Authors: George Melly
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #General, #Music, #Genres & Styles, #Jazz
My first contact with this man was when I had been detailed off to mop up a quantity of water that had been spilt on the Quarter Deck. On my knees, dreaming of something else, I became aware of a pair of highly polished shoes standing nearby. Looking up I saw a thin, bitter-faced man regarding my activities with sardonic interest. ‘You have never watched your mother mopping up your kitchen floor, have you?’ he said mildly. I admitted I hadn’t. ‘She had a maid to do that I dare say,’ he suggested. I agreed she had. He asked me if I’d been to a public school. I admitted it. ‘I thought so,’ he said and then explained that he had reached these conclusions by watching the way I was mopping up the water into the cloth only to squeeze it out again, well clear of the bucket. I looked down again to make sure he was right and had to agree it was so. I smiled up in what I hoped was an ingratiating manner but this seemed to trigger off a great deal of controlled anger. A nerve pulsed in his left temple as he ordered me icily to my feet. I got up. ‘At attention,’ he snapped, ‘and give me your name and number.’ I did so. ‘I’ll be watching you, Ordinary Seaman Melly,’ he snarled, ‘I’ll be watching you from now on. Now mop up that water.’ And he strode away.
From then on he kept his promise, and for my part I accepted the war and enjoyed it. For example I developed a slight eye infection and the Medical Officer said I should wear dark glasses on deck. I went ashore and bought a pair with extravagant up-swept pale pink rims. Most of the officers and the crew found these an excuse for humour at my expense (something I’ve never minded), or simply comic in themselves. Not so Warrant Officer Perkins. He stopped me and told me to take them off. I refused and produced the Medical Officer’s chit. He ordered me to replace them. I questioned his right to specify the kind of dark glasses I should wear especially, I added, as the Commander had told me he found them ‘endearingly absurd’. Perkins turned on his heel. He could afford to wait his chance.
The rest of the ship’s company has faded from my mind. I remember the leading seaman in charge of our mess, one or two faces remarkable for their beauty or ugliness, the Chaplain, a Welshman given to freewheeling
in his short sermons in the recreation space but enthusiastic about the arts and, as was to be proven, distinctly liberal in his attitudes. There was one rating, however, whom I remember clearly. He was the Earl of Dudley’s son and referred to, by most of the Petty Officers, as the ‘ ‘orrible Peter Ward’.
Peter Ward had been evacuated at the beginning of the war to Canada and had acquired a slight Canadian intonation. He had not acquired any democratic principles though and, as a conscripted rating on a cruiser, found himself surrounded by those who exorcised their unease at his title and arrogance by continuous mockery. This seemed to roll off Peter’s back. What he found far more distressing was having to behave as an inferior to the officers while they, in their turn, sensing his ill-suppressed contempt, went out of their way to see he jumped to it. Looking around for a friend he chose Felix, who had gone to Winchester and, in that his father had been a Admiral, was by definition upper-middle class. Being friendly with Felix he was forced, at times, to be at least fairly friendly towards me, but my lack of form distressed him, my political views and belief in sexual freedom appalled him, and my friendship with Tom or the Baron made me unacceptable when in any company except Felix’s. Even here though the stronger links between Felix and myself, our literary interests, drove him into a sullen rage as above all else Peter was a most committed philistine.
It was with this cast of characters that we cruised up and down the south coast during the winter months.
Edward, Felix and I had begun to draw our rum ration and, before going ashore, we would all give three tots to one of us in rotation, believing that the resultant intoxication would produce a feeling of uninhibited fantasy that would take us all into absurd adventures. This it frequently did. One night in Weymouth we staggered from The Boot, a public house preferred by the Baron to the even more baronial Belvedere, aware, with some relief, that he himself would be in neither as he had been sent to his native Leicester to give evidence at the trial of a mate accused, no doubt with every justification, of stealing a car (‘the judge was a right Mongolian cunt,’ explained the Baron on his return). In the Belvedere was a collection of very mangy old whores and we sat drinking brandy, and listening with delight to their Rabelaisian banter. One toothless Irish lady, with stringy hair cut like a man and pyjamas worn under her trousers, was asked by a drunken Yorkshire Petty Officer how much she’d charge for ‘all night in’.
‘All night in what?’ she asked him. ‘We got rabbits in the bloody air-raid shelter!’
‘But lass,’ he persisted, ‘I’ve got eighteen inches.’
‘Uncontrollable passion eh? Well wrap it round your neck and throw snow balls.’
A few weeks before Christmas we met up with the entire Home Fleet for a rehearsal of an event which was to take place in February. The King and Queen were to visit Canada and we were to cheer them off. We were lined up and told that after the salute (to be represented on this occasion by five instead of twenty-one guns), the bugler would sound off a ‘G’. We would then raise our caps at an angle of forty-five degrees, holding them by the brims, the arms fully extended and, when the officer on the bridge shouted ‘Hip, Hip,’ we would yell ‘Hurrah’ three times, replace our caps and stand to attention. A small sloop representing the
passed between the two lines of ships, and we raised three feeble cheers. ‘Not bad,’ said the Commander through the loudspeakers, but then he was always agreeable to everyone.
My Anarchic sentiments thoroughly stirred by this chilly exercise, I went down to the Mess Deck and scribbled the beginning of a letter to my mother:’… for whose benefit? The King’s? Ours? The sentimental heart of the great British public stuffed with
No wonder constitutional monarchy, particularly the English brand, so appeals to Salvador Dali!’
Then I went up to the recreation space to play tombola, the bingo of the Navy, with the Baron, who always insisted on calling it ‘Thomas Bowler’. I won ten shillings. After supper I picked up an American comic. Adding to my mother’s letter I commented: ‘Featuring supermen and desperate criminals who discover how to destroy the world, these bright gaudy pages crammed with sadism, near-rape and death are a wonderful psychological mirror. There is even a Surrealist interest,
“Like evil things spawned by the brooding marsh”.’ Now if only I’d pursued that line, taken it as the subject for the article nervously solicited by St Cyril in the restaurant, I might have earned my place as the first prophet of English pop art, but I didn’t. I slung my hammock and the next day we upped anchor and sailed for Chatham and the Christmas leave.
Christmas was as it had always been. Lunch at my maternal grandmother’s, where my father complained, as usual, that Uncle Alan’s cocktails had too much orange in them and not enough gin. Even so there seemed to have been quite enough gin for my grandmother, who made a speech, after the pudding and mince pies, in somewhat incoherent praise of the police, sentiments hardly likely to appeal to my Anarchist sympathies.
A more expected assault on my convictions came when Uncle Alan himself, always a convinced patriot, insisted on everybody listening to the King’s speech to the soon-to-be-dissolved Empire, and then on us all standing, he inadvertently wearing his pink paper hat from a cracker, for the National Anthem. I had threatened my mother to remain seated that year but, in the event, compromised by pretending that the unaccustomed richness of the lunch necessitated a diplomatic visit to the lavatory.
Leave over, I returned to the
looking forward to the spring cruise in the Mediterranean, and with a watchkeeper’s job which would allow me over the next few weeks to renew the pleasures of the capital.
The London Gallery was beginning to take shape. Edouard had been to Belgium and returned depressed by Surrealism there: ‘Very provincial,’ he grumbled, and he was furious too that Magritte, in the after-glow of wartime resistance, had joined, for what proved to be a very brief period of time, ‘the Stalinists’.
Reggie and Perry were much as before, although Perry told me he was thinking of taking a job, an idea I actually found quite shocking. I revisited Soho, and the Caribbean Club, but now that I was to come and work in London, I found myself beginning to view the city in a new light. I had begun to think of myself as a native.
Halfway through January disaster struck. The ferocious black-bearded Master at Arms sent for Tom and me and told us in his office, largely denuded of toy animals by the Christmas rush, that two ratings of the battleship the
Duke of York
were being loaned to the
for two months to do a gunnery course, and that two ratings from the
must be handed over in exchange.
‘I know you’re mates,’ he said, ‘and I also know that, with the exception of the ‘orrible Peter Ward, you are the most useless pair of fuckin’ articles on the ship, so you it is. In repayment of my kindness in sending you off together I shall expect from you, Ordinary Seaman Melly, two free tickets for the Chelsea Arts Ball where I am led to believe a great deal of shagging is the order of the day. You will join the
Duke of York
next Thursday when we reach Weymouth. Any questions? No? Then piss off!’
We thanked him and did as he advised, but I had mixed feelings about two months alone with Tom. I was also upset not to have Felix and Edward to go ashore with as, despite the fact the whole of the Home Fleet was cruising in the Mediterranean, the ships were not necessarily going to the same ports. However, there was nothing to be done, and the following Thursday morning found us sitting in a cutter, one of whose crew was indeed ‘the ’orrible Peter Ward’ himself, covering the three hundred yards that separated the two ships. There was a gale-force wind, and it took over twenty minutes to reach the
Duke of York.
We climbed the enormous gangway to discover a fo’c’sle like a limitless plain. I was immediately frightfully homesick for the dear little
which I had once found so alarmingly large, and I especially hated that instant loss of identity which is the effect of joining any new institution whether a ship or a school. The next day we got up at 0600hrs to sweep the deck prior to saluting the King. It was very cold and I got my feet wet. Tom and I, sitting down to breakfast without washing, a normal practice on the
were shamingly ordered to go and do so by the mess killick, a Leading Seaman.
At 1100hrs we fell in. The two lines of the Home Fleet stretched as far as I could see, battleships, cruisers and destroyers fading into the distance. They fired the full twenty-one guns this time, and between the heads of two stokers who were pretending to commit sodomy I caught a glimpse of the King as he passed by a hundred yards off, standing on the deck of the
and saluting his acknowledgement of our rehearsed cheers. One of the stokers had a huge and angry boil on the back of his neck.
The next day we sailed for the first post-war Home Fleet goodwill cruise of the Mediterranean. I had the first watch on the bridge that night: black sea, white spray, brilliant stars. The following morning, in the Bay of Biscay, we ran into what a Chief Petty Officer assured me was ‘the worst bastard storm’ he’d ever encountered in thirty years of service. Apart from our watchers we were forced to stay down below for four days and nights. In consequence there was nothing but the slow sickening roll from side to side, the vile taste in the mouth, the repetitive Mess Deck obscenities, uneaten meals congealing in fat, spew in the heads and flats, pale-faced creatures barging into each other like zombies, and the throbbing of the machinery. Nobody washed or shaved. Only during my watches on the bridge, stirred by the raging seas, could I feel any exhilaration or purpose in living. I was sad when my four hours were up and I had to go back into the foetid hell below decks.
Then one morning we woke to find the sky a warm bright blue, the waters calmed and sparkling, to port the mountainous coast of Spain. Happiness flowed through the great ship. We cleaned up the flats, heads and messes, shaved and showered, whistled and hummed. My job that day was to paint those strange naval objects – ringbolts, bollards, fairleads and shackles – which sprouted from the wooden deck of the fo’c’sle. Gulls wheeled and circled overhead as white as washing, and for the first time, with ecstatic disbelieving pleasure, I watched the grinning dolphins romping and plunging in our wake.
Gibraltar is a very British piece of abroad with its Boots and W H Smiths, but for Tom Dash and me it was as foreign as could be. At about 1530hrs on the next afternoon we fell in, eyes shining, to enter harbour. The guns fired a noisy salute and by 1600hrs the great ship was secured alongside the jetty while, in midstream, the
was moored to a buoy. We both wished we were back aboard her, but at least that night we could go ashore.
Next to us was an American battleship with several variants on our own more traditional Tannoy announcements to laugh at: ‘Liberty guys to glamorise’ was one such.
We fell on deck at 1800hrs, but before we were allowed to march ashore the RPO read us a bizarre warning from the Admiral commanding the Home Fleet:
There have been of late several incidents in Gibraltar to the discredit of the service. It is up to every man proceeding on shore to behave in an exemplary manner, not only to redeem the Fleet’s good name, but also for their own sake.
Actions in Gibraltar are liable to be misinterpreted so the wise man proceeds with circumspection. Alcohol in Gibraltar is liable to be of an explosive nature, so that the wise man is moderate in his intake. The local ‘jungle juice’ and ‘merry-merry’ should be avoided. Most of the public houses are in or near Main Street, where public lavatories are few and far between, so the wise man asks for and uses one on the premises before leaving. Urinating [‘that means pissing,’ interposed the RPO helpfully] in the streets is a very serious offence. Commanding Officers are to see that all Libertymen understand these instructions, which are to be read aloud and explained.