Sailing Into History

There are authors who captivate you. With their choice of words, their temperament, their ideas, their life story, their way of looking at the world, their… spirit. It’s been a long time since I last had been so captivated as I’ve been this winter; and it’s a good thing that my husband doesn’t read this blog for I’m positively in love. (With a man who’s been dead for some thirty years. Ouch!)


I have had occasion before to mention Ernle Bradford. More than once. I will do so again now, and probably repeatedly in the future; for he wrote an awful lot of history books that I’m hellbent on reading. But this is about…

The Journeying Moon

aka Sailing into History, one of two autobiographical books he wrote about his time in the Mediterranean.

For me at any rate the sound of the pleasant place is in the waves of the sea. And the smell of it is damp cordage and wood, on a fair morning when the off-shore breeze just carries the scent of the land. And the sight of it is a dolphin breaking clean and shining out of a foam crest – or the curve of a wind-washed sail, at evening, when the sea’s line shines.

I don’t know what is it about Bradford but a kid who at 18 joins the Navy in the middle of a war and cares enough to pack a bilingual edition of the Odyssey into a very limited kitbag would have been just the kind of kid I might have fancied when I was 16. Had he merely joined the Navy, I would have thought him brave but stupid. Had he merely lugged the Odyssey around, I’d have dismissed him for a pretentious arsehole without so much as blinking my eyes. But he did both.

And I don’t even like the Odyssey. (Although he got me to read it.)

You never really leave a place or a person that you have loved.
All emotion is a kind of wound, and the wounded carry in their hearts the encysted fragments. Sometimes, for no known reason, they work their way to the surface and are discharged for ever, but usually they stay there until the end.

Bradford spins a good yarn. It’s his twenty-first birthday, he’s in Alexandria, he picks up a second-hand copy of Chekhov in some bookshop and reads it over a couple of glasses of brandy… He reels through half a dozen bars and cabarets with his friends, getting smashed and he spends what’s left of the night in the bed of a French widow, half-sleeping through the inevitable air raid. He sits smoking and drinking coffee and fine at dawn in an Egyptian workmen’s bar before returning to his ship…But in this casual, throwaway story of his twenty-first birthday, war-time Alexandria comes vividly and unforgettably alive: from the French widow standing by the window cursing the ‘Boche‘ while bombs fall on the harbour, through the conversations with his best friend who is to die within six months on a Malta convoy to Abdul, the felucca man who ferries him back to his ship in the fresh morning breeze.

And he only told the story because he wanted to explain the Chekhov quote that he read that day, the quote by which he ultimately chose to live his life:

Life does not come again; if you have not lived during the days that were given to you, once only, then write it down as lost…

He tried to settle down after the war. He got married, he got himself a job in London. But it did not serve. Somewhere along the line, in the course of those years that he spent being shot at while he plied the length and width of the Mediterranean in a Hunt-class destroyer, he had fallen in love with the sun and the tideless sea. So one miserable wet London day he and his wife sold everything, bought a boat… and they left.

De_boeierschuit_ANKE_MARIA_(02)
Bradford sailed the Mediterranean in a Dutch cutter like this. Photo: © S.J. de Waard / CC-BY-SA-3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t know what it was about Bradford, for he was not rich. The boat he sailed was no fancy yacht but a forty-year old ten-ton Dutch cutter that his friends thought was not fit to be taken outside the breakwater. He crossed the Channel with it, nevertheless, and then made his way across France via the rivers and the canals until he reached the Mediterranean. He sailed down the Italian coast, he sailed to Malta, to Greece… It was lucky he could write so well because from then onwards that’s how he made ends meet. He sailed, he read, he studied history… then he wrote about sailing, the Mediterranean and history.

He was that most unusual type of Englishman: the one who mixes with foreigners. All too often the Englishman goes abroad and then bands together with other Englishmen, living in a little English enclave, eating marmite and marmalade, reading English papers. Bradford ignored his compatriots as often as not, picked up languages in passing in bars and taverns all over the Mediterranean and dared to eat the local food. He mixed freely with Greek fishermen, Sicilian mafiosi or French bargemen; he smoked and sailed and got drunk with Spaniards, Italians and the members of any and every seafaring nation that he came across. He had a knack for making friends.

We were singing when the next watch came up to relieve us:
“She’s a big fat girl
Twice the size of me-”
“You two feeling all right?” asked Frank. “Or have you been at the spirit locker? Midnight, wet, cold, and you’re sitting there making a noise like a bunch of drunks at closing-time.”
“Due south,” I said. ‘And keep her rolling.’

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