Lonely in the Automat

I’ve always thought of automats as lonely, melancholy places. I entered my first automat when I was 14 and visiting the first of many, many navy bases.

Naval establishments in those days were almost defined by their automats and automats were the place to be for a certain kind of junior rating. There were the living quarters, the dining hall, the bar if you were old enough and the automat if you were not. I was not.

There were two occasions to visit the automat and it presented a quite different aspect for each occasion.

Killing time after lunch, waiting for class to begin, you encountered the brash, flashing automat. At lunch time, the automat was a buzzing hive of sailors drinking crap coffee from the crap coffee machine, playing video games and sitting round crap little tables munching crap snacks from the crap little dispenser things tempting you with their little A-H and 1-9 buttons that made their inner robot spring to life and threaten to dispense the pack of tutti-fruities to keep you awake through the afternoon’s boredom but, ultimately, disappointing you with physics-defying feats of cruelty, snatching your tutti-fruities back into a greedy maw or dangling the little snack mere inches above the dispenser tray with all the other unreachable tokens of misfortune.

It was in such an automat that I first completed Dragon’s Lair to great applause (the fantasy adventure where you become a valiant knight on your quest to rescue the fair princess from the clutches of an eeeevil dragon…. can you tell how many times I played it?) and where I first found all the Easter eggs in Track ‘n’ Field. It was where Alf Menzies and I made it to the end of Super Mario Bros (though I never did defeat the final Bowser or, as we called him, the big green thing) and where we daily emptied the trivia machine, Blockbusters, of all its pound coins. But that was the happy automat. The other automat is the one that looms, forbidding, in my memory.

Melancholy automat was a dark, empty hall of flickering lights; the only place open at 2:30AM when the bus back to base after a weekend in civvy street dispensed its young, tired cargo.

I remember several variations of that journey back from the exciting world of stolen kisses, distant family and fading friends still plodding their way through their school years while I served Queen and country: Portsmouth to Hellensburgh; Bexleyheath to Fareham. The worst of all was the journey from Sidcup to Torpoint and HMS Fisgard.

It started on Platform 2 at Sidcup Station (where the Rolling Stones began) and the 12¾ miles to Charing Cross. Then came the long, rumbling Circle Line trip to Paddington in time for the 4 hour train ride down to Plymouth. At Plymouth Station, it was short cab ride to Devonport and, most romantic in my misty memories, the long chug-a-lug of the Torpoint Ferry as it dragged itself along its heavy chains across the dark, forbidding Hamoaze.

By the time you got to the Cornwall side of the river you were well into the wee hours of the morning and, if you were lucky, could share a cab ride to the base and that was the moment when it hit you that you were in the Navy for real and for the foreseeable future. Then the short walk up the hill and the flash of the ID card to the bloke unlucky enough to be on gate duty at that time of the morning – those were my rituals until, finally, the automat.

The automat was the only place to get food at that hour and it was a place entirely transformed from the bustling, mechanical bazaar of the daytime. At night, there was just you and the whir of the carousel dispensing your stale pastie: desperately needed sustenance after so many hours of travel.

The main lights were always off and you were condemned to peer at your pastie in the ancient microwave oven – the same oven used by Admiral Nelson himself -  lit intermittently by the brazen flashing of the video games. Those sounds are still fresh and familiar – from the ding-a-ling-a-ling! of the fruit machine to the Beep-beep-Boooooop! of Pole Position – until, eventually, the bright Ding! of the microwave would announce that it was time to wolf down my oggie before the sun came up and summoned me to my classes just a few, short hours later.

I didn’t think I’d ever finish this drawing. I thought my muse was gone. It happened before. I have a half-finished charcoal drawing of my wife that I started in 2001. I don’t know how many times I’ve picked up that drawing and stared at it, wondering how I would ever draw anything ever again.

I picked Hopper’s Automat precisely because it looked easy. I expected I’d be able to lose myself in the memories of automats past as my finger rubbed the image of Hopper’s lonely flapper girl onto the screen of my iPad but just the act of opening Art Studio was a challenge. The splash screen to me was Oglaf’s Muse or, more likely, her successor. Under her withering gaze, all confidence faded.

My previous painting had become a slog. My earliest finger-paintings took a mere hour or two each – no wonder The Impressionists were so prolific! – but copying the old masters was hard work and a drain on my enthusiasm. Hopper was easier but each time I fired up Art Studio the memory of Sassoferrato bade me close it down just as quickly. But it’s done now and the long, forgotten memories of automats past can go to back to the dark place where they so lately rested.




Tempus Fugit

HMS Invincible just sailed off to the scrap yards.


Invincible came into service right before I joined up. It was a big deal at the time because Thatcher’s Axe inflicted a series of massive cuts on the armed forces right before I signed on the dotted line. HMS Invincible was actually sold to Australia and her sister ships were cancelled until General Galtieri showed up to become their unlikely saviour. The Falklands War caused a bit of a rethink about the role of the Royal Navy, you see.

I had requested to serve on HMS Invincible but ended up on a submarine – almost the exact opposite. Both my ships are now long retired.20110407-070312.jpg


HMS Southampton has been sitting, stripped bare of the systems that made her a ship of war – out in the channel, waiting for her appointment at the breaker’s yard.


HMS Revenge has gone to the limbo where all the other retired nuclear submarines sit until indefinitely comes.20110407-070403.jpg No one can decide what to do with them so they sit and they glow, their reactors pumped full of concrete and their empty hulls labelled with warning signs localized to the language of the far future.

When I joined up there were still ships around from the 60s (the 60s!) and Invincible was new and shiny.

And now she is old and decrepit and on her way to the razor blade factory.


The Name of the Rose is one of those books that I read at an impressionable age and was terribly impressed by it. I read it again a few years later and it was better still. It’s firmly in my top ten.

One of the bloggers that I follow has started a virtual book club – The Rose in Winter – and invited readers to revisit the book that has been called “the most popular unpopular book” with him.

This’ll be a new experience for me as I have never taken part in a book club or shared reading before (unless you count Jeff and I pair-reading 1984 to remind ourselves that 2004 was really not so bad) and I managed to boycott all my Eng. Lit. classes at school (loved reading, hated talking about it).

I really shouldn’t start another book until I finish one of the other 6 or 7 that I already have on the go, but I don’t think I can resist the challenge and I happen to have a copy right here. I even have a spare copy if anyone wants to come along for the ride.

précis: Sean Connery reprises his James Bond role in the guise of a mediæval monk and proto-scientist and solves a murder mystery that foreshadows the Reformation. No wait, that was the movie. The book is just like that but with more Latin and more Aristotle. The sex scene is even better in the book than in the movie but that might just be my fevered imagination infecting my memory.

Dare I risk another reading?

I have been here before. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance went from life-changer to pretentious crap on a third reading, but I am willing to risk destroying another memory on the off-chance that the book is as enjoyable as I remember.

In a Cemetery

In one of the universe’s subtle attempts to mess with me, my grandmother died yesterday on the same day that I finished this painting – Girl Seated in a Cemetery by Delacroix. In another week or so, I’ll be standing in cemetery myself with lots of other sad people, remembering the fantastic lady who was my grandmother.

Nan was less than two years away from her century. She was born before the First World War; before electricity, motor cars and aeroplanes were commonplace; before computers and television. She was born in a time when the sun never set on the British Empire and the world was much bigger than it is now.

Nan and Grandad lived two doors away from me when I was very small and they often took care of me. My mum went back to work when I was only 3 and I used to come home for lunch at my grandmother’s house. She’d make me egg sandwiches with the white removed (Yuck! Nasty stuff!) and then make meringues with the whites. And they say that the kids of today are spoiled!

Sometimes, they would take me up to London on the bus. We couldn’t take the train because Grandad got sick (something to do with the war) and even on the bus, we could only travel for about 20 minutes before we’d have to get off and wait for the next one. Getting up to London – 12 miles away – was an all day affair.

But it was worth it.

The only time I attended the Changing of the Guard was with Nan and Grandad; the first time I fed the sparrows in St James’s Park; first time across the Thames on the Woolwich Ferry. So many firsts!

A very happy memory puts us in the Science Museum. Nan suffered her way through all the planes and machines and cheesy demonstrations of static electricity but when we got to the Way We Used to Live section, she suddenly came to life! It turned out that that section was modelled after Nan’s childhood and she had owned the very same brand of washing tub, mangle, jars of jam, soap and pretty much everything else that was essential to a working class house in the first part of the 20th century.

Grandad died about 30 years ago and, without the need to change buses every 20 minutes, Nan started to travel. The first time I left the country (a day trip to Boulogne on the ferry) was Nan’s first too but she soon made up for lost time. Of course, my favourite was her first trip to the New World. When she was 86, Nan came to visit me in California.

I have no idea how she made it, but what a joy it was to meet her at San Francisco airport and drive her – with the top down in the convertible! – to our house in Los Gatos. By day, she was taunted by a mischievous two-year old (“Mum! Nan wants some lemonade!” How many times did he get away with that before we found out that the soda was for him?) who taught her how to use a computer for the first time. Actually, “mis-taught” would be more accurate as he delighted in her frustrated laughter each time he put 8 pickles in the jar even though The Count only wanted 7.

But by night… By night she would tell us stories.

Children tend to lose touch with their grandparents just when they have the most to learn from what they have to say (or maybe that’s just me?) but we made up for lost time that week.

We heard all about the Coronation and The Blitz and about Doodlebugs (they were aimed at London, but plenty fell short). We heard about the Battle of Britain – she watched it overhead – and about how she sent her four young daughters off to four different cities in the north of England to escape the air raids and about her quest to go round them back up and bring them back when it was clear they were no safer with strangers than they were at home.

Nan brought up those four daughters on her own after their father was killed in a road accident. I learned one of life’s great lessons when she calmly explained how quickly the policeman arrived to give her the bad news. Nan: “There’s no point in worrying. If there’s bad news, you’ll know it soon enough.”

My sister made a family tree a few years back. She managed to trace our family back to the 17th century on several different branches. In 400 years, no one ever moved more than a couple of miles from where I grew up in Footscray. Now, in a generation, we are spread to the four corners of the map.

Nan’s part of the tree was particularly bushy with four daughters each with multiple children and then grandchildren and now great-grandchildren of their own. But today there’s a piece of the tree missing and the world – or, at least, my little corner of it – is a little bit sadder for the loss.

Buccaneer Scholars Unite!

I just started reading James Bach’s Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar. Buccaneer scholar is Bach’s term for someone who takes responsibility for their own education rather than having it handed to them by the authorities.

The book is an odd mix of autobiography and How To guide. The autobiographical bits have remarkable parallels with my own life right down to our reasons for learning harmonica and the kids we saved from certain death (I came across mine floating face down at midnight in the pool at Corton’s Holiday Camp with not another soul around).

A sampling of coincidences …

We both learned to program in BASIC from a book before we even had a computer to type them into. I used to write programs during French classes in a book under my desk and then type them in when I got home. I typed mine into a Zx81; James into an Apple II. I graduated to Z80; James to 68000.

James left home and school at 15. I waited until I was 16. We left for about the same reason – school was boring and we felt we weren’t learning anything. It took me several years though before I bluffed my way into my first programming job. I would’ve done it much earlier except I didn’t know it was an option.

Unlike James, I loved taking exams as a kid. It was a chance for me to excel at school without actually doing any work. In England, at that time, the only thing that counted towards your final grade was the exam at the end of the year, so I was pretty much able to do zero work for the rest of the year and still come top of my class. Sadly for them, American kids don’t have that option.

I should clarify what I mean by zero work. Like James, I was incredibly driven to learn. Apart from teaching myself to write software, I read lot of books – just not the ones my teachers wanted me to read. My dad got me a college textbook on organic chemistry for my 14th birthday. I read that several times.

Also like James, I excelled at antagonizing my teachers and was constantly in trouble at school. I also had an episode of failing exams on purpose.

The Navy had a very strict policy on throwing people out if they weren’t able to keep up academically. We had an exam every week or two for the four years of my apprenticeship. If you failed one, you were put on a Commander’s Warning; two got you a Captain’s Warning and so on as you worked your way up the hierarchy of shame. Each warning came with ever increasing ceremony (picture a military court and you’ll have the setting about right) and ever more impressive certificates of failure.

I got very good at getting exactly 49% (50% was a pass) but, on a surprising number of occasions, when I got my paper back, it had been altered to give me a couple of extra points and a passing grade.

When I received the final warning signed by the Commander in Chief himself, my Divisional Officer scribbled on a note “this beautiful certificate is even more impressive than the one you’ll get when you graduate”.

One more failure and I was out. But I blew it. I was so disenchanted with how low the academic standards were in the navy that I wanted to know if I could still pass a proper exam. A friend of mine was taking A-Level Maths and I went and asked if I could take it too.

The education officer explained how it was a two year course and no one had passed it in ten years and failures reflected badly on him and it was a waste of his time and blah blah. Somehow, I conned him into letting me take the exam without taking the classes.

A couple of days after I got my CinC Warning, I was pulled out of class and told to go see the Captain. I was not told why, but I assumed that I had failed my fifth and final exam and that the end of my career in the navy was imminent. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the Captain had called me out of class to give me my A-Level result personally. I had got an A.

It took them a couple of days to figure out that I was the same dude who had been failing all those exams. When they did, I was told in very plain terms that I would not fail any more exams or there would be serious consequences. In a couple days, I had hatched my new scheme: I would become an officer and exercise an officer’s option to resign…but that’s a story for another day.

Back to the book.

I am about three quarters through it already. I’m enjoying it immensely but it’s hard for me to recommend it.

If you are the kind of person to quit school at 16, you probably did that already. And you probably don’t need James’s lessons on how to learn.

If you are not that kind of person, you probably think of people like us as reckless fools. You are probably better off taking the establishment path to an education anyway.


I have a very special memory. One that I have not thought about for years but it came to me today in the middle of Saving Private Ryan. I don’t think I’ve shared it before.

In my solitude, you haunt me

A long time ago, I had a girlfriend and I used to sing to her. At that period of my life, I was entirely entranced by Billie Holiday and my most favourite song was Solitude and my girlfriend used to ask me to sing it to her. I sang it over and over.

With reveries of days gone by.

Eventually we broke up and she moved out and went her own way but a few months later she called me out of the blue and said she was afraid and asked if she could come stay with me for a few days.

In my solitude, you taunt me

She was having headaches and problems with her memory. We took her to the doctor who sent her to the hospital where they told us she had a brain tumour. It was inoperable but they might be able to treat it with radio-therapy.

With memories that never die.

The treatment didn’t work out and her memory and her headaches got worse and eventually she slipped into unconsciousness.

I sit in my chair

And, filled with despair,

Her parents flew over from Malta and came to stay with me in my little apartment and, one by one, her friends and relatives from all over the world came to join us sitting by Rita’s bedside.

There’s no one can be so sad.

We sat by her bed for days and weeks and months and, every now and again, she would drift back into our life and say a few words before drifting back into the twilight. One day she slept and didn’t wake up again.

With gloom everywhere,

I sit and I stare.

I used to sing to her while she slept her deep sleep – especially when we were alone, just Rita and I. One day, one last time, she spoke to me.

“What’s that song? I know that song.”

“It’s Solitude by Billie Holiday.”

“It’s a beautiful song. My boyfriend used to sing it to me.”

Then she went back to sleep. She didn’t wake up any more.

I know that I’ll soon go mad.

In my Solitude.

I promised that I’d never forget you, Rita. I kept my promise.

I’m praying,

Dear Lord above,

Send back my love.

It Changed My Life – Book Four

When I returned from travelling around the world, I took a crappy job fixing avionics on planes at Heathrow Airport. Ooooooooooh how I hated that job. I quit after about three months with no idea of what to do next. Eventually, I narrowed it down to one of five things.

  • Six years in the navy had not cured me of my love of the sea. I applied for a job on a millionaire’s yacht based in Antibes.
  • I rather liked tropical islands. I applied for a job fixing satellite tracking equipment on Ascension Island.
  • I rather liked “abroad” in general. I applied for a course to learn to teach English as a foreign language (TEFL).
  • I had a tiny twinge of regret that I had not been to university. I applied to Cambridge.
  • I vaguely remembered that I had been good with computers as a lad. I applied for an adult education class in software engineering.

I didn’t really have a strong preference and decided to accept the first offer that arrived in my letterbox. Software engineering came in first so software engineering it was. I headed up to the East End of London for a five month course.

If you have ever been to Whitechapel, you will know that it is one of the poorest, crappiest parts of London and home to recent immigrants, gangsters and outcasts. Imagine a neighbourhood that has not changed one whit since Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror. That should help you picture the environs of my classroom.

If you have ever been unemployed in England, you will know that there is a prevailing threat that your benefits will stop unless you attend an endless stream of adult education classes. That should help you picture my fellow students.

Our instructor was a total nutcase. It was not clear that he had ever programmed a computer before but that didn’t stop him from having a sackful of forceful opinions about software engineering. Fortunately he only showed up for class about one day in four.

The Blind Beggar, WhitechapelMy fellow students were delighted. There was a pub next door and I got pretty good at pool. Winner Stays On was the prevailing convention and one of the highlights of my life was racking up for the first game at 11AM and not leaving the table until the pub closed at 11PM after thrashing all-comers including several shady-looking characters as the evening hours wore on and the bar filled with gangsters.

A few weeks into our course, the four of us who were not receiving unemployment benefits decided to complain about the lack of an instructor. The company that ran the course – fearing for their government funding – promised to find us a new teacher. They gave us a copy of The C Programming Language by Kernighan and Ritchie to help pass the time while they searched for the new guy.

I opened the book and, on the very first page, was the program that changed my life.

#include <stdio.h>
int main()
  printf("hello, world\n");
  return 0;

Our new instructor eventually showed up and tried to teach us ADA but I wasn’t interested. I already had my White Book. I had my passport to a successful career in software.

Kernighan and Ritchie

Two weeks later, I finished my first C program – an editor for sheet music that could playback the music you had typed in. Two months later, I had my first programming job [remind me to tell you about my first gig at Reuters]. Two years after that, I was managing a 12 person team building insurance software (Ultima is still on sale!). Two more years and I was working on Wall Street then, later still, Silicon Valley.

My story is not complete unless I tell you about the Women into Technology class next door or, rather, about Rita, a woman in that class and how we moved in together and… well… that’s a longer story and I’ll save it for another day…

The very day that I started my class, I received a letter from Antibes requesting that I fly down for an interview on that yacht but I’d already made my choice and I stuck with it. I wonder how my life would have been different if I had got on that plane?

It Changed My Life – Book Three

I bought The Golden Treasury of English Verse and a harmonica as my only mementos of civilization when I set off to go backpacking around the world. I’m not entirely sure why though because I couldn’t play the harmonica and I hated poetry.

By the time I got back, I was enchanted by both.

Being untutored in the arts, I was free to decide for myself what I liked and didn’t like even if what I liked wasn’t the right thing or it was unfashionable or whatever. That sentiment applied equally to my music playing and to poetry.

darwinOne night, in Darwin, during a bone-shaking thunderstorm, I heard someone playing blues harp in the other room. It was the most amazing sound I had ever heard come out of a harmonica and I went to investigate. There was an Australian dude a little older than me and we got talking.

He invited me to play a little too and he said words to the effect of “Wow! I have never heard anyone play the harmonica like that!”. I am still not sure if he meant Wow! That was great! or Wow! You suck!

Since I had no idea how I was meant to play it, I just played what sounded good to me. Same deal with poetry.

I jumped around all over the book and each poem launched me into a quest for more poetry like this. I had been force-fed Wilfred Owen at school but reading him of my own accord felt reckless, revolutionary. After six years in the navy, I had to read poetry to find out what war was about.

I have, again, no recollection of why I decided that I should learn The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by heart but I gave up after about 75 verses. I was heartbroken when my new team at work decided that Team Albatross was too gloomy for a team name. They must not have read Coleridge (or heard the song).

My tastes were eclectic (sorry, Dylan, that I made you learn For Whom the Bell Tolls for a recital) and after mini-expeditions with Kipling (Kim, The Man Who Would be King), DH Lawrence (The Rainbow, Lady Chatterley, Sons and Lovers, Women in Love) and a day trip or two with Tennyson and Betjeman, I settled on George Gordon Byron as my travelling companion and soulmate.

250px-George_Gordon_Byron,_6th_Baron_Byron_by_Richard_Westall_(2)I read everything that Byron had ever written and, for a short, mad while, I wanted to be him. I wanted to be the second mortal to swim the Hellespont; I wanted to so scandalize my wife on my wedding night that she would file for divorce the very next day (must’ve been a pretty successful night as it produced Lady Ada who also discovered the joys of programming); I wanted to seduce the wives, sisters, sons and mothers of prominent politicians, including the prime minister’s; I wanted to raise a private army and go liberate the Greeks from the Turks or to die trying – like Byron did.

Shelley and Keats travelled with us for a while, but neither thrilled me the way Byron thrilled me.

I haven’t read poetry for a long, long time – except to read old favourites to my daughter. My passion, like Byron’s life, was brief but intense.

It Changed my Life – Book One

I hate internet memes too, but I like this one. List 10(ish) books that had a big influence on your life. Here are Will Wilkinson’s and Conor Friedersdorf’s and Ross Douthat’s.

Sinclair Basic

At the end of the third year at Chis and Sid, I won a prize for the most improved student. After coming dead last in my class in the autumn and winter terms, I came first in class at the end of the year and won a book voucher (I did the same thing in each of the subsequent years too but, by then, they were on to me – no more prizes for me).

On my way home from school, I stopped in the bookshop and picked up a book called Programming in BASIC (Beginners All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code).

My mum’s company had recently bought a mini-computer and mum took me to work one day to show it off. It was the first computer that I ever saw and she left me on my own with it for a couple of hours. I found the games!

It had a really primitive version of 20 Questions that I played over and over, fascinated that this chunk of metal could figure out what I was thinking. The highlight was when it didn’t guess my animal and it asked me for a question that would distinguish apes from moneys.

The lowlight came soon after when I introduced my first bug into a computer program. All future players, after answering “no” to “Does it have a tail?” would be asked

Is it a chim?


The full page dot-matrix ASCII of Snoopy made an impression too.


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A couple of years later, when I won that prize, there was no question but that I would buy myself a book on programming. I didn’t have a computer though, so I wrote my programs on paper and imagined them running.

Sinclair ZX81Another year went by before Sir Clive Sinclair – who inherited the title Greatest Living Englishman when Winston Churchill died – released the first home computer for under a £100. I saved up and bought myself one.

As soon as that fuzzy little K cursor started blinking in the corner of my TV screen I was hooked and there was no holding me back.

I drew my own ascii art. I played chess in 1kB. I painstakingly copied the machine code for a draughts program byte by byte from a book. I wrote a Monopoly program. I wrote a program to do Fourier Analysis. I learned Z80 assembly language which I hand-assembled using look-up tables because I didn’t have an assembler.

Non-programmers often don’t understand what a creative activity programming is. They think it’s about following mundane instructions. I can’t think of a more creative activity.

It’s truly liberating to discover that you can make something out of nothing but the thoughts in your head. Maybe people who are gifted at painting or music get a hint of this but to suddenly find that you can imagine something and then go build it! It makes you feel superhuman.

Sinclair C5Sinclair also invented the first commercial electric car which turned out not to be so commercial after all and Uncle Clive lost both his fame and his fortune. A fickle nation turned its love to Alan Sugar and his wondrous Amstrads but I’ll always be grateful to Sir Clive for the gift he gave me.

Crossing the Line

Crossing the line is an important milestone in a young sailor’s life. King Neptune demands that every time a ship crosses the equator, everyone aboard be called to account for his sins and he rises from the deep to hold court. He pays special attention to those who are crossing the line for the first time. A visit from Neptune is an momentous event and the day that a ship crosses the line is set aside for festivities and the libations flow freely.

Three-Legged Volleyball
Three-Legged Volleyball

The first event of our day was the Race to the Line. The brave souls from the ship’s crew launch all manner of craft into the inky blue ocean and race the last 100 yards to be the first to cross the equator. A few sailors take the race seriously and  build elaborate sailing vessels and canoes but emphasize novelty over velocity and a more typical craft is an inflatable sheep or a sex doll chosen, no doubt, for her seaworthiness rather than her pulchritude. Sadly, our race had to be called off on account of the unusual number of sharks surrounding our ship so we turned to the second event of the day – the three-legged volleyball.

Chief MEM Doing a Handstand Dive
Chief MEM Doing a Handstand Dive

My readers have doubtless run a three-legged race in their youth and three-legged  volleyball is organized along the same principles. Each team consists of four pairs of player, each tied to his neighbour at the ankle and the thigh. The ball is tethered by a long rope to the net posts to prevent it going over the side. The combination of the Siamese contestants, the tangling rope and the vast quantities of beer is practically guaranteed to ensure hilarity. The WEMs’ mess – my mess – won the day! Hoorah! More beer for us!

Inward Dive
Inward Dive

Time for the diving contest and the Jimmy decided that we would safe from the sharks if we posted sailors with machine guns on the bridge wing. No one wondered whether we would be safe from drunken sailors with machine guns. We had three dives each and I took second place with a pike dive, an inward and one-and-a-half somersaults. Hooray! More beer!

One Down, Half a Somersault To Go
One Down, Half a Somersault To Go

I did a little extra curricular diving later in the day. I dived from the bridge wing – about 35 feet up. You had to dive out about 8 feet to clear the side of the ship and my foot slipped as I dived. I tumbled a full somersault and narrowly missed hitting my head on the side. Oooh. Close one!

A Last Minute Contestant
A Last Minute Contestant

Next up was the deck hockey. Deck hockey is a traditional naval pastime – more ancient than Uckers – played with a puck made of masking tape and a set of walking sticks which double as weapons. The WEMs won again! More beer!

Time for the main event of the day – The Court of King Neptune. The role of the King was played by the Chief WEM who was the fattest man that I have ever seen in real life.

King Neptune with his Entourage
King Neptune with his Entourage

He was also the meanest. We called him Ten Bellies. Not to his face, of course – except that one time when Jumper Collins called him that over the phone. Ooooh! That did not end well!

King Neptune has a large entourage of oddball characters – a judge, a doctor, his queen, some henchmen and (honestly) the Three Bears. Neptune’s Queen Consort was played by my very best friend Jacko.

King Neptune starts the proceedings with a speech about how there are sinners aboard and he has come to deliver justice. One by one, the sinners were called up to the dock and the charges against them are read aloud.

Silence for King Neptune!
Silence for King Neptune!

The Captain is the first defendant and then the Jimmy and they are followed by all the first-timers. The routine is the same each time and – as far as I know – has barely changed over the centuries. King Neptune calls the name of a sinner and Neptune’s henchmen armed with maces, battle-axes and clubs made from masking tape apprehend the suspect, beat the crap out of you and drag you to the dock – a large, red chair – where you prepare to face justice.

The Judge reads the trumped-up charges and quickly finds you guilty [this is not too different from normal military justice, about which more another time – ed]. The Doctor forces you to swallow a disgusting and unfeasibly large pill and then the chair dumps you unceremoniously into a pool filled with nasty-smelling leftovers from the galley where the three bears beat you some more.

The Trial
The Trial

I have compared notes with sailors from other nations and they all report a similarly bizarre  ceremony with only minor differences in the proceedings. How great is it that such a crazy ceremony should survive for so many years?

Wikipedia has an account from 1825.

There were on board the ship a great number of officers and seamen, who had never yet gone South of the Tropics, consequently were to be initiated into the mysteries of crossing the Equinoctial line, and entering the dominions of Neptune; great preparations had been making since our leaving Woolwich, for an event which promised to some part of the crew great amusement, to the other great fear; many a poor girl at Woolwich, and at Spithead had been deprived of some part of her wardrobe, to adorn Amphitrite; from one a night cap and gown had been stolen, from another some other part of dress, and although I had no hand in it, I was as bad as the rest, for I was consenting thereto. An immense grey horse hair wig, sufficiently long to reach well down the back of Neptune, had been purchased in England by subscription, accompanied by a venerable grey beard to sweep his aged breast; a tin crown and a trident completed the regalia. On a review of all those who previously had crossed the line, I was selected as Neptune; in vain I endeavoured to defend myself from being deified, it was useless, I must be Neptune, all remonstrance was vain; I took it, resolved to use the trident with mildness. Now reader fancy to yourself the writer of these lines with his legs and arms well blacked, his cheeks, vermillion, short and very loose trowsers, a double frilled shirt, from whose ample folds the salt water dripped plentifully, two swabs for epaulets, a long grey horse hair wig, a venerable beard of the same colour, a tin crown, a trident, and to complete the whole, a hoarse church yard cough; fancy all this I say, and Neptune, or your humble servant in his shape stands before you. The evening before we expected to cross the line, the lookout man reported at 8, P.M., a light a head; presently a hoarse voice hailed “ship ahoy” which being answered by the Captain, Neptune intimated his intention to visit the ship early next morning. Accordingly early in the morning the ship was made snug, the top-sails were close reefed, courses hauled up, top gallant sails furled, a new sail was secured to the gunwale of the barge on the booms, the other edge to the hammock netting, leaving a hollow of eight feet, capable of containing an immense quantity of water; into this sail the very men who were to be dipped in it, were employed in pumping and bailing water, little thinking, poor creatures, they were making a rod for themselves. A gun had been dismounted on the forecastle, the carriage made into a car, on which were to sit Neptune and Amphitrite, and between them the Triton; in order to keep all secret, a sail was run across the forecastle to screen Neptune and his gang from observation. Just before the appointed time, all who were likely to undergo the dreadful operation of shaving were ordered below, the gratings put on, and a constable stationed to prevent the ascent of more than one at a time; a wise regulation, for our numbers were nearly equal, and had they shown fight, might have conquered; a rope was rove through a block on the main yard arm, to one end of which was secured a handspike, astride of which sat a man with his hands fastened to the rope over his head.

The first of the ship’s company that were shaved, who was brought up blindfolded by the whole posse of constables was the armourer, a weather-beaten honest old Hibernian, who had been a farrier in the Peninsular Army for many years. At the reduction, he had found his way as armourer of some small craft, and thence to our ship; on his entering for our ship, so anxious was he to be within the given age, which was thirty, that on being asked his age he gave it as eight and twenty, although fifty six was written in legible characters on his old cribbage face, which throughout the ship’s company had gained him the cognomen of old eight and twenty. On this man then the barber had to perform his first functions; a bucket was filled with all the cleanings of the hen coops, pig-stys, &c. and with it a due proportion of tar had been mixed; with a large paint brush dipped in this villanous compound, and his razor, close to him the barber stood waiting the signal. My first question was “what is your name my man?” “John S—-, your honour,” at the instant of his opening his mouth the brush went across it, when the face the poor creature made it is impossible to describe, “phoo what do you call that?” “what do you call that?” I again asked the old man how old he was, “eight and twenty your honour, and so I am; oh I will spake no more, I will spake no more.” As a last effort to make him open his mouth, I said if you mean to put him overboard, mind have a good rope round him for perhaps he cannot swim. Terrified at the idea of being thrown overboard the poor fellow said “I cannot swim, oh, I cannot swim;” but as the brush again crossed his mouth, he uttered with his teeth closed, “I will spake no more, by J—s I will spake no more if you drown me.” Amid a roar of laughter two men tripped the handspike on which he sat and sent him backward into the sail where the bear was waiting to receive him; it was soon over, he escaped and stood by to see his shipmates share his fate. At the time of his being shaved he was not aware who Neptune was, when he found it out I could not get him to speak to me for some time; at length Irish good temper conquered, and we were friends again.

John Bechervaise, Thirty-six Years of Seafaring Life p.146-150

Long may King Neptune reign!


After I left HMS Southampton, the Navy instituted new fitness requirements and Ten Bellies was forced to leave the service. No one cried. Did I mention how mean he was?

I lived with Jacko in five different houses and he was my very best friend for a long, long time. I lost touch with him when I came to the States. If anyone knows his whereabouts, tell him I am trying to track him down.