Thursday, 6 August 2015


Before we last trekked to France I returned the books I had borrowed from the public library but borrowed no more.  I had plenty of books to read, including the recently published third of Roberts Goddard's trilogy.  Now I have finished all of them and find myself too busy to visit the public library during its rather restricted opening hours.  I have instead resorted my private library.  Sounds a bit posh, doesn't it?  But it really is a fairly small collection of books that I consider good enough to keep by me.  The one I selected to read again is The Cruel Sea, by Nicholas Monsarrat, published in 1951.  It was very quickly made into a film, released in 1953, starring Jack Hawkins, Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliott, Stanley Baker, Liam Redmond, Virginia McKenna and Moira Lister.  It is a few years now since I last read the book although I did watch the film again, ooh, a couple of years ago. (I have the DVD.)  I first saw the film in 1953, when I was but a wee bitty laddie away at school on the Isle of Wight.  It does seem to me now to be surprising that the nuns who ran the school allowed we pupils to see a war film.  The only other film we were taken to see that year was the film of the Queen's coronation!

As I say, it is a long time since I read the book and I had forgotten just how Monsarrat draws us into the story and how well he makes characters and scenes come to life.

The book opens thus:
This is the story - the long and true story - of one ocean, two ships, and about a hundred and fifty men.  It is a long story because it deals with a long and brutal battle, the worst of any war.  It has two ships, because one was sunk and had to be replaced.  It has a hundred and fifty men because that is a manageable number of people to tell a story about.  Above all, it is a true story because that is the only kind worth telling.

First, the ocean, the steep Atlantic stream.  The map will tell you what that looks like: three-cornered, three thousand miles across and a thousand fathoms deep, bounded by the European coastline and half of Africa, and the vast American continent on the other side: open at the top like a champagne glass, and at the bottom like a municipal rubbish dumper.  What the map will not tell you is the strength and fury of that ocean, its moods, its violence, its gentle balm, its treachery: what men can do with it and what it can do with men.  But this story will tell you all that.

Then the ship, the first of the two, the doomed one.  At the moment she seems far from doomed: she is new, untried, lying in a river that lacks the tang of salt water, waiting for the men to man her.  She is a corvette, a new type of escort ship, an experiment designed to meet a desperate situation still over the horizon.  She is brand new; the time is November 1939; her name is HMS Compass Rose.

Lastly, the men, the hundred and fifty men.  They come on the stage in twos and threes: some are early, some are late, some, like this pretty ship, are doomed.  When they are all assembled, they are a company of sailors.  They have women, at least a hundred and fifty women, loving them, or tied to them, or glad to see the last of them as they go to war.

But the men are the stars of this story.  The only heroines are the ships: and the only villain the cruel sea itself.
Doesn't that just draw you in?  I know it does me.


(not necessarily your) Uncle Skip, said...

I have just added another book to my must reads.

Brighton Pensioner said...

I am confident that you will enjoy it. In fact, I'm almost confident enough to say that I'll pay the cost of the book if you don't enjoy it!