Book Publishing, London, 2001
the dust-free mahogany shelves at the British bookstore Waterstones,
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. Ballards 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 whats with the Jonathan? Why not just, Jon? Jon Franzen.
Now thats manly. Like a boxer, or a cop, or a fireman. Or
maybe a seaman. Now thats manly.
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 sailors 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 lads diary provides.
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 Lees 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 weve 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 weve been to Havana, the Americans
wont let us back through the Canal. I didnt know
it was theirs as well. Perhaps the whole world belongs to America.
Thats what the Fourth says. It used to be ours; now its
theirs." (pp. 188)
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.
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.
If you think the tramp is gone, it isnt.
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:
And many more can be found at EscapeArtist.com: