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Mayday! – Scottish Review of Books
by Christopher Harvie


September 14, 2009 | by Christopher Harvie

Mayday! – Christopher Harvie

I ask myself, is it just a matter of a few dozen passengers,

or do I watch the whole human race over there, haphazardly

hanging on to some run-down cruise-liner, fit for the scrapyard

and headed for self-destruction? I cannot

be sure. I am dripping wet

and I listen. It is hard to say who the seafarers over there

may be, each of them clutching a suitcase, a leek-green talisman, a dinosaur, or a

laurel wreath.

HANS-MAGNUS ENZENSBERGER is a poet who – to the EJ Thribbs of Metrolit – is too clever for his own good, writing with equally fluent acidity in German and English. He recognises the value of disaster. In complex socio-economic situations, it cuts through the different traditions of narrative and memory, rearranging them to produce story and analysis of a frozen moment of shock, and then a longer-unwinding trauma and ‘loosening of the screws’. Enzensberger wrote ‘The Sinking of the Titanic’ in 1978 when the hopes of 1968 had curdled and been cudgelled into terror, whether by the Baader-Meinhoff gang in suburban Germany or by Catholic and Protestant hitmen in the streets of the Titanic’s birthplace, Belfast. Thomas Hardy had been on the scene early with ‘The Convergence of the Twain’. “The matt-grey iron ship,/Which ought to have been the future” was never far from the mind of the Ulster-man Louis MacNeice. Man’s conquest of the elements also conjuring up the great ship as Moloch – and of other, disadvantaged men and natural forces, taking their chance or taking their revenge. James Cameron’s film Titanic (1997) – a technical and financial triumph (forget plot and acting) reinstated both. It was trumped three years later by the reality of 9/11.

In his Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936) WB Yeats, a poet of similar cold ambition, notoriously condemned the soldier-poets of World War I for their “blood and sucked sugar-stick” liberal-humanist attitudes. Modern conflict had become so technologised as to make destruction owe more to systems-failure than to tragedy: “Some fool has driven his car on to the wrong side of the road. That is all”.

This piece was stimulated by two accounts describing the war-provoked ‘tragedies’. They involved large numbers of victims in remote places, placed there by modern technology, blends of heroism, incompetence and sheer destructive force. They also happened within a particular social and geographic context which has preoccupied this commentator for a couple of decades while writing a cultural history of Britain’s Atlantic coast, Floating Commonwealth: the effect on civic and national identity of the century after Water-loo when the Atlantic was an Anglo-American mare nostra: carrier of the argosies of Lancashire and the Clyde, New Orleans and Chicago, to be celebrated largely by pacific radicals from Samuel Smiles to Walt Whitman. Then came the iceberg, and Yeats’s car crash: in some respects a systemic and psychological lesion akin to the shell-shock that marked the Western front.

The ‘Royal Oak’, the subject of David Turner’s artless but often touching collection of documents, recollections, letters and photographs, Last Dawn: The ‘Royal Oak’ Tragedy at Scapa Flow, was stimulated by an uncle’s death in the sinking, on 14 October 1939. The battleship was launched just as World War I broke out, and took part in the battle of Jutland in May 1916, the only great clash of fleets the Great War produced. The destruction of three British capital ships, with over 6000 dead, showed how vulnerable such vessels were. It may also explain the apparent indifference the political elite showed the victims.

Churchill praised the sinking of the ‘Royal Oak’ as “a remarkable episode of professional skill and daring” on the part of the German U-47, whose commander Guenther Prien had wormed his way into the supposedly safe anchorage through a channel regarded as unnavigable. A later public would probably not second Churchill’s gallantry. Armour and fifteen-inch guns seemed to protect; after a torpedo-strike they were as deadly as the warhead. “Up to the present I have not been troubled by the war and I am not worrying. Really, I am safer than you are”, wrote Ordinary Seaman Jack Wood, to his family in Consett, County Durham. Days later, with 832 others, he was dead.

The vast mechanised destruction of World War I was recouped by a memory which Yeats himself helped generate, settling on the outlandish or the desperate. Rudyard Kipling, the technocrat-prophet of the ‘Fleet in Being’ and the Kitchener Army, was almost silenced by the immensity of total war. A lesser but still imaginative talent, CS Forester, captured, in Brown On Resolution (1929) and The African Queen (1935), the same sort of individualistic, machine-defying gesture which – in the desert campaign of TE Lawrence and the Dublin Rising of 1916 – shook the Turkish and British empires.

The steam technology of the Dreadnoughts wasn’t predictable in wartime conditions nor were hitherto settled social relations. Far from starring in ‘fleet in being’ roles, they proved terrible liabilities: kings, not queens, of the chessboard. In an anticipation of later tragedy there had been, on 27 October 1914, farce: the two-year-old battleship HMS ‘Audacious’, forced from Scapa by the lack of U-boat protection, hit a Ger-man mine off Lough Swilly and sank without loss of life. Its wreck remained visible throughout the war, although it was only officially written off after the Armistice in 1918. The Admiralty was able to keep sch-tumm about this embarrassing loss. Its air patrols, warding off inquisitive Zeppelins, accounted for mysterious aircraft spotted over Galloway; putting an idea into John Buchan’s mind for his Thirty-Nine Steps. But it was a commentary on the fundamental uselessness of the giant heavy-gun warships the great powers had been competitively building for a decade. Admiral Jellicoe said that he could lose the war in a quarter of an hour if the Germans knocked out his capital ships, but he couldn’t have won it with them, even given years.

The one Dreadnought that earned its keep never fired an angry shot: the German ‘Goeben’, a new battlecruiser presented (with menaces) to the Turkish government in October 1914. Dan van der Vat’s The Ship that

Changed the World (2000) showed how it helped bring Turkey (by then recovering from its Sick Man of Europe role) into the war on the side of the Central Powers, and gave the Allied commanders of the black-farcical Dardanelles invasion the willies, should it descend on their fleet of elderly, lightly-armed ships. As a result, the landing failed through incompetence, the ‘warm-water’ route to Russia was never secured, and the absence of this accelerated the Tsarist collapse.

In the mechanised death business, the propensity to cock-up radically increased. Technologies had been overstressed which became unpredictable under fire and the human factor neglected. By 1939 the capital ship was a disaster-in-waiting. The loss of the ‘Royal Oak’ chillingly prefaced the Battle of the Atlantic, though its casualties would be overtopped by the Cunarder ‘Lancastria’ torpedoed off Saint Nazaire on 17 June 1940 (at least 2500 dead). The British Empire never recovered from the loss to the Japanese on 10 December 1941 of the battleships ‘Repulse’ and ‘Prince of Wales’ and the fortress of Singapore two months later on 15 February. The swift decolonisation of 1957-63 was a death foretold.

The impression of high command is of tight-arsed Admirals all too conscious of their deadly, fragile, malfunctioning leviathans – taking escort vessels from them to protect convoys was like drawing teeth – and cavalier about the people who had to navigate them, and their possible reactions. Where matters were already sensitive in 1914, disasters like the Dardanelles brought aggravation:

Oh England sent our wild geese forth
That small nations should be free,
And their lonely graves are by Suvla’s waves,
Or the shores of the grey North Sea.

– was a verse of ‘The Morning Dew’ composed by Charles O’Neill, a nationalist priest, after Easter 1916. For protestant Ulster the Battle of the Somme, conducted with equal crassness between July and November 1916, became its blood-sacrifice for the Union.

Lonely graves aplenty there were after the wrecking of the steam yacht ‘Iolaire’ on the Beasts of Holm off Stornoway in the first minutes of New Year, 1919. 205 men, 188 of them from the Long Island, were drowned within sight of the town, often after years of hazardous service. Serial incompetence in handling an overcrowded, elderly ship, bad navigation, non-existent rescue services produce, in John MacLeod’s judicious and wide-ranging account, When I Heard the Bell: The Loss Of The ‘Iolaire’, a case of constructive homicide. Though such behaviour at General Staff level was standard practice in most Western front offensives. It showed how the imperial elite could mishandle even its most loyal servants, the naval reservists of the Hebrides. This catastrophe was explicit because the security blanket had ended with the war.

By such means, trauma could be smothered before it became awkward. As MacLeod points out in a book distinguished by range of reference, so great was the disruption surrounding the war’s end – the Spanish flu epidemic, the industrialising schemes of the soap magnate Lord Lev

erhulme, the end of the herring trade with Russia, and the onset of the depression in 1920 – that few people could reorient themselves sufficiently to offer solidarity to the families bereaved. John Buchan in his Mr Standfast, published in April 1919, noted the contribution of the Highlands to the war, but also their listlessness. Quite justifiable: the depression came and stayed, on an island once prosperous through remittances. My English master Hector MacIver, squiring Louis MacNeice round Lewis in 1938, was no more sanguine on a couple of decades Scotland could have done without:

The glass is falling hour by hour,
The glass will fall forever
But if you break the bloody glass
You won’t hold up the weather.

There is a lot of ruin in a nation or empire, even when such trauma isn’t delusive but exposes fundamental weaknesses in its war machine. This was evident in the long-drawn-out psychological tragedy of many of the participants in the Falklands campaign of 1982 and subsequent wars, and, of course, in the technical unsuitability of much of the hardware. The state-of-the-art destroyer HMS ‘Sheffield’, built in 1977, had its aluminium superstructure packed with plastic-covered wires. Hit by an Argentinean missile, this burned uncontrollably: as dangerous as a Dreadnought whose poorly-protected magazines, heavy armour and massive gun-turrets could drag it under in minutes.

We are these days repeating some of this history. Nearly 300 Lewismen, as many as drowned that Ne’er Day, left their sad island on the Canadian Pacific liner Metagama on 21 April 1923 for the New World. The son of one of the 24 accompanying women was the egregious Donald Trump (product, ironically, of a Scots-Ger-man marriage) who has come home to a scarcely friendlier coast with golf courses in mind, though whether his schemes will fare any better than those of Lord Lever-hulme rests with other blind economic forces, and New York billionaires are not this year what they were last year, as ‘quality tourists’ or as financiers.

And the capital ship is back, in the form of Gordon Brown’s giant aircraft carriers: the Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales which will probably be the last big ships to be built in an increasingly deindustrialised UK. A form of weapon one would think, after the experience of the Falklands, peculiarly vulnerable to sophisticated missiles and determined terrorists. Suicide bombers and tacticians of the 9/11 sort have solved the problem of how to regroup after an attack, by writing off the human accounting. But hadn’t the Admirals and Generals of 1914-18 already done so?


When I Heard the Bell: The Loss Of The ‘Iolaire’
John MacLeod
BIRLINN, £ 16.99
pp272 ISBN 9781841587929

Last Dawn: The ‘Royal Oak’ Tragedy at Scapa Flow
David Turner
ARGYLL, £ 7.99
pp154, ISBN 1906134138

From this Issue


by Brian Morton


by Christopher Harvie

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