcester or Pangbourne. They lowered their sights a little when none were forthcoming and asked for Master’s Certificates only. They lowered their sights still more, their new requirements being First Mate’s Certificates and Conway, Worcester or Pangbourne. Then it got down to First Mate’s Certificates only. So it was that I signed on the old Pakeha’s books as Fourth Officer.

After Pakeha there was the relatively new motor vessel Karamea. In those days the Shaw Savill Line, like the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand, favoured Maori names for its vessels although the “ics” (Coptic, I think, was the first) were beginning to creep in. It was while serving in her that I married for the first time. And it was in her that I was under fire for the third time, this being shortly after the outbreak of World War II.

War was declared shortly after we sailed from Wellington, New Zealand for England with a cargo of refrigerated foodstuffs. Immediately we, although a merchant vessel, came under the orders of the British Admiralty and were told to continue our voyage to the U.K, via the Panama Canal but to put into Kingston, Jamaica to be equipped with guns and for convoy assembly. We put into Kingston, waited there for some time for our armament, which we never got, and eventually sailed as part of a small, unescorted for most of the time, unarmed convoy.

KarameaThere was the Royal Mail cargo liner, Loch Avon. Her master was a Captain in the Royal Naval Reserve (Retired) so was Convoy Commodore. Karamea’s master, Teddy Grayston, was a Commander R.N.R. (Rtd.) so was appointed Vice Commodore. There was a Union Steam Ship Company’s vessel (I forget her name; she was with us only until we were clear of the Caribbean then proceeded to Canadian ports independently). There were two French ships: Bretagne, an old, twin-funneled passenger liner and Oregon, a modern motor vessel similar to Loch Avon and ourselves.

Whilst still in West Indian waters we had our first scare but were very relieved when the submarine sighted turned out to be an American one. We were, of course, listening to every news broadcast and it seemed that the first outburst of German submarine activity was over. We dared to hope for a quiet voyage home.

Meanwhile, Teddy had us on a war footing. Normally in merchant vessels the Fourth Officer keeps the Chief Officer’s watch for him but I was put on day work as navigator, signals officer, black-out king and anything else that needed doing. There were four cadets; three of these were junior watchkeepers and the other one was my sidekick.

The convoy steamed steadily east, in line abeam, Karamea leading the port (but non-existent) column, then Loch Avon, then Bretagne, then Oregon to starboard. Still there was no word of enemy submarine activity. But it was too good to last.

First there was a message from the British tramp steamer Stonepool. I remember it well for its chutzpah. It wasn’t a plaintive squeal for help, it read: “Am engaging enemy submarine.” But Stonepool had guns. None of us did. Stonepool, as a matter of fact, won her little battle.

The next message received by our Sparks was even more frightening. Emil Miguet, a large French oil tanker, had been torpedoed and abandoned by her crew. Furthermore, this had happened directly ahead of us on the course that we were making. The Commodore reasoned, as I think that anybody in his position would have done, that the German submarine would, by now, be we away from the scene of the crime. He did not order any deviation from the convoy course. During the remaining hours of daylight, however, we carried out a heavy zig-zag and were ordered to resume this at first light the following morning.

At about 0200 hrs. we passed the still-burning wreckage of Emil Miguet I didn’t see it myself as I had turned in on completion of the day’s duties, learning word to be called at 0500 hrs. so that I could obtain a morning star fix. I was called much earlier, by the Second Officer. ‘‘Wake up, Four Oh! A position, quick, for Sparks! Loch Avon’s been torpedoed!”

Loch Avon, I learned later, had used an unshielded, all-round Morse lamp to make a signal to the other ships of the convoy regarding resumption of zig zag, thereby attracting the attention o the officer-of-the-watch of the surfaced U-Boat which, actually, was directly ahead of Karamea. She positioned her self to fire a torpedo, successfully, and then, fortunately (for her) saw us bearing down upon her and put on a burst of speed. Our Chief Officer saw the sub marine making off to starboard. His peacetime reaction was to alter course to port, to avoid, not to go hard-a-star board to ram. It was indeed fortunate that he did alter course (although an alteration to starboard would have been better) as a torpedo hurriedly fired from a stern tube missed our stem by inches.

It was quite some time, however, before we were able to hold any sort of post mortem on the morning’s disasters. My first job was to run up a dead reckoning position and take it down to Sparks in the radio office. I returned to the bridge to find that the Old Man, in his capacity as Vice Commodore, had ordered the convoy to scatter. We maintained course as we were heading for the rendezvous position with a promised destroyer escort. Oregon cleared away to the south’ard and, we finally learned, made it safely to port. Bretagne, that poor old coal burner, plodded along behind us, sparks cascading from her twin funnels, dropping slowly astern.

Daylight came in slowly. The horizon was hard enough for me to get sights of suitable stars and to calculate our position. After Sparks had sent this off I returned to the bridge and was pottering around in the chartroom when the Chief Officer called, “Hoy! Four Oh! Signals! Bretagne’s using a daylight Morse lamp!” Then, as I picked up my binoculars and stepped outside, “No, by Christ! It’s shellfire!”

Shellfire it was: pale flashes all around the bridge of the old, grey ship, and then the slowly climbing column of water and smoke as a torpedo hit her amidships. There was another flash-range-from a low, dark, almost invisible shape and a shellburst well short of us.

Teddy Grayston altered course to put the submarine right astern and ordered our engineers to give us maximum speed. The U-Boat fired again, and again, correcting the range. All that her gunnery officer had to do to score a it was bracket—and all that Teddy had do to bugger the bracketing was alter course towards each fall of shot. meanwhile the Second and Third Officers were in charge on deck, getting the ‘oats swung out and stocked with extra blankets and provisions, getting some cases of gold bullion that were among our cargo out of the strong room and putting these in the boats, even placing he two little dogs that were also part of the cargo into the lifecraft. These asks completed all they had to do was to keep all hands under cover.

By this time the sun was well up and, as chance would have it, directly on the port beam. I got out my sextant and took two good shots. It was an old but very good instrument, and heavy. When you are taking sights under fire a heavy instrument is advantageous rather than otherwise. The shaking of the hands is minimised. By sheer good luck we were steaming directly along a position line, which meant that any help steaming or flying along this same line would be sure to find us. (For some reason we, on the bridge, were sure that our rescuers would be Coastal Command’s Sunderland flying boats; we were well within their range.)

I gave the new message form to Sparks then returned to the bridge. The shelling was continuing, with every miss a very near one. But there were other smells beside the acridity of exploding lyddite. The cooks were busy making steak and egg and bacon sandwiches— and nobody thought of sending any up to the people who were doing all the work.

My readers will know that Grimes is, now and again, referred to as Gutsy Grimes, the nickname derived from his appetite rather than his courage. There is, I suppose, something of me in Grimes. Any how, during a slight lull in the shelling, I asked the Old Man, “Do you think I might make some tea and toast for us all, sir?”

“Excellent idea, Chandler!”

I went down to the saloon pantry, switched on the boiler and the toaster. I found the largest teapot, some loaves of bread. There were five hungry mouths to feed—Teddy, the Chief Officer, two cadets and myself. I made an enormous pile of toast and was generous with the butter and the anchovy paste. I brewed the tea. I loaded everything, including cups and spoons and milk and sugar, on to a big tray. All the time I had been conscious that there was only a thin sheet of steel between me and the German projectiles; I had been much less unhappy when I could see what was going on.

During my return up top with the loaded tray I had to come out on to the lower bridge. The wind scooped the toast off the dish and on to the deck. I thought, If we’re going to die a bit of dirty toast won’t kill us. I gathered up the toast, put it back in the tray and completed my journey without further mishap. (Later I told the story, in confidence, to the Second Officer. He told the Old Man. Teddy took me severely to task about it.)

Shortly after we had finished our delayed breakfast the Third Officer wandered up to the bridge. He said cheerfully to Teddy, “We’re being followed, sir.”

Teddy accorded him a laser-like glare from his monocle and snapped, “A blinding glimpse of the obvious, Owen”

‘‘Look astern, sir.”

Until now we had been scanning the sky ahead through our glasses, searching for the Coastal Command flying boats that must, surely, be on the way. Now we looked aft. There was the U-Boat, still slowly gaining on us. And, hull down, three grey pyramids, the upperworks of destroyers. Like ourselves the submarine’s people had not been keeping a look-out astern. Had she dived in time she would have escaped. She did dive eventually and almost immediately was surrounded by a pattern of depth charges. She surfaced and surrendered.

When the shooting was over the Chief Steward came up to the bridge and addressed the Captain. “Splice the main brace, sir?”

“Of course, Mr. Davis.”

“Scotch, sir?”

There was another laser-like glare from Teddy’s monocle. “Scotch, Mr. Davis? What are you thinking of? Nelson’s blood!” he thundered. “Nelson’s blood!”

So rum it was.

The Third Officer took over the watch and the rest of us went down to the officers’ smoking room for our main brace splicing. Mr. Moffatt, the Chief Officer, a few years previously had been Second Officer of the old Mamari when she hit an iceberg off Cape Horn during his watch, in the small hours of the morning. He had seen it—there was some moonlight, I believe—but had assumed, until it was too late, that it was low cloud. Anyhow, Mr. Moffatt was tending to pat himself on the back for having saved Karamea by going hard-a-port as soon as he saw the submarine, even though he did not learn that a torpedo had been fired at us until well afterward.

Teddy brought his monocle to bear. (I’ve often wondered why that thing never melted.) ‘‘It’s a bloody pity, Moffatt,” he drawled, “that you aren’t as good at ramming submarines as you are at ramming icebergs!”

MatoraAnd that’s about all, I think, that I shall be writing about World War II. Oh, I could tell the tale of how I missed the wreck of the old Matakana by being landed in Panama, on the homeward passage, with chickenpox, which infantile ailment I must have caught from my current girlfriend in Wellington, who was a schoolmistress. And there was the time in the notorious Raranga when we were trapped in the ice, in Buzzard’s Bay, and almost drifted on to the Hen and Chicken Shoal. Also in Raranga was a Night to Remember: a Western Ocean convoy slamming at full speed through an icefield in thick fog. In theory the escorting destroyers were picking up the bergs on their radar and laying calcium flares at the base of each one; in practice it didn’t work out too well. Ice is a very poor radar target. There was my spell as Armaments Officer in the troopship Mataroa and the way in which my rocket weapons invariably failed to reciprocate my affection for them. And vivid in my memory is the occasion when the Bo’s’n of the same ship almost wiped out the entire crew of the six inch gun—and myself!— with a point thirty stripped Savage Lewis. And there was that event-crowded morning when the Admiral took off his cap, threw it down on the deck and jumped on it...

Nonetheless World War II as well as providing me with experience and material, as it did so many other writers, also got me into the right place at the right time. In days of peace New York just isn’t among Shaw Savill’s ports of call. In war time the ships of the Shaw Savill Line—like the ships of every other company—were required to go anywhere and everywhere.

Astounding Science Fiction had long been my favourite magazine. On one visit to New York I decided that I would like to meet the Great Man who edited the great periodical. I visited the editorial offices of Street & Smith and, having made my request to the receptionist, was ushered into the Presence. John received me cordially. We talked. He complained that as most of his writers were now in the armed forces of the U.S.A. he was very short of material. Perhaps I, as a Faithful Reader of very long standing, would care to contribute... I didn’t take his suggestion seriously.


Why not? I must have asked myself.

It was shortly after this that I left Mataroa to sit for my Certificate of Competency as Master of a Foreign Going Steamship. I had to go to school for this; I could have passed an examination in gunnery easily but, over quite a long period, had not been able to spare the time to continue my studies of navigation, seamanship, maritime law and all the rest of it. I passed and, shortly thereafter, was appointed as Second Officer to the old Raranga, a big, coal-burning, twin-screwed steamship. She had been torpedoed during World War I but had survived. She got through World War II unscathed although she once distinguished herself by shooting down a German bomber and a British fighter in the same action.

She was infested with rats. We kept a .22 rifle on the bridge so that, on moonlit nights, the officer of the watch could amuse himself sniping at the brutes. (The use of heavier armament, such as the 20mm machine guns, would have been frowned upon.)

Astounding May 1944Anyhow, the first time that I came into New York in Raranga I had my first short story ready for personal delivery to John Campbell. It was 4,000 words long and had taken me all of a fortnight to peck out on the ancient Remington. (Today that would be little more than a forenoon’s work.) It was called “This Means War.” It was about the captain of a Venusian space who, making a landing on one of Earth's seas, is shot at by everybody and assumes that all this hostile fire is directed at him personally. The period, course, is during World War II.

I handed this masterpiece to and said that I’d better leave return postage with it. John assured me that there was no need for me to do so and that he would send it back. Raranga made her way to England in a very slow convoy. Awaiting me was a letter from Street & Smith. In it was a cheque.

Raranga was a frequent visitor to New York, sometimes calling there for bunkers on her homeward voyages from Australasia, sometimes loading refrigerated cargo there for the U.K. I became one of the Campbells’ regular week guests, others being Lester del Ray, Theodore Sturgeon and George Smith. I became, too, one of Campbells’ regular writers during the remainder of the war years. John always asked members of his team use pseudonyms when peddling his rejects to other magazines. I had two: George Whitley, for use in the U.S.A. and, a little later the U.K. and Andrew Dunstan for use in Australia. Later, when john relaxed his house rules, it was not unusual me to have two stories, under different by-lines, in the same issue of a magazine. It made my day, once, when I read a letter in somebody’s correspondence column saying that Whitley was better writer than Chandler...

Astounding October 1945 - Giant KillerIt was while I was in Raranga that I wrote what many people regard, as my best story—“Giant Killer.” It was those rats that gave me the idea. The first version was written from viewpoint of the crew of a space who find this derelict adrift in some cockeyed orbit. Boarding her, they attacked by the ferocious mutated rodents. John read it then said, “No won’t do. Try it from the viewpoint of the original crew of the derelict.” (That first version did sell to a projected English sf magazine that, however never got off the ground due to the paper shortage.)

Version No. 2 was a real beaut. I’m still sorry that it never saw print. It was called “The Rejected,” the title coming from the first verse of The Internationale. The spaceship was a Russian one, with brass samovars bubbling on the bulkheads and portraits of the Little Red Father decorating every crew space. She had a mixed crew. The navigator was having an affair with the catering officer, who was also captain’s wife. The amount of vodka consumed by one and all would have fuelled a rocket to Far Centaurus. And, of course, I heavily stressed the irony of this mess of mutinous mutants seething under the comrades’ feet.

John read it. He looked at me in sorrow than in anger. He said, “I would point out that Astounding Science Fiction is neither Thrilling Romances nor a monthly edition of The Daily Worker. Take it away—and do it again from the viewpoint of the rats!”


“You heard me.”

The next time in New York I had the first two thousand words completed. I took it out to one of the Campbells’ weekend house parties. John read it, passed it to Ted Sturgeon. He read it, passed it to George 0. Smith. He read it. They all demanded, “Where’s the rest of it?”

I said, “There ain’t going to be no rest unless John promises to buy it.”

Peace broke out shortly thereafter. Until my promotion to Chief Officer I remained a very prolific short story writer, contributing to magazines in the U.S.A. (there were so many of them!) the U.K. and Australia. Gradually the George Whitley and Andrew Dunstan by-lines were phased out, the former, however, being used for quite some time or stories that did not fall into the typical Chandler space opera pattern.

Glory PlanetWhen I got my penultimate rise in world I had far less time for writing although I was, by this time, toying with the idea of making the switch from short stories to novels. One such was in fact, written during my final years with Shaw Savill: Glory Planet (my title was Glory Shore), eventually published by Avalon, some years after its completion. When I wrote it very little was known about Venus. When finally it was published far too much was known. Impossible as it has turned out to be I still feel affection for the story locale that I created—a colony strung out along the banks of a long, long river, the people living in towns given the names of Terran riparian conurbations, travelling back and forth by sternwheel paddle steamers...

CopticMy first ship after World War II wasCoptic, running for a time on charter to the U.S. Navy. Then there was Tamaroa, sister ship to Mataroa, running alternately as a peacetime troop transport and as a civilian passenger ship. Then Empire Deben, one of the spoils of war. A onetime German passenger liner—Thuringia, on the Western Ocean trade, General San Martin on the South American trade—she had spent the war years as a U-Boat depot ship. Under the British flag she was a peacetime troopship, owned by the Ministry of Sea Transport (all such vessels were named after British rivers) and managed by Shaw Savill.

Then there was Cufic there was Doric, which vessel I joined for her maiden voyage. She should have been a fine ship but she was not, mainly due to the appallingly low standard of workmanship in the yard where she was built.

My last ship in the Shaw Savill Line was Waiwera, in which I sailed for quite some time. She represents another crucial point in my life. If I had not served in that particular vessel it is highly probable that there would never have been any Rim Worlds or any Commodore Grimes to be a pain in the arse to the rulers of that far flung confederation.

WaiweraIt was while I was serving in Waiwera that I met the lady who became my second wife. She was travelling out as passenger from England to Australia but had no fixed intention of settling in that country. She was at my table in the dining saloon and, during the meal time conversations, and at other times, we discovered that we had a great deal in common. But this is not Thrilling Romances. Suffice it to say that I resigned from the service of the Shaw Savill line, emigrated to Australia and, after seeing what the various Australian shipping companies had to offer, joined the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand as Third Officer.

USSCo, although its Head Office was (and still is) in Wellington, New Zealand, in those days owned quite a large fleet of small vessels under the Australian flag. What made the Company attractive to me was that the majority of officers were, like myself, refugees from the big English companies: Shaw Savill, the Blue Funnel Line, the Port Line, the Royal Mail, even Cunard. Our Marine Superintendent in Sydney had started life, as a seafarer, in the P & 0. To American readers all the above may seem to be without great significance but the old established English shipping lines, before industrialisation replaced the now outmoded ideals of service, were practically private navies.

It was not long before I was back in my old rank, as Chief Officer. I served on Australian coastal trades, on the Bass Strait passenger ferry service, on the New Zealand coast, on the Pacific Islands trade, on the trans-Tasman service. I became used to and came to love relatively small ships. Relatively small? Some were bloody small, by anybody’s standards.

And I started writing hard again, short stories and novelets at first. A spell on the Strahan Trade—back and forth between Strahan, a small port on the wild West Coast of Tasmania and Yarraville, a grimly and gimily industrial suburb of Melbourne—somehow gave me the idea for the Rim Worlds and for their major shipping company, Rim Runners, with a fleet officered by refugees from the big Terran spacelines. Rim Runners had to have an Astronautical Superintendent just as today’s shipping companies have Marine Superintendents. That vacancy was filled by Captain (later Commodore) Grimes. At first Grimes was only a background character.

The Great Magazine Market Crash came just when I had nicely re-established myself as a short story writer. One of the reasons was the proliferation of paperback novels. So, like many others, I had to make the switch from short to long material. That was when the never-ending Grimes saga really got off the ground. It was some time, however, before he had a novel all to himself. My protagonist should have been one Derek Calver—but he was last seen heading in the general direction of the next galaxy but three and hasn’t been heard from since.

Finally, having attained sufficient Union Steam Ship Company seniority, I was appointed to command. Somehow, when I made the transition from “Mr.” to “Captain,” Grimes made his from “Captain” to “Commodore.” Much later, when I was a sort of honorary Commodore, being the senior (but only) captain in a one-ship company (actually one of USSCo’s subsidiaries) Grimes became an honorary Admiral of the Rim Worlds planets.

The Road to the RimWhen Commodore Grimes was firmly established as a series character I took a leaf from the book of the late C. S. Forester and started to tell the story of Grimes’ early life just as Hornblower’s creator did regarding him. The first book was The Road To The Rim, dedicated to Hornblower. For quite a while two series were running concurrently: the somewhat elderly and cantankerous Commodore Grimes of Rim Runners, and the Rim Worlds Naval Reserve and the young Mr.—eventually Commander—-Grimes of the Federation Survey Service. There were novels, some of which were serialised in If. There were short stories, appearing in If, Galaxy and Analog, which later came out in book form.

All the time I was hinting that there was some Big Black Mark in Grimes’ career, some crime or colossal blunder as a result of which he had been obliged to resign his commission in the Survey Service and emigrate to the Rim Worlds.

The Big Black MarkAt last I decided to write the book that would fill the gap between his two careers. I didn’t even have to think up a plot; there was one readymade. All that I did, essentially, was to retell the story of Bligh and the Bounty. The only real difference between real life and fiction was that Bligh survived his mutiny and went on to become, in the fullness of time, a Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy. Grimes—considerably less vindictive in his dealings with the mutineers than Bligh was— was obliged to make a fresh start.

I thought that I had filled the gap with The Big Black Mark but readers were not slow to tell me that I had done nothing of the kind. And not only readers... If anybody is to be blamed for the third Grimes series—Grimes, Survey Service drop-out, yachtmaster, owner-master, still to make his way to the Rim Worlds—it is Hayakawa Publishing of Tokyo. A few years back that company purchased Japanese paperback rights to all the Rim Worlds novels then in-print. They had the bright idea of publishing these in the correct order insofar as Grimes’ biography was concerned starting off with The Road To The Rim. Before they got around to printing The Big Black Mark they were demanding a direct follow-up to this book.

Star CourierFor various reasons the sequence in the U.S.A. has, once again, gotten out of order. Star Courier has been published by DAW before The Far Traveller (the novel, that is, not the Analog novelette). At the moment of writing I can report that To Keep The Ship, the follow-up to Star Courier, has been purchased by DAW and Hayakawa but not yet by my usual publishers in London.

Then there is the Kitty And The Commodore series, the first episode of which will be appearing in Isaac Asimov's. In this the somewhat elderly Commodore Grimes tells stories of his misspent youth to one Kitty Kelly who produces a programme called Kitty’s Korner for Station Yorick, on Elsinore Other episodes will be written between novels.

Looking over the above few paragraphs I realised that I made the transition from shipmaster and part-time writer to full-time writer. But the transition still is not complete. I would class myself now as part-time shipmaster and full-time writer. Since my retirement seem to have been spending quite a lot’ of my time in charge of laid-up ships and have been referred to as the Union Steam Ship Company’s Commodore Baby Sitter. These last pages, as a matter of fact, are being written aboard out of commission vessel.

So far—like Grimes—I have be lucky. The first baby sitting job ended just before the Aussiecon, the second shortly prior to my trip to the U.S., to attend the Expo-That-Wasn’t, the third immediately before the QCon Brisbane. All being well I should be free to make a trip to Japan to meet my publishers and readers later this year.

Looking back over the decades and the miles I feel that I have very little cause for complaint. Things might not always have been for the best in the best of all possible worlds but they could have been a damn’ sight worse. And my earlier life, at least, there has be the element of unpredictability that helped to make things interesting. I recall a rather amusing incident from my youth, shortly after my first, round-the-world-a-couple-or-three-times in Cape St Andrew. I was home on leave. It was during what passes for summer in England. With a couple of friends I went to spend the day at Great Yarmouth, a seaside resort on the east coast. On the beach there was the tent of a gipsy fortune teller. I had my fortune told. The lady assured me that I should never travel. Not so oddly I did not believe her prognostications. But if she had told me that I should finish up as an Australian shipmaster and an internationally! known science fiction writer I should have been incredulous.

It would have been much neater if my second wife had been to see her fortune teller at exactly the same time, but it must have been quite a few years later. She, a girl raised in an entirely land locked country, was told that she would one day marry a sea captain...

I’m glad that the second fortune teller—her fortune teller—was right. Apart from anything else, three of the four Ditmars that I have been awarded should really have gone to Susan.

The other one should have gone to Grimes.

Or Bligh.

Originally Published in Algol - Sp 1978