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The Ship : the book I couldn't read

posted on 26 Apr 2016

The Ship : the book I couldn't read

In this series of occasional pieces about books that have had an important part in creating my reading identity, it feels a little odd to be including a book I just couldn't finish. Indeed, it often bubbles to the surface of my thoughts and just sits there in a downright accusatory fashion.

There have been, subsequently, plenty of books I've abandoned or tossed into the 'get-rid-of-this-as-fast-as-you-can' pile but this one was the first I'd encountered after I caught the reading bug. Up until this point everything had just been there to be devoured.

C.S. Forester's The Ship struck me even in my youthful school-age ignorance as an odd choice for an O level set text - it somehow didn't sit comfortably alongside Lord of the Flies, Twelfth Night, Wordsworth and the rest. I can only assume, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, someone thought a second world war story might set the average teenage boy's pulse racing in a way the delicate Georgian sensibilities of Jane Austen wouldn't. This was, after all, only twenty years after the war had ended and many families would have members who vividly remembered the experience.

However, for me the book seemed a puzzle - an anachronism in a new, emerging world and anathema to a generation dedicated to peace rather than conflict. Published in 1943 and clearly a piece of tub-thumping propaganda, The Ship tells the story of HMS Artemis in battle with the Italian fleet on one day in the Mediterranean as it acts as a guard ship to a supply convoy heading  for the crucial but besieged island of Malta.

Try as I might I just couldn't get into the book at any level. It felt almost as if had been written in a strange foreign script that meant nothing to me. It's not a long book either - a piffling 200 pages - but I doubt I even made it to half way through. When it came to writing essays about the book for homework I filled, I padded and heaped up the bull and - to the eternal credit of Mr Minovi our English teacher who saw right through this - generally got very very poor marks. It was my only failure and it haunted me then and has done so periodically. I assumed the problem was mine and I just didn't have a good enough mind to see why this was such a good book - why else, after all, would it be on an exam syllabus?

And this is why the book is such an important part of my reading life. It made me come to terms with my own limitations as a reader and also made me realise that there would be times when enthusiasm wasn't a sufficient substitute for application. Important lessons, I still think today. However, in recent times I've had a growing curiosity about The Ship - was the problem me as I had assumed all these years, or maybe the book was, at least in some part, just as much to blame? I had to find out.

I have now, 45 years later, read the book again and I'm astonished and a little bit thrilled to find just how much I still dislike it. Just as my younger self had struggled with it, this older, more knobbly, me also found it a substantial bore. The difference now is that I'm happy to share with you why. Well, let's start with the obvious - it's propaganda and rather tedious propaganda built on wearisome stereotypes. I have absolutely no doubt that the British navy was (and possibly is) staffed by very brave and skilful people but the class-riddled salt-of-earth cliches that are trotted out here are just staggeringly trite. We have double and triple barrelled names, finely chiselled jawlines, watch-yer me cock sparra working class, brooding but brilliant loners - yawn yawn yawn. The writing is formulaic and one-paced, lacking any real sense of tension - we know the Brits are going to win and we also know that if they have to make 'the ultimate sacrifice' they'll do it with a stiff upper lip.

Forester lingers on the technical and on process - there's loads of stuff about the thickness of metal, engines, smoke, munitions which is clearly aimed at the kind of male audience that finds war thrilling - I don't and I have zero interest in reading this animated technical manual jargon. I also have no idea what's happening where for the simple reason that I have no idea how a ship is built or where any of the rooms, look-outs or pom-pom guns are located - and there's no handy diagram to help me.

So, no wonder I hated it. It's because it's not very good. It wasn't me after all. It was the damn book. Vindicated! Free at last! That feels good...

Terry Potter

April 2016