Biography 26.3 (2003) 482-483
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This diverting and entertaining book traces the everyday lives of the sailors of the Royal Navy when Britannia Ruled the Waves, days which have long since disappeared. There are no longer enough ships in the Royal Navy to cause the water to overflow from a domestic bathtub. Sailors' lives have also altered radically: women now routinely serve at sea, food has improved immeasurably, discipline has relaxed, many sailors enjoy the privacy of small cabins rather than enduring the harsh communal existence of the mess decks,whilst the rum ration—"Stand fast the Holy Ghost"—was abolished in 1970.The Royal Navy has largely vanished from Portsmouth, Devonport, Chatham, Liverpool, Sheerness, Harwich, and Rosyth, leaving behind scant trace of its former industries and "services" in the form of seedy pubs, brothels, street walkers, cramped Victorian barracks, and pawnbrokers. Union Street in Plymouth retains some of its previous atmosphere and character, although mostly deserted, but the other bases and dockyards have been sanitized and rebuilt.
Using interviews, diaries, memoirs, and letters, Professor McKee has reconstructed life on the lower deck. He is not concerned with the wardroom, and officers are only seen through the eyes of ratings. Throughout he employs the sailors' own words, frequently ungrammatical and colloquial and replete with repetitions and contradictions, to provide an authentic feel and immediacy, a device that is often annoying but effective. A typical volunteer served for an average of twenty-two years, having entered the service for reasons ranging from poverty, unemployment, cruel parents, a love of the sea and adventure, to accident. McKee records their religious convictions, which generally settled somewhere between agnosticism and atheism, their relationships with commissioned officers, life on the mess deck, alcohol and alcoholism, both hetero- and homosexual relations, and lives in retirement. Discipline was harsh, but as McKee points out, it was only made possible because the men willingly consented to its necessity and enforcement. What does the author find? A set of men as varied in personality, background, and custom as one would discover in any mass occupation: some were drunk but many were sober; many frequented brothels but equally many did not; most behaved honorably and decently, and only a minority let the side down. Large numbers volunteered because they sought adventure, excitement, and travel.
There are always problems with this type of work, many insurmountable. In the first place, only eighty testimonies are employed, although hundreds of thousands of ratings served in the Royal Navy between 1900 and 1945 (in 1919 alone, there were 106,750 men on the lower deck). Is this a [End Page 482] broad enough sample in order to inform valid conclusions? The author admits that the eighty testimonies are simply those that he could acquire, rather than representing a carefully constructed sample. Secondly, the net could, and perhaps should, have been thrown wider. Very many Royal Naval memoirs and diaries have been published in limited editions, often privately, and a search in the local library of the small town in which this reviewer lives revealed five not used in this survey. Some major repositories, such as the Liddle Collection in the University of Leeds, would surely have brought more material to the author's notice. Other problems are those of which the author is well aware. The men in question lived in an age when the heart was not worn on the sleeve, and certain personal dignities were preserved and honored. The reminiscences are mostly guarded and self-censored. Occasionally an old seaman has metaphorically unbuttoned for the interviewer allowing McKee to indulge in the sort of salacious and prurient material for which the reader pines, notably Plumber First Class William (Jock) Batters's story of his own sexual education, and Writer First Class Henry Welch's account of HMS Kent's role in the Battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914. Such...