Ships and Sealing Wax and Many Things

30 Jul 18
Posted by: Alastair Wilson

by Roger Paine

Three hundred years ago this would have been referred to as a commonplace-book – a book in which a cultured gentleman recorded his own observations of interesting matters to which he might want to refer later and containing similar records by others which he thought of interest. Roger Paine, an ex-NO, has given us his commonplace-book, which will make an ideal bedside book, consisting of 73 bite-sized chapters, each on a separate subject, and full of quirks and quiddities.
The book is divided into sections: the first 25 chapters constitute the ‘ships’ section (nearly wrote ‘part of ship’), which is not just Royal Navy. It starts with the heroic (in the proper sense of the word) struggle to bring the tanker Ohio to Malta during Operation PEDESTAL in August 1942, a joint operation between her merchant crew and the RN ships which towed her in. Her arrival and unloading ensured the survival of Malta, so that, a year later, Malta-based forces could “sink, burn, destroy; let nothing pass” the axis forces driven out of North Africa by the Allied armies. There are accounts of Amethyst’s ordeal in the Yangtze in 1949, and a memorial vignette of Captain ‘Johnny’, or ‘Hooky’, Walker and his career, culminating in his leadership of the 2nd Escort Group, which played so large a part in the winning of the Battle of the Atlantic. There is a chapter on the work of the Missions to Seafarers, another on ‘Christmas at Sea’, and another, contrasting one, about Christmas 1941 in Hong Kong and the doomed defence of the colony. There is, of course, one entitled ‘Up Spirits’, and another on ‘rogue waves’. The last part of ‘Ships’ is some seafaring verse, written by the author – it is more ‘free verse’ than ‘blank verse’, and then some photographs, not, it must be said, of very high quality of reproduction.
There follows the ‘Sealing Wax’ section whose first chapter is entitled ‘Inside Parish Churches’, followed by charming mini-descriptions of 27 of the smaller parish churches in East Sussex, and some quite large, the latter including Salehurst, where your reviewer sang loudly when he was a teenager. Many date back to the 12th century, and they all represent some facet of life and worship in rural England – and we use England advisedly; Scottish kirks and Welsh chapels are entirely different.
The final ‘Many Things’ section consists of ten seasonal poems by some of our great poets, and potted biographies of their lives, ranging from ‘Springtime with Robert Herrick’ to ‘Christmas with John Betjeman’ and half a dozen final chapters on ‘Thomas Paine’ (it isn’t stated whether there is a family connection with the author), ‘German Troops in Bexhill’ – no, not a secret invasion in the 20th century, but about the time the Hanoverian King’s German Legion had their regimental depot there during the Napoleonic Wars, and one of Nelson’s Column. (Did you know that Landseer, who sculpted the four bronze lions at it base, used a real lion (deceased) as a model, but it decomposed so that his neighbours complained of the stench, and the pong drove him out of his studio.) The last chapter is entitled ‘Rock of Ages’, and is about Gibraltar.
Altogether it is a very pleasant read. It is not obvious who the target readership is – probably the 21st century equivalent of the ‘cultured gentleman’ of any nationality who is interested in Britain, and what makes us British tick. The publisher is based in Arizona: presumably it is best obtained on-line rather than through your local bookseller, if you’re lucky enough to have one.