Shiver their timbers : Off the Shelf

Colin Sedgwick on a classic sea story by Nicholas Monsarrat, The Ship that Died of Shame
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The Independent Culture
I think it was T S Eliot who said that everyone should have an enthusiasm for a minor poet. Well, why not also for a minor novelist? Nicholas Monsarrat no doubt fits that description - though his best-known novel, The Cruel Sea, is far better than it hasbeen given credit for.

Also worth a read is The Ship that Died Shame. It is only 40-odd pages - no more than a short story. And you have to shoulder your way past an awful joke in the first paragraph; but the idea is simple and powerful. The narrator is down on his luck after "a good war", bitter about those who have landed on their feet. He is offered the opportunity to join an old naval colleague - friend would not be an appropriate word - in ferrying cargoes across the Channel in the ship they used to run together in the war. He soon he finds himself in murky waters.

Eventually he can do it no more; but what stops him is not his conscience - that has long since been cauterized - but the refusal of the ship to carry on. It splutters to a halt and wallows helpless in mid-Channel. The ship dies of shame. There is a nicecontrast between the poetic lilt of the title and the rottenness the story exposes.

A bit twee? Not really. The straightforwardness with which the tale is told, and the believability of the characters, make it convincing. It shows up the sheer nasty viciousness of war. It has a 1990s feel in depicting the despair and alienation which poison those to whom society gives none of its prizes. It poses real questions In its account of the progressive hardening of sensibilities as cynicism takes its toll. And it shows with disturbing cogency how easily we find ourselves justifying the increasingly unjustifiable. What do lies and corruption matter when it's survival that's at stake?

"We did have a blazing row," says the narrator at one point, recalling a moment which might have been his redemption; "but I remember it chiefly because it was the last time I ever objected to anything we did." Pitiful words. In the end he leaves his partner to drown without a pang of remorse, surviving himself to face a prison sentence.

The narrator is called Bill Randall - good, strong name; could be you or me or anyone. We can't like him for what he allows himself to become. But it's hard to blame him either. There but for the grace of God. . .

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