Lost at sea

Tales my grandfather would have told me. A sailor's life 1910-1941

A sailor’s life – 71. ‘A small man, tubby…’

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Captain Hubert Sivell - 'a small, tubby man, who  liked his beer'

Captain Hubert Sivell – ‘a small, tubby man, who liked his beer’ – aboard Pomella, in tropical whites, and with Ena in the garden at 23 Well Street, Ryde

For ten years after first reading my grandfather’s letters, I wrote letters of my own: to Sea Breezes, and Saga and the Shell pensioners’ association, to magazines for the seafarers’ unions RMT and Numast, and even to the readers’ editor of the Daily Telegraph. I contacted libraries and museums and sound archives. I was looking for the men, old by then, who could explain what I had found.

The response was breathtaking. Letters and telephone calls poured in. For months on end I entertained old sailors in pubs up and down the country or was invited to dainty lunches and teas in sunny sitting rooms, where amused wives pressed homemade goodies on me while their grey-haired husbands laughed and lit up with remembered youth from the deep easy chairs by their snug firesides. My tape recorder whirred, catching the stories the families no longer bothered to ask.

The old men told me about the war, and the shipmates who didn’t come back. They told me about the fear they ignored as their ships crept across the grey-green wastes where a U-boat might hide behind every wave. They told me about never closing a door, never showing a light or clanging the steel grating, and the daft things they kept close, to save if the call came to abandon ship – the ballgown for a long-forgotten girlfriend sown into a lifejacket, the plan of a dream yacht never built, the teetotal Welsh chapel boy’s bottle of whisky.

Deck hockey, MAC ship Amastra

Deck hockey, probably on the MAC ship Amastra. ‘We were young. The war years were the best time of our lives…’ Private collection

They rolled their heads back on the crisp antimacassars and laughed and remembered their early years at sea: the first glimpse of engine rooms large as cathedrals, the sea sickness and the tough, sail-trained mates and masters who taught them their business.

They told me about the places they had been, places Bert had been, and the mischief they got up to there. So many stories.

It came as a surprise – a shock, even – the first time one of them turned out to have actually known Bert.

Harold Barnet-Lamb had served as 3rd Mate under Bert when he was 23. His wife had egged him on to write to me after an acquaintance, chatting about an appeal he’d seen in a travel magazine for the active elderly, had turned to Harold at some Rotary club do. “You knew Captain Sivell, didn’t you?” I had rung him immediately, sick with excitement, the questions racing through my mind, and down the telephone line had come Harold’s voice, quietly amused — “Oh yes, I knew old Hubert. I can see him now… we used to call him old moneybags.”

Harold had served as a captain himself on the Atlantic convoys later, and had become entangled in the cold war later still, but he remembered the ‘old man’ he had served on Pomella sixty years previously. “I can see him now, coming along the flying bridge in his brass hat [the one with all the gold braid],” he said. “He wasn’t stern. You had to do things the right way, let’s put it that way. He didn’t interfere with you at all unless there was something that he had a beef about. Lay a course off wrong, or write the log book out wrong. Something serious. But I used to do the same.”

Pomella Shell asphalt Helderline

The Shell asphalt carrier Pomella – ‘I can see him now, coming along the flying bridge with his brass hat on. We used to call him old moneybags’

“He was a small man, tubby, used to have a bit of a tum. He used to say: ‘That cost me a lot of money’. He drank a lot of beer, yes, why not? He used to have his beer, and gin. He was never the worse for it. He never used to go to bed before midnight. He’d probably come up about half past ten or eleven and chat to you for about an hour or so. About general things. He was very interested in his stocks and shares. He said there was only one which had ever let him down and that was a brewery. ‘It was a bloody brewery,’ he said. ‘I don’t drink enough’…” Harold laughed.

Harold and Myra Barnet-Lamb had been in their early 80s when I met them in yet another sunny sitting room in a bungalow deep in the Kent countryside; he, an old man still with the bearing of the giant he had once been, and she an amused, gracious lady, every inch the captain’s wife. It turned out that Harold had served eight months under Bert aboard the asphalt tanker Pomella. In the end he had left Anglo-Saxon Petroleum to get a command, and left the sea because, he said, of the “monotony” of the tankers’ endless circuit. He had gone into the shipyards to learn engineering and became a marine consultant.

“That’s one thing,” he said, from the depths of a comfy wingchair far from the sea and his Northumberland roots, “Old Hubert didn’t get on well with his engineers. The engineer used to call him a swivel…” Looking inward across the years at the few surfacing memories of the little captain, he grinned to himself, and refused to elaborate. “Heh, heh…”

Just an old sailing ship man? I asked.

“Oh, he was all right,” he said. “He was a good shipmaster.”

Coming next: 1926 – Bert goes East

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