Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
It was the classic last resort. I wanted to run away to sea.
It started as a nervous itch, like an attack of eczema. All spring and summer I scratched at it, and the more I scratched the more the affliction spread. There was no getting rid of the thing. Lodged in my head was an image, in suspiciously heightened colour, of a very small ship at sea.
It was more ark than boat. It contained the entire life of one man, and it floated serenely offshore: half in, half out of the world. The face of its solitary navigator was as dark as demerara. He wasn’t flying a flag. His boat was a private empire, a sovereign state in miniature, a tight little, right little liberal regime. He was a world away from where I stood. Lucky man. He’d slung his hook, and upped and gone. Afloat, abroad, following his compass-needle as it trembled in its dish of paraffin, he was a figure of pure liberty. He had the world just where he wanted it. When he looked back at the land from which he’d sailed, it was arranged for him in brilliant perspective, its outlines clean, like the cut-out scenery of a toy theatre.
I was plagued by this character. Each time I gave him notice to quit my private territorial waters, he sailed mockingly past. Smoke from his pipe rose in a fine column of question marks over my horizon. His laughter was loud and derisive. He wouldn’t go away.
I was landlocked and fidgety. I paced the deck of an urban flat and dreamed of sea-room, with the uncomfortable feeling that I’d picked up a dream which didn’t belong to me, as if I’d tuned in my mental radio to the wrong station.
Lots of people would claim the dream as their own. The idea of taking ship and heading off into the blue is, after all, a central part of the mythology of being English. Elias Canetti writes that the ‘famous individualism’ of the Englishman stems directly from his habit of thinking of himself as a lone mariner; a perception endorsed by whole libraries of bad Victorian novels.
In the books, the English are always running away to sea. The ocean is the natural refuge of every bankrupt, every young man crossed in love, every compromised second son. The Peregrines and Septimuses of the world behave like lemmings: their authors seem powerless to stop them from racing for the nearest quayside at the first sign of trouble.
They do it with such stylish finality too. The bag is secretly packed in the small hours, the farewell letter left like a suicide note beside the ormolu clock on the hall table. Goodbye, family! Goodbye, friends! Goodbye, England!
They close the front door behind them as gently as if they were dismantling a bomb. They tiptoe across the drive, careful not to wake the dogs, their faces grave at the audacity of what they’ve done. They pass the misty church, the doctor’s house behind its cliff of pines, the bulky shadows of Home Farm. By sunrise, they’re on the open road, their past already out of sight.
When next heard of, they are up on deck with a full gale blowing out of the Sou’west. The ship is falling away from under their feet in a mountainous swell. They cling to the shrouds, their hands bloody from hauling on ropes and scrubbing decks with holystone. They are changed men.
The sea voyage is more than an adventure; it is a rite of passage, as decisive as a wedding. It marks the end of the old self and the birth of the new. It is a great purifying ordeal. Storms and saltwater cleanse the ne’er-do-well and turn him into a hero. In the last chapter he will get the girl, the vicar’s blessing and the family fortune.
I knew that I was pushing my luck, and running against the clock. Peregrine and Septimus aren’t usually men of forty with dental problems and mortgages to pay. I wasn’t a scapegrace young tough. I wasn’t made for the outdoors. My experience of the sea was confined to paddling in it with the bottoms of my trousers rolled up, collecting coloured pebbles, and lolling on the edge of the ocean in a stripey deckchair until the peeling skin on my nose made me head back to the more manageable world of the hotel bar.
My kinship with the runaways was of a different kind. What I envied in them was the writing of their letters of farewell.
By the time you read this, I shall be…
Magic words. I was excited by their gunpowdery whiff of action and decision. Both were in pretty short supply where I was sitting. Moping at my worktable, I decided to change a comma to a semicolon. Framed in the window under a bleary sky, the huge grey tub of the Kensal Green gasometer sank lugubriously downwards as West London cooked its Sunday lunch.
…far away on the high seas. Please tell Mother…
Well, I had fallen out with the family, too. I couldn’t put a date on the quarrel: there’d been no firelit showdown in the library, no sign of the riding whip, not even any duns at the front door. It had been a long unloving wrangle, full of edgy silences, niggling resentments and strained efforts at politeness. One day I woke to realize that there was nowhere I felt less at home than home.
Perhaps it was simply that I’d turned into an old fogey a bit earlier in life than most people. At any rate, my own country suddenly seemed foreign – with all the power that a foreign land has to make the lonely visitor sweat with fury at his inability to understand the obvious. Je ne comprends pas! Min fadlak! Non parlo Italiano! Sprechen Sie English – please!
I’d started to forget things, as the senile do. Wanting a small brown loaf, I strolled down to the bakery on the corner. I should have remembered. It didn’t sell bread any more. It sold battery-powered vibrators, blow-up rubber dolls and videotapes of naked men and women doing ingenious things to each other’s bodies. The African Asian who now rented this flesh shop was noisily barricading his windows with sheets of corrugated iron.
He seemed calm enough; a man competently at home on his own patch. He expected a race riot at the weekend.
‘The police come and tell us to do it. Saturday, we have trouble here. Too many Rastas –’ he waved, in a vague easterly direction, at the dark continent of Portobello, and placidly banged in another nail.
He made me feel like a tourist; and like a tourist I goggled obediently at the local colour of this odd world at my doorstep. Four doors down from the bakery there’d been an ailing chemist’s full of stoppered bottles and painted drawers with Latin names. Someone had pulled it out of the block like a rotten wisdom tooth and left a winking cave of galactic war machines. All day long they chattered, bleeped and yodelled, as the local kids zapped hell out of the Aliens. The kids themselves looked pretty alien to me: angry boys, bald as turnips, in army boots and grandfathers’ braces; dozy punks with erect quiffs of rainbow hair, like a troupe of Apaches.
Our only patch of civic green space had been taken over by joggers in tracksuits. They wore yellow latex earmuffs clamped round their skulls with coronas of silver wire. They were filling their heads with something: Vivaldi? The Sex Pistols? No. Both would be equally old hat. They quartered the oily turf, blank faced, as exclusive and remote as astronauts.
The streets themselves looked as they’d always done; imperially snug and solid. On a sunny morning, you could easily believe that nothing essential had changed among these avenues of plane trees and tall, white stucco mansions. Even now, there were nannies to be seen – solemn Filipino women, who pushed their pramloads as if they were guarding a reliquary of holy bones in a religious procession. Vans from Harrods still stopped at brass-plated tradesmen’s entrances. From a high open window there still came the sound of a child practising scales on the family piano. Doh, reh, me, fa, ploink. Fa, fa, soh, lah, tee, ploink, doh.
But there were misplaced notes on the streets, too. At every hour there were too many men about – men of my own age with the truant look of schoolboys out bird-nesting. They huddled outside the betting shops. Alone, they studied the handful of cards in the window of the government Job Centre. The vacancies were for Girl Fridays, linotype operators, bookkeepers – nothing for them.
Nor for me, it seemed. I felt supernumerary here. Letting myself in to the whitewashed, partitioned box where I lived, I was met by the wifely grumble of the heating system. It wasn’t much of a welcome, and I returned it with a stare of husbandly rancour at the litter of unread books, unwashed dishes and unwritten pages that told me I was home.
I wasn’t proud of the way I lived, lodged here contingently like a piece of grit in a crevice. There was something shameful in being so lightly attached to the surrounding world. I wasn’t married. I was childless. I didn’t even have a proper job.
When I had to give the name of my employer on official forms, I wrote: ‘SELF’. This Self, though, was a strange and temperamental boss. He would make me redundant for weeks on end. He sent me on sick leave and sabbaticals, summoned me back for a few days’ worth of overtime, then handed me my papers again.
‘What am I supposed to do now?’
‘Get on your bike,’ said Self, not bothering to look up from the crossword in The Times.
I’d grown tired of my dealings with Self. He struck me as a textbook example of what was wrong with British industry. He was bad management personified: lazy, indifferent, smugly wedded to his old-fashioned vices. Self loved the two-bottle business lunch. He collected invitations to drinks at six-to-eight. His telephone bills were huge. He poisoned the air with tobacco smoke. It was a miracle that under Self’s directorship the company hadn’t yet gone bust.
I told him about the Right to Work.
‘We’d better lunch on that,’ said Self.
By the brandy stage, Self and I were reconciled. We merged back into each other.
I was fogbound and drifting. One morning I breathed on the windowpane and played noughts and crosses against myself. I waited for the telephone to peal. It didn’t. In the afternoon I went to the public library and looked up my name in the catalogue to check that I existed. At night I listened to the breaking surf of traffic in the streets, and the city seemed as cold and strange as Murmansk.
An hour of so before the house began to shudder to the cannonball passage of the underground trains, before the early-morning rattle of milk bottles on steps, I was woken by the bell of the convent down the road. It was ringing for Prime and sounded thin and squeaky like a wheezing lung. The sun never rises on North Kensington with any marked enthusiasm, and the light that had begun to smear the walls of the room looked dingy and secondhand. I didn’t much care for the appearance of this new day, and took flight into a deep sea-dream.
In novels, when the black sheep of the family takes ship, his running away is really a means of coming home. His voyage restores him to his relations and to society. I had the same end in view. I wanted to go home; and the most direct, most exhilarating route back there lay by sea. Afloat with charts and compass, I’d find my bearings again. I saw myself inching along the coast, navigating my way around my own country and my own past, taking sights and soundings until I had the place’s measure. It was to be an escape, an apprenticeship and a homecoming.
It was a consoling fantasy. I sustained it by going off at weekends and looking at real boats. As a minor consequence of the recession, every harbour in England was crowded with boats for sale: hulks under tarpaulins, rich men’s toy motor cruisers, abandoned racing yachts, converted lifeboats and ships’ tenders. Their prices were drifting steadily downwards, like the pound; and their brokers had the air of distressed gentlefolk eking out the last of the family capital. They made a feeble play of busyness and spotted me at once as another optimist trying to rid himself of his unaffordable boat. No dice, their eyes said, as they shuffled the paper on their desks.
‘I’m looking for a boat to sail round Britain in,’ I said, trying the words out on the air to see if they had the ring of true idiocy.
‘ Ah. Are you now –’ The broker’s face was rearranging itself fast, but it looked as if he’d forgotten the expression of avuncular confidence that he was now trying to achieve. All his features stopped in mid-shift: they registered simple disbelief.
He showed me a wreck with a sprung plank. ‘She’s just the job, old boy. It’s what she was built for.’
A sheet of flapping polythene had been pinned down over the foredeck to stop leaks. The glass was missing from a wheelhouse window. It was easy to see oneself going down to the bottom in a boat like that. It had the strong aura of emergency flares, Mayday calls and strings of big bubbles.
‘Know what she was up for when she first came in? Ten grand. And that was over four years ago – think what inflation must have done to that by now.’ The broker consulted the sky piously, as if the heavens were in the charge of a white-bearded wrathful old economist. ‘At two-five, old boy…two-five…she’s a steal.’
Lowering myself down slippery dockside ladders to inspect these unloved and unlovable craft, I felt safe enough. The voyage stayed securely in the realm of daydream. I liked the pretence involved in my seaside shopping expeditions, and from each broker I learned a new trick or two. I copied the way they dug their thumbnails into baulks of timber and the knowledgeable sniff with which they tasted the trapped air of the saloon. I picked up enough snippets of shoptalk to be able to speak menacingly of rubbing-strakes and keel-bolts; and soon the daydream itself began to be fleshed out in glibly realistic detail.
As I came to put names to all its parts, the boat in my head grew more substantial and particular by the day. Built to sail out of the confused seas of Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill, it had to be tubby and trawler-like. It would be broad in the beam, high in the bow, and framed in oak. It would ride out dirty weather with the buoyancy of a puffin; inside, it would be as snug as a low-ceilinged tudor cottage. It was perfectly designed to go on imaginary voyages and make dream-landfalls.
Then I bought a sextant, and the whole business suddenly stopped being a fantasy.
The sextant was old. I found it stacked up with a collection of gramophones and ladies’ workboxes in a junkshop. Its brass frame was mottled green-and-black, the silvering on its mirrors had started to blister and peel off. It came in a wooden casket full of accessory telescopes and lenses bedded down in compartments of soft baize.
It had been made for J. H. C. Minter RN, whose name was engraved in scrolled letters on the arc by J. H. Steward, 457 West Strand, London. A certificate vouching for its accuracy had been issued by the National Physical Observatory, Richmond, in July 1907. Its pedigree made it irresistible. I had no very sure idea as to how a sextant actually worked, but this tarnished instrument looked like a prize and an omen.
For the first few days of ownership, I contented myself with rubbing away at it with Brasso until a few of its more exposed parts gleamed misty gold out of the surrounding verdigris. I loosened its hinged horizon- and sun-glasses with sewing-machine oil. I brushed the dust out of the baize and polished the oak case. Midshipman Minter’s (was he a midshipman?) sextant was restored to a pretty and intricate ornament for a drawing room.
Next I went to a shop in the Minories and came away with a chart of the Thames estuary, a pair of compasses, a protractor, a nautical almanac and a book on celestial navigation. At last I was in business again with a real vocation to follow. For months I had stumbled along at my old joumeywork of writing reviews of other people’s books and giving voice to strong opinions that I didn’t altogether feel. Now I was returned to being a freshman student, with the art of finding one’s own way round the globe as my major subject. I holed up with the sextant and the book on navigation, ready to stay awake all night if that was what was needed to master the basic principles of the discipline.
I read on page one:
We navigate by means of the Sun, the Moon, the planets and the stars. Forget the Earth spinning round the Sun with the motionless stars infinite distances away, and imagine that the Earth is the centre of the universe and that all the heavenly bodies circle slowly round us, the stars keeping their relative positions while the Sun, Moon and planets change their positions in relation to each other and to the stars. This pre-Copernican outlook comes easily as we watch the heavenly bodies rise and set, and is a help in practical navigation.
Obediently I saw the earth as the still centre of things, with the sun and the stars as its satellites. I was happy to forget Copernicus: my own private cosmology had always been closet-Ptolemaic. This geocentric, egocentric view of the world was infinitely preferable to the icy abstractions and gigantic mileages of the physicists. Of course the sun revolved around the earth, rising in the east and setting in the west; of course we were the focus of creation, the pivot around which the universe turns. To have one’s gut-instincts so squarely confirmed by a book with a title like Celestial Navigation was more than I could possibly have bargained for. I became an instant convert. I saw Sirius and Arcturus tracking slowly round us like protective outriders; I watched Polaris wobbling, a little insecurely, high over the North Pole.
For the essence of celestial navigation turned out, as I read, to consist in a sort of universal egoism. The heavenly bodies had been pinned up in the sky to provide an enormous web of convenient lines and triangles. Wherever he was, the navigator was always the crux of the arrangement, measuring the solar system to discover himself on his ship, bang at the heart of the matter.
Here is how you find out where you are. You are standing somewhere on the curved surface of a globe in space. Imagine a line extending from the dead-centre of the Earth, through your body, and going on up into the distant sky. The spot where it joins the heavens over your head is your zenith, and it is as uniquely personal to you as your thumbprint.
Now: your latitude is the angle formed at the Earth’s centre between the equator and your zenith-line. You are a precise number of degrees and minutes north or south of the equator. Check it out in an atlas. The latitude of my North Kensington flat is 51°31’ North.
The sun, remember, revolves around the earth. Imagine now that it is noon on one of those rare days – at the time of the spring or autumn equinox – when the sun is exactly over the equator. Get your sextant ready.
Focus the telescope, twiddle the knobs and set the mirrors to work. Excellent. You have now measured the angle formed between your horizon and the sun over the equator. If you happen to be standing in my flat, I can tell you that the figure you have just read off from your sextant is 38°29’.
And what use, pray, is that? inquires Poor Yorick.
It is a great deal of use. Take it away from 90° and what do you get?
51°31’. Our latitude.
I don’t understand why.
Think. Your zenith-line cuts your horizon at right-angles. If the sun is over the equator, then the angle formed on the earth’s surface between the sun and your zenith-line is the same as the angle formed at the earth’s centre between your zenith-line and the equator.
I never did understand spherical geometry.
Nor did I, but the calculation works, and you can play exactly the same game with the Pole Star as you can with the sun. Find the angle between it and your horizon, and you can quickly work out your latitude in degrees north or south.
51°31’ North is not a position: it is a line several thousand miles long encircling the Earth. To find North Kensington on that line, you must time the sun with a chronometer and so discover your longitude.
Longitude – your personal angle east or west of the zero meridian – is measured from Greenwich. ‘Noon’ is not a time on the clock: it is the instant when the sun is highest overhead above your particular meridian. In North Kensington, which is West of Greenwich, noon comes later than it does to the Royal Observatory, for the sun goes round the earth from east to west at a reliable speed of fifteen degrees of longitude in an hour, or 360° in a day.
Pick up the sextant again and clock the angles of the sun around noon. It rises…rises…rises, and now it starts to dip. What was the exact moment when it peaked? Just forty-eight seconds after noon by Greenwich Mean Time? Please don’t argue. Let’s agree that it was forty-eight and not a second more or less.
Forty-eight seconds, at a minute of longitude for every four seconds of time, is twelve minutes of longitude. You are precisely twelve minutes West of Greenwich, or 0°12’ W.
So there is home: 51°31’ N, 0°12’ W. St Quintin Avenue, London W10, England, the World, the Celestial Sphere. How easily is the lost sheep found, at least at noon on the vernal equinox, with the aid of Midshipman Minter’s sextant. No matter how twisty the lane, or how many back alleys must be broached to reach him, the navigator dwells in the intersection between two angles. His position is absolute and verified in heaven. It all makes a great deal more sense than house numbers and postal codes.
That is the theory. But nautical astronomy is founded on a nice conceit, a useful lie about the way the universe works. It’s muddied by the unruly behaviour of the sun and stars as they whizz round us on the celestial sphere. The sun, unfortunately, is a vagrant and unpunctual bird. Only twice in the year is it actually over the equator at noon. Between March and September it strays North, lying at a slightly different angle every day; between September and March it goes south. Solar noon never quite corresponds with noon by Greenwich Mean Time. It can be late or early, according to the clock, by as much as twenty minutes.
It would have been pleasant to go abroad, Crusoe fashion, with just a sextant and a good clock. In practice, apparently, both were useless without a book of tables called an Ephemeris – tables that are meant to keep one posted on what all the heavenly bodies are up to at any particular moment.
It was time to take my first noon sight. I unfolded the sextant from its wrapping of dusters, feeling that I was handling an instrument of natural magic. From the Ephemeris, I’d found that today, because the sun was now down south over Africa, nineteen degrees beyond the equator, it was running three minutes late.
I stood at the kitchen window and squinted through the telescope at the jam of cars and trucks moving slowly past on the elevated motorway like targets in a shooting gallery, and made my first significant and disconcerting discovery: London has no horizon.
This was serious. Without a horizon, you don’t know where you are. Unless you can measure the angle between yourself, the sun and the plane surface of the earth, you might as well be underground. London presented an impenetrable face of concrete, clotted stuccowork, bare trees, billboards, glass, steel, tarmac and no horizon anywhere. No wonder it was famous for getting lost in.
I had to guess at where the city’s notional horizon might be, and found a window-ful of typists four floors up in a nearby office block. I focused the eyepiece on the girls and gently lowered the reflected image of the sun to join them in their typing pool. It was three minutes past noon. The girls had a peaky, distracted, time-for-lunch look; the sun, clarified through blue smoked glass, was rubicund and warty. The girls worked on, oblivious to the presence of this uninvited guest, as I twiddled the micrometer-screw with my thumb and laid the sun neatly between the filing cabinet and the Pirelli calendar.
With the swivelling magnifier on the arm of the sextant I read the sun’s altitude on the inlaid-silver scale, took away the nineteen-degree declination of the sun, subtracted the total from ninety, and found my latitude –
Had I only been in Milan or Portland, Oregon, it would have been spot-on. As it was, it did at least put a precise figure on the complaint from which I’d been suffering for the last few months: I was just six degrees and one minute out of kilter with where I was supposed to be.
The details were wonky but the exercise opened a shutter on a tantalizing chink of air and space. It seemed to me that the navigator with his sextant had a unique and privileged view of the world and his place in it. He stood happily outside its social and political arrangements, conducting himself in strict relation to the tides, the moon, the sun and stars. He was an exemplary symbol of solitude and independence. His access to a body of arcane and priestly knowledge made him a Magus in a world where Magi were in deplorably short supply; and I was bitten by pangs of romantic envy every time I thought of him. The fact that he was probably also soaked to the skin, parking his breakfast over the rail, with his circulation failing in fingers and toes, didn’t then strike me as being either likely or relevant. This was North Kensington, after all, where the sea-beyond-the-city was always unruffled, bright and cobalt-blue.
I tacked up a quotation from Purchas His Pilgrims over my desk:
The services of the Sea, they are innumerable: it yields…to studious and religious minds a Map of Knowledge, Mystery of Temperance, Exercise of Continence, Schoole of Prayer, Meditation, Devotion and Sobrietie…. It hath on it Tempests and Calmes to chastise the Sinnes, to exercise the faith of Sea-men; manifold affections in it self, to affect and stupefie the subtilest Philosopher…. The Sea yeelds Action to the bodie, Meditation to the Minde, the World to the World, all parts thereof to each part, by this Art of Arts, Navigation.
In the seventeeth century the navigator really had been the hero of the moment: John Donne, for instance, could define passionate love in terms of the movement of a pair of navigator’s compasses on a chart, and Purchas’s seductive litany had in it all the intellectual excitement of seagoing in the English Renaissance. There was something worthwhile to aim at. It would, I thought, be wonderful to be able to salvage just a small fraction of that sense of the philosophical bounty of the sea.
Leaning out of the window to shoot the sun, the sextant clamped to my eye, I attracted the attention of a good many upturned faces in the street below. Even in North Kensington it’s rare to see such an unabashed voyeur in action in the middle of the day, and I came in for a fine selection of sniggers, jeers and whistles. The passers-by were quite correct in their assessment of my case: I was a peeping-Tom. I felt aroused and elated by what I was watching through the telescope – the teasing prospect of another life, a new way of being in the world, coming slowly into sharp focus.
As soon as I saw it, I recognized the boat as the same craft that I’d been designing in my head for weeks. The tide had left it stranded on a gleaming mudbank up a Cornish estuary. It stood alone, in ungainly silhouette; a cross between Noah’s abandoned ark and the official residence of the old woman who lived in a shoe.
The local boatyard had given me the keys and a warrant to view. I slithered across the mud in city clothes, past knots of bait-diggers forking worms into buckets. There wasn’t much romance in the discovery of the boat. Each new footstep released another bubble of bad-egg air. The trees on the foreshore, speckled a dirty white with china clay dust from the docks across the river, looked as if they had dandruff. The surface of the mud itself was webbed and veined with tiny rivulets of black oil.
The boat had been lying here untenanted for three years. It was trussed with ropes and chains on which had grown eccentric vegetable beards of dried weed and slime. Its masts and rigging were gone, its blue paintwork bleached and cracked. My shadow scared a sunbathing family of fiddler-crabs in the muddy pool that the boat had dug for itself as it grounded with the tide. They shuffled away across the pool-floor and hid in the dark under the bilges.
No one would have said the thing was beautiful. What it had was a quality of friendly bulk, as solid and reassuring as an old coat. I liked its name: Gosfield Maid sounded like a description of some frumpish, dog-breeding country aunt. I’ve always had a superstitious belief in anagrams. Rearranged, the letters came out as Die, dismal fog. Not bad, under the circumstances.
I found a boarding ladder under a dusty tree, climbed nine feet up on to the deck and became a temporary captain lording it over a small and smelly ocean of mud. I inspected my ship with ignorant approval. The deck was littered with pieces of substantial ironmongery that I didn’t know the names of or uses for, but I trusted the look of their weathered brass and cast steel. Up front, two anchors lashed down in wooden cradles were big enough to hold a freighter. There was nothing toylike or sportive about this boat: it was the real thing–a working Scottish trawler refurbished for foul-weather cruising.
The wheelhouse stuck up at the back like a sentry box. It was snug and sunny inside, a good eyrie to study the world from. Leaning on the brassbound wheel, I followed the sweeping upward curve of the deck as it rose ahead to the bows. From here, the boat looked suddenly as graceful and efficient as a porpoise. It had been built to take steep seas bang on the nose, and its whole character was governed by its massive front end. Given pugnacious bows like that, you could go slamming into the waves and ride the tallest breakers, with the rest of the boat tagging quietly along behind.
The compass above the wheel was sturdy and shiplike, too. It showed our heading as West-North-West, on course across the wooded hills for Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire. I rocked the bowl in its hinged frame and watched the card settle back into position as the lodestone homed in on the pole; a small satisfying piece of magic… one more bit of the marvellous jigsaw of ideas and inventions by which captains find their way around the world.
Four steps down from the wheelhouse the boat turned into a warren of little panelled rooms: a kitchen just about big enough to boil an egg in, a lavatory in a cupboard, an oak-beamed parlour, a triangular attic bedroom in the bows. The scale of the place was elfin, but its mahogany walls and hanging oil-lamps suggested a rather grand Victorian bachelor elf. Its atmosphere was at once cosy and spartan, like an old-fashioned men’s club.
I opened a porthole to freshen the pickled air in the saloon. It was possible now to make out a fine seam down on the far edge of the flats where shining mud was joined to shining water as the tide inched upriver from the sea. I sprawled on the settee, lit a pipe, and generally wallowed in my captaincy. This wasn’t just a boat that was on offer; it was a whole estate. Whoever bought it would have a house to live in, a verandah to sit out on, a fine teak deck to pace, acres of water to survey, and a suit of sails and a diesel engine to keep him on the move through life. Who could ask for more of Home?