Since 2014, when I went in search of books I had once read and re-read enthusiastically from Didsbury, I began an occasional series about re-discovering such books after something like thirty years. I am curious about whether I still find them appealing, and if this is for more than nostalgia for the times I associate them with.
I couldn’t possibly have the patience now, but in my youth, visits to Didsbury Library were long, drawn-out affairs. After checking in my last set of books (always use all eight tickets, always), unless I had some specific author in mind, I would go to General Fiction, start at A and work my way round to Z, painstakingly checking every book spine. As often as not, I would reach the end with fewer than eight books weighing me down and have to go back.
I was always eager for new things to read, though not so eager to break out of those semi-fixed tastes and likings. Shelves and shelves of books would hold no interest for me, but I was always prepared to pull out and examine any book whose title looked interesting or whose spine suggested something I might like.
I’d been at the Library for quite a long time the day I decided I’d take a chance on John Winton’s ‘We Saw The Sea’.
In 1959, Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander John Pratt had published his first novel, ‘We Joined The Navy’ under the pseudonym John Winton. It was a light-hearted, very popular book, based on his experiences in the training of Naval Officers. It was a great success, and was adapted for a 1962 film of the same name starring Kenneth More in a role that ought to have been a shoo-in for him, but which was an unfunny failure.
By the time Winton left the Navy in 1964, to become a full-time writer, he had written four sequels to ‘We Joined The Navy’. He would go on to a lengthy career as a specialist naval writer, initially with serious novels, but then, after publishers decided there was no interest in his subject (Patrick O’Brien might have disputed that), primarily as a writer of naval history, biography etc. (and for fourteen years, a Daily Telegraph obituarist).
‘We Saw The Sea’ was Winton’s first sequel. I got it home and enjoyed it immensely, finding it very funny. Through Didsbury Library and Central Ref, I ended up borrowing and reading all the series at least twice each, though I read them well out of publication order. Indeed, I was mildly disappointed by ‘We Joined The Navy’ when I got to it, and confused myself for some time over the publication order.
Something jogged my memory of Winton very recently, and I was extremely lucky to find a matching set of the 2004 hardback reissues, through the specialist publishers Maritime Books coming up on eBay at more than reasonable prices (though after getting the first four at asking price, some sod beat me to the last book with a last second 20p overbid: I bought it separately from another seller advertising it as the Maritime Books reissue but it’s actually the familiar Sixties copy I used to read from Didsbury Library).
Winton’s quintet has a connecting spine in the form of Lieutenant Commander Robert Bollinger Badger, known throughout the Navy as The Artful Bodger for his knack of being honest to the wrong person. The Bodger’s career is perpetually being diverted from the course his seniority and abilities should follow, but it keeps his environment forever changing.
Though he’s an important character in all five books, he’s only the central figure in two of the stories, with Cadets and later Lieutenants Michael Hobbes and Paul Vincent being the more or less ‘stars’ of the first two books, and Lieutenant Dagwood Jones of the last. But the Bodger is the true hero throughout, a wry, intelligent man with a comic appreciation of the foibles of the world and, more importantly, the men under, around and over him.
When it came to re-reading it, I was surprised to find that ‘We joined the Navy’ was more of a procedural than I ever realised before, with the characters inserted into a detailed and comprehensive account of Naval Officer Cadet training. In that sense, the book is equivalent to the earlier ‘Doctor’ books by Richard Gordon, who was already a well-established author at that time.
I found the book funny immediately. Winton wrote clear, concise prose in a dry, ironic tone that remains primarily factual, but wasn’t above framing his subjects in classical terms. The book starts with the Selection Board examining candidates for joining the Navy as would be officers and takes the chosen intake all the way through to their end of training, two years and one successful stemming of a south American revolution later.
Because of reading ‘We Saw The Sea’ first, I was pre-conditioned to think of Paul Vincent and Michael Hobbes as the principal characters of the first book, but really they’re only primus inter pares among a crew of cadets. True, we see slightly more of them than others, Paul the sophisticated urbanite from the outside and Michael the everyman the only one really seen from the inside, but the book is about the experience of everyone and the range of responses to it, from the paragon, Thomas Bowles, the natural, to Ted Maconochie, the hapless, helpless victim of his own self-belief, who pays the ultimate price, drowned in a sailing accident midway through the book.
The book is highly technical but never boring. It’s self-evidently based in experience, and I’d bet a substantial portion of the month’s rent on the people and the incidents being directly based in real life. Winton has an eye for telling similes but above all it’s that detached tone that carries the humour. The South American Revolution is a classic set-up and a complete farce that looks and sounds unbelievable, but which is probably very little exaggerated.
‘We Saw The Sea’ picks up the story six years later with Mike, now a Lieutenant, seeking a new posting, preferably Carousel, a destroyer about to go out to the Far East for an eighteen month tour. Mike’s not much changed. He’s managed to win the heart of the cool and charming Mary, who he fails to prise from her reporter boyfriend at the end of ‘We Joined The Navy’ and the two have been in love for quite some time. To his great delight, he shortly bumps into Paul, who has been posted to the same ship as has The Bodger, escaping from his last calamity.
After catching up with Paul, Mike and Mary get ambushed by her ex-journalist boyfriend’s new girlfriend, who turns out to be Ted Maconochie’s younger sister, Anne, eager for the truth as to what happens. It introduces her to Paul, who quickly steals her, and the climax to the book is their wedding (and the inspiration for Mike to marry Mary) once everyone’s back from the East.
‘We Saw The Sea’ is the same again, only at a higher level of service and experience, and taking in the new environment of the Far East. There’s a wonderful sequence on the troop ship delivering everybody to Singapore and points beyond, which contains both Army and RAF contingents. The former includes Goldilocks, an Army Captain and inveterate ‘personality’ who takes it upon himself to organise relentless social events. This insistence on non-stop activity irritates The Bodger (in which he’s far from alone) and his campaign to permanently disable Goldilocks from here to the end of the transfer is a hoot at every turn.
Once again, the book is a model of information about the running of a Destroyer, not to mention the role and activity of the Royal Navy in a period of peace. I can’t help but contrast my enjoyment of these books, especially now, with my failure to get absorbed in Patrick O’Brien’s ‘Aubrey and Maturin’ series, whose careful establishment of accurate and realistic detail failed to interest me at all.
I ended up ‘We Saw The Sea’; (which has a perfect closing line) curious as to Winton’s thought process, for as well as marrying both Paul and Michael off, he has The Bodger intending to retire, because the Navy is no longer what it was when he joined the Service and no longer has the same attraction for him.
Yet ‘Down the Hatch’ has The Bodger as its hero, and in command, of Britain’s newest and biggest submarine, HMS Seahorse. It’s a return to his old branch for The Bodger, who was a submariner in his early days in the Navy and, after a bit of shaking off of the rust, proves not to have lost any of his old wiliness. This is shown to its best effect in the long sequence which is the closest Winton comes to any actual war conditions: a massive Atlantic based Exercise, ‘Lucky Alphonse’, during which Seahorse has to mount an attack on a large Fleet whilst evading the anti-submarine patrols guarding against such things.
The anti-submarine patrols are commanded by ex-submariner Black Sebastian, a poacher-turned-gamekeeper if there ever was one, who can practically smell submarines. It’s a tense, protracted sequence, every bit of it is tense and demanding, even though nothing is at stake but the outcome of the exercise (The Bodger wins, of course).
At the end of the book, The Bodger is promoted to Commander, at which level he goes on to his next post, ashore and out of uniform, in ‘Never Go To Sea’. In this book, The Bodger is the new Assistant Director of Publicity for the Navy, charged with managing the Navy’s image, subject to the Navy coming to any sort of conclusion as to what the image ought to be.
There’s a not-unwelcome touch of J.B. Priestley in Winton’s swipes at the advertising industry but that’s really a minor element of the book, because Winton’s using this story as an excuse to go to the Races. This is Operation Blue Riband, a fanciful name for a notion in The Bodger’s head about running a Navy-owned horse in the Derby, and, of course, winning it.
The horse – Battlewagon – is inherited by George Dewberry, a decidedly drunken officer who also appeared in the first two books. He’s being trained by former Commander Peter Terry-Neames, aka The Bodger’s old friend, Poggles. Battlewagon’s got the pedigree, the physique, the speed, but he hasn’t got it, whatever it is, that makes horses want to run races. Nevertheless The Bodger, his beautiful wife Julia and even Poggles go equal shares in a syndicate to run Battlewagon under Julia’s name, with everybody’s eyes on the Derby.
All the technical knowledge and information Winton usually builds in about the Navy is displayed this time with regards to raining and racing a horse, and it’s every bit as fascinating even to someone who’s never placed a bet on a horse in his life. Basically, Battlewagon hasn’t got a chance and is going to be scratched, but the mysterious and undefined Operation Blue Riband has aroused a great deal of interest in the Press. So when it gets out in the Admiralty that it’s about a horse, The Bodger faces court martial, disgrace and dismissal, unless Battlewagon wins.
You always knew he would, and of course he does, but how it comes about is ingenious, not to mention hair-raising, though Winton has left clues for the sharp reader throughout the book, so for many the solution might not be quite such a glorious hoot. I spotted it this time, but then I’ve read the book before, which makes it easy.
The sequence ended with ‘All The Nice Girls’, which returns us to HMS Seahorse and in particular, its Electrical Officer, Lt. Dagwood Jones. Seahorse is coming in for a major refit at Harvey, McNicholl and Drummond, shipyards in Oozemouth, where The Bodger is now the Admiralty Liaison Officer. Seahorse’s refit is going to be a real uphill struggle, having been basically abandoned to its own fate by CEO Major Sir Rollo Falcon Hennesy-Smythe. Dagwood is one of the primarily unrequired crew left to provide continuity throughout the refit, a bachelor dedicated to staying that way. He rents an unusually attractive converted Tithe Barn which, combined with his signature shush kebab, becomes a very successful seduction parlour.
But The Bodger has plans to change Sir Rollo’s attitude by serving him up a naval son-in-law, for the CEO has a very attractive daughter, Caroline, who has already attracted Dagwood’s eye, as well as repelling it with a look that clearly says – in a brilliant line I’ve treasured for over fifty years – ‘the bus outside leaves at twelve – be under it!’
It’s another very funny book, as they all are, smooth and easy reads, but sadly it was the last. John Pratt left the navy the same year ‘All The Nice Girls’ was published, with enough of a track record to become a full-time writer from then until his death in 2001, with fourteen novels and twenty-nine works of no-fiction behind him.
He returned to this comic style twice, with ‘Good enough For Nelson’ in 1977 and ‘The Good Ship Venus’ in 1984. The first of these revived The Bodger whilst the second was a satirical look at the proposal to put women into ships in service on an equal footing with men (Winton was not in favour), which was officially frowned up by the Navy (a proposed film adaptation proved untenable when it became clear the Navy would lend no cooperation at all). Neither book, not even the one with The Bodger, was up to the standard of those first five books.
Of course they’re dated now, in the same way that P.G. Wodehouse is dated, and just like him it doesn’t matter one bit because they’re still funny and they’ll always be funny because they’re about people. There’s no doubt that the Navy, however much things have changed since, is still like this. And, like the Alida Baxter books I re-read at Xmas, John Winton’s The Bodger books will be kept, and read again.