Monday, 8 September 2014

Drops of neaters

Luckily, the nurse called to take a blood sample from the Old Bat quite early yesterday afternoon so I was able to walk the dog and then get into the garden.  Even though I am very careful not to overdo things, I still managed to cut the grass - some of which had grown to six inches! - dig out a self-seeded plum tree some four feet high which I spotted growing up through a hydrangea, trim the ivy on one wall and pick the raspberries.  By that time I was rather warm.  In fact, as I told the Old Bat, I was sweating drops of neaters.

I'm not at all sure the OB knew just what I meant by 'drops of neaters' but she is not unaccustomed to the occasional odd phrase escaping my lips.  I know I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog that mine is - or was - a naval family.  Both my father and his father served for more than 20 years each in the Royal Navy, my father's brother was also in the Navy, as was my brother.  And my sister-in-law served in the Wrens.  Add another uncle with over 20 years service and a cousin with a short-service commission somewhere in his past.  To my shame, I managed only the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.  And I suppose I should also mention that the men on my mother's side tended to be dockyard workers, or 'dockyard mateys' as they are collectively known.  Given this preponderance of maritime influence during my formative years and later, it is hardly surprising that a few naval phrases have crept into my vocabulary, one of which is 'sweating drops of neaters'.

I have never managed to discover just why the Navy issued a tot of rum each day to those aged over 20.  Men who preferred not to take their tot were paid threepence a day extra in lieu.  Rum was originally issued in place of beer if beer was not available, the practice apparently originating back in the 17th century.  The last pipe of "Up spirits" was in 1970 when it was decreed that the consumption of rum - even if it was considerably less than the half pint issued centuries ago - could lead to accidents when working with intricate machinery.

There is quite a vocabulary associated with the naval tot.  I mentioned "Up spirits" which was the pipe made when the representatives of each mess would collect the rum for their mess.  Measurement had to be accurate to the drop.  Senior ratings (chief petty officers and petty officers) were issued their tot neat, while junior ratings had theirs diluted two parts water to one part rum.  The tot had to be consumed when issued and it was an offence to keep it back for later, although doing so was not unheard of in the Chiefs' and POs' mess in particular.

The leading hand of the mess would carefully issue each tot from the fanny in which the rum had been collected from the spirit room.  If one or more of the men from the mess was absent for some reason there would be a little left over.  This was known as "the Queen's" and would be poured into a glass, passed from man to man, each taking a sip until it was gone.

Rum was also used as a form of currency.  Another rating who had performed a favour could be invited for 'a wet'.  This would usually be 'sippers' - just a small sip of rum - but for a really big favour it might stretch to 'gulpers'.

And so we come back to 'sweating drops of neaters'.  This is when a man is so hot that he sweats drops of neat rum!

And while we are on the subject of naval slang, I should mention the pipe "Cheer up for Chatham, Sheerness is in sight!"

Chatham is a town in Kent on the River Medway and was for many years - centuries, even - one of the countries chief naval bases.  Ships returning to Chatham would enter the Thames estuary and sail past the Isle of Sheppey, with the town of Sheerness at the tip, before turning into the Medway.  You can imagine how, after a three-year draft overseas, men were anxious to get home.  When Sheerness was in sight, there was only a short journey remaining so the hands would be told by a pipe to "cheer up for Chatham, Sheerness is in sight!"

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