EIGHT BELLS AND TOP MASTS

NONFICTION BY CHRISTOPHER LEE

Headline Book Publishing, London, 2001
ISBN: 0-7472-7492-4

Browsing the dust-free mahogany shelves at the British bookstore Waterstone’s, my eyes were on the lookout for a ‘manly’ book. Sweat, violence, and toil. Bridget Jones Diary? No. Too many tears, too much toil (to get through); not enough sweat and very light on the violence. J.G. Ballard’s Cocaine Nights? Looked interesting enough, though the cover was a garish aluminum foil job with various pastel colored palm trees. Too Jimmy Buffett. Not enough Muddy Waters. I even flipped through a copy of some book by a fellow named Jonathan Franzen. It was called The Corrections. After getting through a chapter while the check-out girl gazed on me with all mounting annoyance, I had neither found any tales of the travails of prison life, or penal fortitude. I was miffed. I felt cheated. The book was awfully thick too. And what’s with the Jonathan? Why not just, Jon? Jon Franzen. Now that’s manly. Like a boxer, or a cop, or a fireman. Or maybe a seaman. Now that’s manly.
         Which brings me to the book I found before the clerk threw me out into the Welsh mists. Eight Bells and Top Masts: Diaries from a tramp steamer, by Christopher Lee. In 1958, this tender lad of barely 17 packed up his sailor’s kit to board the tramp ship Empire Heywood. Two years and circumnavigating the globe later, Mr. Lee, or ‘the lad’ as he sometimes refers to himself in third person, returns home a man of the world. A tramp steamer is a merchant ship that sails from port to port hauling anything that the company who owns it contracts it out to haul. Much of the time, the crew does not know from one port to the next where the ship will take them. The tramp steamer was and is a dying breed, and this is particularly the case for Mr. Lee (who went on to write a history of Britain that turned into the award-winning BBC series, This Sceptred Isle). In his two years aboard ship Mr. Lee reflects on the dying but once mighty British Empire, which was built in large measure on the British shipping industry and mastery of the British Navy from the Battle of Trafalgar to the end of the Second World War. The United States emerged as the leader of the seas while colonialism collapsed, and Mr. Lee watches with the mind of a boy who learned in school that The Empire was the great civilizing force in the world. That was no longer true, if it ever was, as ‘the lad’ soon discovers.
         Most of the book is written in diary style epistolary form, and that is where it shines. Mr. Lee could have gotten away with using this form throughout the book, but he instead chooses to frame it with third-person narrative that puts the historical background in context. Be that as it may, those frames dissolve much of the mystery and magic that the ‘lad’s’ diary provides.
         We follow young Mr. Lee from his first call at the Hook of Holland in 1958 just outside Amsterdam, through the Suez canal, into the Indian Ocean, to Singapore, Japan and China, and Hong Kong, across the Pacific to Astoria, Oregon, Christopher Lee’s first call at an American port, and back across the Pacific to Honolulu, down to Australia, up to India, and back across to Vancouver. This is a virtual tour of a crumbling British Empire, and also a reflection on America's growth.
        Part of the book has the tramp scheduled to pick up sugar in Cuba. But Fidel Castro has recently taken over that country, meaning once they pick up the sugar in communist Havana, which was bound for communist China, they would not be allowed to stop in the U.S., or go through the then U.S.-controlled Panama Canal. One passage from the diary:

"So we’ve got to go all the way across the Pacific to Vancouver and take bunkers there, probably Coos Bay again, and then down to the Panama Canal, then through that to Havana. But once we’ve been to Havana, the Americans won’t let us back through the Canal. I didn’t know it was theirs as well. Perhaps the whole world belongs to America. That’s what the Fourth says. It used to be ours; now it’s theirs." (pp. 188)

         After Cuba and back across the Atlantic to Gibraltar, where the ship is struck by a tanker during a fog and sustains a huge gash, the tramp heads through the Suez again and out to the Indian Ocean, China and Shanghai, and finally Hong Kong where ‘the lad’ has to have his appendix removed and then is flown home, back to England. At home it seems not much has changed, but inside Mr. Lee is a much different boy, now more a man.
         Another bright spot of this book is the cast of characters on the tramp with Christopher Lee: the cocky and cantankerous Ainslie, an apprentice like Lee, who shares his bunk room and berates Lee at any chance; the Mate, first mate, worldly, read, stern, yet kind; the Chief Engineer, a strange breed, always alone tapping away on the Morse machine; the first Captain, mysterious and not often seen; the second Captain, along with his wife, who takes frequent trips to villas and hotels when the ship is at anchor. Most of the others are Chinese who do the dirty work below, the cooking, the scrubbing. Almost all of the characters are eccentric in some way, which brings them to life and creates for a lively read.
         All in all a very good book, especially to put yourself in a place where you might not have thought of, the world of the tramp steamer at the end of the British Empire. It is also interesting for the British slang usage, as well as the many times humorous, and sometimes tragic, but always strenuous life aboard ship.


NOTE

If you think the tramp is gone, it isn’t. It may not rule the seas anymore, but there are still opportunities to have a taste of what life might be like aboard these vessels, minus the grueling work. If you are interested, there are a number of websites that deal with tramp passenger travel. Many tramps have passenger cabins with all the modern fixings, but the surprise is you may not know where you are going to go when the tramp leaves the harbor. So if you have a month or maybe a year on your hands …
        Here are a few sites I found:

www.freighter-travel.com
www.travltips.com
www.webup.com/ftn

And many more can be found at EscapeArtist.com:
www.escapeartist.com/unique_lifestyles/Freighter_Travel.html

Happy Tramping!