Service Years

The Author’s career at sea began aged fifteen as a ‘Ganges Boy’ in the Royal Navy at Shotley Point, a tough windswept establishment exposed to the North Sea where discipline taught rules for life and backed them up. That fine advantage start to a working life is no longer there for adventurous youth. Even the great mast, climbed by all who passed through the gates left to fall into sad disrepair.

Service in Her Majesty’s ships around the globe saw confrontation in south-east Asia, two voyages to Japan, one in the last sea-going steam reciprocating triple-expansion vessel in the navy, one in a fast minelayer with a wartime history of operations off the coast of France, the laying of acoustic mines part of her post-war minesweeper squadron work. Bangkok a familiar port of call where the author first encountered US troops on R&R from Vietnam – many film scenes never able to describe how it was. Frequent visits to Hong Kong when it still resembled Suzy Wong’s world, hours spent on the Star Ferry looking out for her. Opportunity considered a gift and never ignored, this youth yet to reach voting age, on a week’s leave, the Chairman’s little Red Book (English version) in a linen suit pocket, boarded a train in Kowloon bound for Peking as it was known – ordered off at gun-point at the New Territories border with China, a place called Sheung Shui, not even a one-horse street at the time. Last observed at the handover of Hong Kong, skyscrapers across the horizon.

Some service waymarks: Prime Ministers Ian Smith and Harold Wilson’s meeting in Gibraltar. An unfortunate incident with another prime minister on a golf course high in the Malayan jungle, Tunku Abdul Rahman. The royal children of Monaco conducted around the Home Fleet’s flagship at anchor there. Collision between a Soviet warship and the Navy’s principal fleet carrier witnessed from Ark’s flight deck, and in the oceans and seas of the world the author found a lot of heavy weather. Two circumnavigation recruiting voyages around Britain, including the places where each ship left her building slip. The cruiser Tiger built by John Brown’s yard on the Clyde, and in Liverpool, an opportunity to meet the three survivors from the battle cruiser Hood, destroyed with a loss of 1,415 crew, 24th May, 1941, in the Denmark Strait during the Bismarck action. The carrier Ark Royal IV  (Impressive image), built by Cammell Laird on the Mersey, a famous ship aboard which five early chapters of The Herring Barrel are set.

Germany Interval

The author’s career beyond the Navy followed a path to Germany, to the US zone and military installations in the south west in the Frankfurt and Karlsruhe areas, army bases for the most part, work in education, employed by the Post Exchange. Much involvement with US troops of an ethnic nature on their way home from Vietnam, entire regiments denied access to the States on the strength of seriously bad behaviour – this at the time of an infamous Stars and Stripes front page photo of a pair of ‘salutes’ returned to an officer on a parade ground. It was during this period on numerous long distance short weekend journeys via Switzerland to the Camargue the writer became familiar with an extraordinary isolated wild marsh location where the central chapters of The Herring Barrel take place.

The Oil Industry

The Author’s nautical career resumed in the North Sea, at the beginning of  British Petroleum’s Forties Field construction 130 miles east of Aberdeen, a place that shared flat calms with atrocious weather – there an indescribably impressive engineering feat the marine equal to landing a man on the moon, carried out in often fatal depths below 400 feet under conditions said to be impossible. The author consultant to a legendary Texas oilman (Cap’n Paul H) well known in the Gulf of Mexico, a character in the meaning of the word, thousands of head of longhorn cattle on a ranch back home, stetson hat and cowboy boots often worn on board the heavy-lift barges. BP’s construction adviser in the field – the Big Cheese. His professional instinct, casual approach the result of a lifetime of experience, observed in an exceptionally demanding environment earnt him immense respect.

This writer’s work offshore saw a year and more delay in completion of the field. Observations and computer projections concluded a possible wave height generated in gales from the north, funnelled into a shallowing North Sea, far in excess of safe rig design and operation, more than 120 feet to sea crest. This was an expensive delay, two jackets in position on the sea bed. Massive tubular extensions fabricated in yards ashore, brought on site frequently at the limits of weather conditions to be lifted accurately in place. No quick task that involved Spanish labour welding on footholds to reach, weld in place and X-ray the extensions. Many unrepeatable phrases were aimed at this cast iron writer during that time. Scientific calculations of extreme element and significant wave height have subsequently proven raising the height of all four of the Forties platforms was correct, confirmed in a safe environment by ‘experts’ unlikely to have experienced the ferocious weather conditions North Sea gales could stir up. The author was on site for four years until the field came on stream.

DESK WORK and DESERT

An objective career adjustment to offshore oil industry technical writing, a diploma course at Derby under an acknowledged authority – head of Rolls Royce Publishing at the time (Philip H-W). An initial interview at Aberdeen to join BP’s author department interrupted by a phone call that advised a dramatic oil price drop to seven dollars a barrel, forty staff about to be laid off, not the best of starts. Better luck in turn led to work on North Sea platform and FPSO operations procedures, offshore installation manager’s manuals and so on. Technical writing open to divergent opportunity, career milestones include author of the standard specification for maintenance and operation instructions for AWE (Atomic Weapons Authority), some years spent in Saudi Arabia on SSSP (Saudi Strategic Storage Program), immense underground facilities for the storage of fuels in finished product condition on sites across the country, from desert not far north of Mecca to a height of over six thousand feet near the Yemen border, military fuel for use in the event of prolonged war. This writer’s occasional proximity to the heir apparent of that country during this period not an easy experience to describe in acceptable words.

Other Stuff

The call of the sea never too far from a deliberately uncharted career, among ventures willingly undertaken the writer includes a Dutch barge attempt with a colleague (Chris H) to overturn heavy local competition in the running of freight (never, ever mention the forty ton of swedes), the delivery of new build tugs from Troon in Scotland through Suez to Mombasa Port Authority – and an extraordinary hair-raising eventually successful incident-prone voyage in a Swedish minesweeper from Lowestoft UK to Cannes. Navigating officer aboard the latter to promote a film at the Cannes festival, ‘Pirate: The Movie’, followed by press interest across France and the Iberian Peninsular, not least because this all black ship displayed a huge skull and crossbones across her forward superstructure. Serious interest shown by military aviation en route and by Mediterranean warships, Spanish destroyers ahead and astern for four hours without a word of contact. The stuff of movies on the way to promote a movie. If anyone had suggested the author would be asked for his autograph numerous times at the Cannes festival . . .

A keen Cowes keelboat sailor throughout, described in the press on occasion as a vintage yachtsman, no particularly pleasing phrase, here far exceeding brevity this writer is going to conclude a less than comprehensive glimpse of a fortunate full life – which does not even touch on how and why he created The Herring Barrel. That’s another story.

A recent interview with Brian Feinblum of Media Connect, New York, concerning the author and The Herring Barrel can be found here.