A Book of Words – XXXII

“Passengers at Sea”

by Rudyard Kipling

O loved little Island, forget never the Sea.
Never the Sea forgivs such as forget her.
 WHEN Lord Hewart was your guest last year he gave you some interesting facts about maritime law as that affected freights. But I don’t recall that he mentioned a certain saying about that maritime by-product, passengers. So many of us guests are passengers, and so many of our hosts are interested in our passages, that I need not apologise for quoting it. It runs: ‘God made men; God made women; and then He made passengers.’ This libel is based on the cruel superstition that if you put people into a ship, and roll them round Ushant, by the time they are decanted at their first port, they look and behave like nothing on the face of the waters except passengers.

I expect this accounts for the way we were treated within human memory. I won’t go into details farther than to remind you that our cabins used to open directly into the dining-saloon, and we were warned by notices on the mahogany-inlaid mizzen-mast which came through the table that we were under the authority of the Master, and that ‘the limit of his authority was the needs of the case, having regard to the security of the ship and those on board.’ This covered a large area.

But now that we have imposed the world-end habit on the week-end habit the case is altered. So long as we passengers muster at boat-stations with our belts on, and do not try to alter the ship’s course or set her alight, we can do absolutely what we please. And we do. To take one side of our activities only: We arrive in 20,000-ton liners to assault lovely and innocent coast towns, a thousand of us, under cover of a gas attack by 200 motor-cars. We roar through the streets, a pillar of dust by day. We come back at night, with our picture postcards, to dance to amplified gramio- phones on promenade decks till it is time to call boarding parties away to carry the next place of interest on the, programme.

And this traffic, this prodigious tourist-traffic, is increasing. Time and distance only excite it to wilder effort; for there is a man at this table who expressed his regret to me the other day that he could not for the moment—for the moment, mark you!—include the Galapagos Islands—where the giant tortoises come from—in a tourist itinerary.

Well, even supposing we may be able, next year, to cruise about scratching our initials on turtle-back sterns, what is the good of us? Apart from our dividend-earning capacity what moral purpose do we passengers subserve in the general scheme of things? This—and it is not a little matter. When we are home again, and have arranged the snapshots of ourselves standing in front of the Pyramids or the Parthenon, we have, at the lowest, realised that there are other lands than ours where people live their own lives in their own way and seem quite happy about it, and where we have seen and touched the things we had hitherto only read about. And when interest in one’s neighbour, curiosity about his housekeeping, and understanding of his surroundings are waked and can be gratified in hundreds of thousands of hearts, they make for toler¬ance, good-will, and so peace. And that is to the good.

Much of this good the world owes to those big companies who foresaw that, after the War, people would need a little fresh air and exercise, and supplied it. I do not accuse them of undiluted benevolence in this respect, but organisations that have to visualise the full circuit of the globe, as a matter of daily routine, are given—gloriously given—to building better than they know. The history of Liverpool since the Restora¬tion is proof. The mere constructive imagination used to order and equip a port that serves every sea on every tide far outmarches what is known as ‘imagination’ in the imaginative callings. The demands on it are more incalculable; the difficulties of execution greater; the penalties of failure more severe. But these. trifles do not affect us passengers. We reserve our imagination for our own jobs. All we demand of you is to be taken everywhere as punctu¬ally as by train; as cheaply and as quickly as possible; in the greatest luxury and, of course, in absolute safety. Nothing more. And that is why some of you here have, like Shakespeare and others, to create masterpieces on approval every few years. But if your imagination be at fault as to her lines; if you have not imagined the best system for driving and fuelling her; if she fails to come up to speed and con¬sumption standards, you cannot throw her in the waste-paper basket. She is there—every foot and ton of her—a burden on her shareholders and a museum of useful warnings to your rivals in the same game. And to come into such a game, before a card is drawn,, costs, I believe, several millions.

Even after experience and science have been tried out to the last, it takes nerve to break away and back one’s own judgment against the world. But nerve is the cutting-edge of imagination, and it happens to be a quality which, taking one century with another, our country has not altogether lacked. Whether we de¬veloped it because we were forced to use the seas in order to live, or whether we had it from the first and took the seas on our way, does not matter. Nerve, which knows risks and faces them, seems to be dis¬tributed vertically and uniformly, as far down as we have been able to mine into the grit of the national character.

Nowhere has it proved itself more splendidly than in the Merchant Service. Here you have, in daily use, the imagination that foresees, without being over¬whelmed, any risk that the ocean may deliver; and the nerve that deals with every immediate peril arising out of that risk. These things are so wholly given and taken for granted, that we accept them as we accept the fact that our people depend for their food, their material, and their credit on the Merchant Service. We know that if our shipping goes, we go; and that fact is per¬fectly understood by our ill-wishers. We have always accepted those risks as part of our existence.

Just now, our existence is so fantastically burdened and handicapped that, if we chose to give rein to imagination, we could waste half our time and effort in forebodings. Fortunately we do not, we cannot, so choose. For it was the sea that, from our beginnings, directed our imaginings. It was the sea that waited on us the world over, till our imaginings became realities, till our mud-creeks at home grew to be world-com¬manding ports, and our remotest landing-places the threshold of nations. It is the sea that has given us the cutting-edge to our imagination, the nerve that meets all manner of trouble with the inherited conviction that nothing really matters so long as one keeps one’s nerve, and, in that certainty, overcomes every handicap without too much clamour.