A Fleet in Being

Notes to Chapter III

by Alastair Wilson. The page and line numbers refer to the 1898 Macmillan edition of A Fleet in Being.

[Page 30, line 7] “we were zealous, Mr. Simple” “Mr. Easy” would have been more appropriate in this Marryat allusion, vide Mr. Midshipman Easy, Chapter IX.

[Page 31, line 10] answering pennant at the dip the answering pennant (so pronounced but spelt “pendant” by the Navy) was a long narrow white and red flag, still in use in the International Code for acknowledging a flag signal. Hoisted “at the dip”, i.e., half-way up to the masthead or yardarm, it implied that the signal was indistinguishable or not understood; “close up”, it meant that the message was understood and could be executed.

[Page 32, line 6] disrating demotion, e.g., from leading signalman to signalman. This might be done either for disciplinary reasons or, as predicted here, for alleged incompetence.

[Page 32, lines 14-19] “Every day brings a ship … he would hear.”
This is a six-line poem entitled “Letters” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882).

[Page 32, lines 26 et seq] The Captain of the Powerful was the Hon. Hedworth Lambton, who became Admiral of the Fleet the Hon. Sir Hedworth Lambton Meux. Captain R. L. Groome commanded the Terrible.

[Page 33, line 17] a windsail a canvas funnel, temporarily triced up to face the wind and carry a draught of fresh air down below.

[Page 33, line 19] Portland a secondary naval base, just south of Weymouth in Dorset, on the south (Channel) coast.

[No longer so. The Royal Navy left Portland in 1995. This was partly due to the contraction in the size of the fleet, but mostly because the immediate area was no longer suitable for exercising ships with modern weapons. A.W.]

[Page 33, line 19] “the Wolf and the toothed edges of the Scillies” the Scilly Isles lie some 24 miles W.S.W. of Lands End; the Wolf Rock is not far to the southward of it.

[Page 33, line 21] a Jersey potato-ketch a ketch is a smallish sailing craft, fore and aft rigged, with two masts, a main and a mizzen. The island, which lies in the English Channel (or la Manche as the French call it) between England and France, provides vegetables for the English market.

[Potato boats – nowadays (2003) usually registered in Cyprus or Morocco (O Tempora, O Mores) still bring Jersey potatoes into Portsmouth, Poole and Shoreham. A.W.]

[Page 33, line 23] “one or other of the Capes” the Horn, the southern tip of South America, or the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of Africa.

[Page 33, line 27] “the Powerful pulling-out for a sailing ship” the international Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea require a steamship to give way to a sailing ship if there is any risk of collision. Prudence or manners may induce a sailing ship to keep clear of a formation of warships; but the Regulations still apply and many sailing ships stand firmly on their rights.

[Page 33, line 31] sailing-lights this term, not commonly used now, obviously refers to the port and starboard bow lights, red and green respectively, carried by a sailing ship under way. A steamship carried in addition a white light on her foremast; a second white light, abaft and above this was first made optional but later became compulsory for steamships over 150 feet in length.

[Page 34, line 4] the Lizard the southernmost point in Cornwall, in the far south west of England.

[Page 34, line 4] hunt-the-Needles The Needles are a group of rocks at the western tip of the Isle of Wight, a few miles off the English coast. In foggy weather they would be the best indication of the shortest channel to Southampton Water. As liners increased in size they found this passage uncomfortably tight and went east-about round the Isle of Wight.

[Page 34, line 21] “as harmless as the levin-rods of the Vril-Ya” this is an allusion to Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race (1870) which describes a highly civilised race of beings, the Vrilya, inhabiting vast caverns in the bowels of the earth, and owing their development to vril, a source of power suggesting a cross between electricity and nuclear energy. Used destructively from the metal staffs they carried, it could be far more lethal than lightning, but its beneficial effects so far exceeded anything yet achieved or promised by nuclear physics that this was necessary only against an occasional dangerous intruder.

Levin is a poetical word for lightning, or flash of lightning. What does Kipling mean when he says of the battleship that `In our hands it lay as harmless as the levin-rods of the Vril-Ya’ ? Knowing his almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Indian mythology we who are collecting the material for the Readers’ Guide ransacked the Rig-Veda and found how Indra did battle with the sky-demon, Vrit-ja, clove him with a thunderbolt, and let loose the floods of rain on to the parched earth. How easily this interpretation might have got into print (with a reference to Kipling’s slight lapse of memory as to spelling or his printer’s error of a letter), had not pure chance reminded one of us of Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race (1870), an astonishing work of science fiction most unduly forgotten, but obviously read and remembered by Kipling – and still sufficiently well-known by his readers in 1898 for him to use the reference without a second thought.

“The Vril-Ya are the Coming Race of the title. They lived in caverns in the interior of the Earth, and have reached a Utopian state which we can only envy. When Lytton’s hero visited them nearly a hundred (and thirty-five) years ago, he found that they had already Vril, a force almost exactly equivalent to Atomic Energy. Each man and woman carried in their hands a thin rod charged with Vril with which they could instantly annihilate an enemy, or a whole army of enemies, blast the solid rock, or destroy a city. As each of the Vril-Ya possessed these atomic weapons, war and the might of arms became ridiculous and unthinkable. Vril was used for many peaceful purposes, and a perfect Utopian civilisation took the place of the previous power-politics, arms-race and general amiable proceedings of civilised life as known on the outer face of our Globe. But each of the Vril-Ya still carried a levin-rod, though it was now harmless, being only for use against the occasional prehistoric monster who might wander into their ordered existence.

“Kipling’s simile is superbly apt, and we are the losers who do not take the allusion, and have not read Lytton’s fascinating tale.” R.L.G. in Kipling Journal issue no 140, Dec 1961, with a further reference in 143, Sep 1962.”

[What Admiral Brock did not say, but which may be thought necessary today, is that Kipling expressed exactly how the great majority of naval officers saw their ships and their duty, in an attitude which lasted from 1850 to 1914, and, tempered by the events of World War 1, until 1939. We, the British nation, had this great power in our hands, capable (or so we believed) of achieving anything by the political pressure of its very presence, but we refrained from exercising its power other than for what was seen as being to the benefit of humankind. Elsewhere it has been suggested that, in the years 1815 to 1914, the Royal Navy was the greatest force for peace seen since the Roman legions. A.W.]

[Page 35, line 19] Schedule D this unfortunately needs no introduction – to an English reader. For an American it is only necessary to say that it is the instrument under which income tax is collected.

[Page 35, line 22] my ash-shoot With the near universal use in the west of gas and oil for domestic and industrial heating, there is a generation which have never used coal, and are unaware that only two-thirds of the labour of using coal comes from shoveling it into the furnaces: the remainder comes from the disposal of the ash (up to 20% by volume of what went into the furnace). And whereas, when coaling ship, much of the work in stowing the coal down below in the bunkers could be left to gravity, to dispose of the ash, it had to be hoisted up to the upper deck, and then tipped down the ash-shoot. [A.W.]

[Page 36, line 21] “Now in my last ship” the Captain began “My last ship” was H.M.S. Mohawk, a third-class cruiser (or Torpedo Cruiser) of 1,770 tons displacement, launched in 1886.

[Page 37, line 8] alterations and improvements officially known as alterations and additions.

[Again, little has changed in the Navy since Kipling wrote, and Admiral Brock commented. One still goes into a refit with a list of As and As, and a supplementary list of ‘nice-to-be-done-if-possible’. In Admiral Brock’s time, much might be done by the judicious donation of a packet of cigarettes to the right chargehand: I have no doubt that the same applies in 2003, though cigarettes are probably less used as currency, and the commercialisation of the former Royal Dockyards has rendered the doing of such jobs less easy. A.W.]

[Page 38, line 9] The carpenter, so called because he very rarely deals with wood… This is fair comment. The “carpenter” became a Warrant Shipwright in 1918.

[But today’s Marine Engineering Artificer (Hull), who is the direct descendant of the Carpenter/Shipwright/Shipwright Artificer, is still called ‘Chippy’, or ‘Chips’. A.W.]

[Page 39, line 9] diplomacy diplomacy has a capital “D” in the. newspaper article.

[Page 39, line 17] galley passing galley Galley here is a captain’s boat, further remarked on under Kipling’s Note 11 below.

[Page 39, line 21] “My brother Manuel, sar?” a Maltese, accused of some misdemeanour, might attribute it to “My brother” or “My brother from Gozo”, the sister island of Malta.

[Page 39, line 22] Mafeesh Arabic, or an approach to it, for “finished”, or “all gone”. (See also “A Friend of the Family” in Debits and Credits, page 318 line 3, and page 320 line 23.)

[Page 39, line 23] Kerritch hogya Kerritch is pidgin English for carriage; hogya is Hindustani, meaning ‘[will be here’.

[Page 39, line 28] slave-dhow the Arabian dhow, a sailing craft with one or two triangular (lateen) sails, has often been associated with gun-running, the slave-trade and piracy.

[Page 40, line 7] a Dockyard “matey” “Matey”, a naval term for a workman in one of H.M. Dockyards, was sufficiently well-known in 1851 to be used in a book intended for the general public.

[Page 40, line 10] his washing accommodation scanty, by modern standards.

[Page 40, line 18] general quarters Action Stations, “for exercise”.

[Page 40, line 28] the “blue” an abbreviation for the more common “bluejacket”. As an expression for the naval rating, this seems to be dying out.

[Page 41, line 7] mast-head angles if the angle subtended by a ship’s mast of known height is measured with a sextant, simple trigonometry will give her distance. A special instrument supplied for stationkeeping gave an approximate range without calculation.

[Page 41, lines 9-11] the First Lieutenant has enlightened you on his duties as an Upper Housemaid “Upper Housemaid” somewhat underrates the responsibilities of the Executive Officer, second-in-command of one of H.M. ships, so well described in Kipling’s Note IA. It would seem more appropriate to the First Lieutenant of a larger ship – a big cruiser or battleship – where the Executive Officer was a Commander and the First Lieutenant’s special concerns (apart from any arising from technical qualifications) were limited to the ship’s internal cleanliness and the management of her anchors and cables.