A sailor’s life – 69. In memoriam
In the hi-tech glass box that is the new library at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, you rarely see a pencil or a piece of paper – just acres of clear desks and blinking computer screens, and iPads.
The old brown Caird library with its panelled walls and stately glass-fronted bookcases of fusty tomes is gone. The little round desk staffed by erudite geeky librarians never at a loss to point out some unmined seam of inquiry or an overlooked treasure on the crammed shelves, has been replaced by electronic gates and scanners.
The books available for general reference now are ranged from ankle to hip height around the windows, beyond which the rolling grass of Greenwich park stretches out and up, following the ant line of tourists toiling up and down the escarpment to Flamsteed’s pretty observatory and the best view in London. It is hard to browse without going down on hands and knees. So I don’t.
So much of Bert Sivell’s life was found here for me. First, his master’s certificate, with attendant paperwork that revealed he was a little man – 5ft 4 inches tall – with grey-blue eyes, like mine. Then the copy of AG Course’s book The Wheel’s Kick and The Wind’s song, which triggered the hunt. (“You know about the mutiny, of course,” the librarian had nodded across the circular desk. We did not.)
Here were the card indexes and envelopes of cuttings; the lists of surviving crew agreements and logs, and where to ask for them; a case full of Lloyd’s Registers, sail and steam, year by year, giving the all-important ship numbers, as well as ownership, tonnages and build. The old passenger guides to the Royal Mail steamship packets. And above all, the yards of Sea Breezes – a whole long shelf – bound and indexed and brimming with first hand tales of the ships Bert had sailed on and the men who might have sailed with him.
In my quest to understand the life that emerged from the sea chest full of letters by my grandmother’s bed I have amassed my own stacks of books and magazines, and interviewed old sea dogs and their wives up and down the country. I have learned to use a sextant – rocking on my heels to mimic the lurching horizon at a local study centre in Erith; blagged my way aboard a Shell oil tanker at Thameshaven and seen the traditional little shell in its case in the messroom, just as my grandfather described.
I have crossed the Atlantic in March aboard a container ship, watching the black water rear and coil around the vessel like a serpent, and heard the shriek of the wind in the rigging. I have even laid a wreath, cast into the dark in the dead of night with 53 names on paper slips at 47N 19W, as near as I could get to where Bert’s last ship was reported lost.
And I could not have done any of it without the Caird library, and the patient, well-read, imaginative souls who inhabited it. So this, belatedly, is a thank you to them all.
The new maritime library in Greenwich is very beautiful, and the computer index is probably no more confusing than the dog-eared old paper system was. On-site storage is bigger and retrieval faster, they say. Certainly, the fancy book scanner is a boon. Take a USB flash drive…
Oh brave new world.
Coming next: Bert goes East, 1926
Previously: Seamen’s strike 1925