(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Issue 21, June 15th 2019)
Very occasionally, one comes across a person of natural authority, a person who impresses without effort and without design, someone who just seems more human than the rest of us. Last week, I met just such a man on the train from Aberdeen to London Kings Cross.
The journey takes seven hours, so I’m careful about being drawn into conversations with fellow-travellers: seven hours is a long time to sustain a conversation about Jehovah’s Witnesses’ aversion to blood transfusions, or the scandalous price of houses in Inverurie. So I gently rebuffed the elderly lady seated beside me when she tried to get me talking. In response to each of her conversational sallies (on the weather, the surprisingly crowded carriage, the scandalous price of tickets), I replied courteously but briefly, and returned to reading my book. Thus thwarted, she turned to the massively built, grizzled, elderly black man sitting across the table from us. More civil than myself, he answered all her inquisitive questions with grave dignity, in a rich, bass voice. The old lady quickly established that our companion was from Sierra Leone and was returning there after visiting to his son, gravely ill in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary with severe burns, sustained in a fire aboard a Peterhead fishing boat.
At Montrose, the old lady left us and the train, with a parting comment on the scandalous price of Montrose taxis. My remaining companion and I exchanged complicit smiles. He then surprised me. He leant across the table, gestured towards my book, and said:
‘I see you’re reading about Emanuel Swedenborg. A great man, I believe. And one who led a fascinating life. May I ask what your interest is in Swedenborg?’
I struggled to answer. I explained that, since I’d retired a couple of years ago, I’d enrolled in a literature course at the Open University and I was planning to submit a student project on Swedenborg’s influence on the work of the poet, William Blake. What I really wanted to do was ask what interest an elderly man from Sierra Leone could have in an eighteenth-century Swedish mystic. I might have found a courteous way to frame that rather insulting question, had I not already been witness to the relentless grilling my companion had already received on the Montrose leg of our journey. As it happened, John (that was his name) volunteered an answer to my unspoken question:
‘In my church in Freetown, back in Sierra Leone, we have studied some of Swedenborg’s writings. I am an elder in the Freetown Christadelphian Church. We are bible Christians and, like Swedenborg, we are Unitarians.’
I wanted to avoid a theological discussion on the biblical justification, or otherwise, of a belief in the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. So I asked John about his son: I’d seen the story of the fishing boat fire in the Aberdeen Press and Journal.
‘The hospital is wonderful. I am very grateful for his care. But Andrew is very ill. Very ill. That’s why my fellow elders in the Church found the money for me to visit.’ He paused and then continued in the same slow, deep voice: ‘It has been a particular grief to me. Because I too have lived the nightmare of a fire at sea. Indeed, a fire ON the sea too. Some twenty years ago, I jumped from the fiery deck of a tanker full of gasoline into a fiery sea full of gasoline.’
I gasped. ‘You were on that tanker, the Derwent, off the Belgian coast back in 1993. You survived the collision and the fire.’
It was now John’s turn to be surprised. Mysteriously, over the last thirty years or so, Britain has somehow ceased to be a maritime nation and tragedies like that of the Derwent are no longer well known or remembered. But I used to work as a ships agent and I remembered it very well. In thick fog, the Eastern Supreme, a bulk carrier steaming far too fast, with no look-out, and with no-one manning the radar, smashed into the Derwent, newly laden with a cargo of gasoline, which spilled out of the ruptured tanks and ignited. The Derwent was swept with flames before the lifeboat could be launched, and so the crew had to leap into the burning sea. Nine men died, two of them from Sierra Leone. I explained about my old job as a ships agent and asked John whether there had been any legal proceedings afterwards.
He shook his head: ‘A Belgian court did eventually summon the Korean master of the Eastern Supreme on charges of manslaughter, but he failed to appear.’
He spoke without emotion, and such miscarriages of natural justice are unfortunately commonplace in the shipping industry, but I felt this was too painful a topic for a conversation between strangers. I asked John if he’d gone back to sea after the Derwent fire.
He shook his head again: ‘No, though I had a family to feed. And besides, I am one of the Krumen. For two hundred years, my tribe has supplied the crews for British ships. That is how we got our name. My great-great-grandfather and my great-grandfather crewed the anti-slavery patrols of the British navy. We have always gone to sea. And we have always crewed for the British. It was more than a job: it was my birth-right. But after the Derwent, I found a job at the docks.’
Smiling at old memories, he told me how, as a boy, he started out as a messman: serving in the merchant officers’ mess, with the starched white table cloths and the picture of the Queen and Prince Philip. How, on shore-leave, he used to go to Anfield to watch Liverpool FC in the days of their pomp: he recalled in particular Big Ron Yeats, Liverpool’s mountainous, Scottish centre-half. He recalled how, when he switched to working on tankers, they used to play deck-cricket on the helicopter landing deck. Grinning now, he explained the elaborate rules of the game: ‘You British, you always have plenty of rules.’
‘Did you enjoy the cricket, John?’
‘Not really. We used to play on Sundays – a rest day, except for the watch-keepers and emergencies. We Sierra Leonians would have preferred to rest. But the British officers – they wanted us to play. You could say that a bargain had been struck. The British needed us and we needed them. The work was hard; the hours were long; the pay was poor. But we needed the jobs and the families needed our pay. So we played cricket. The British made the rules and we abided by them – for the food in our mouths.
‘After independence, things deteriorated at home in Freetown. And there were fewer British ships: we would wait at home longer and longer between contracts. But once we were back on board, things were just the same – the starched white tablecloths and the deck-cricket. There was a strange comfort in that.
‘You know, crew changes for the tankers often took place in Singapore. That used to be a British colony too, of course. We used to stare at the skyscrapers, the shops and the clean streets. We could see that Singapore had prospered after independence. But independence hadn’t worked for us. We used to talk among ourselves about how it would be better if the British would come back to run Sierra Leone.’
‘You used to talk about that, John, about the British coming back. But not anymore?’
‘Sometimes, I still hear old men talking that way. But not me. After the bulk carrier smashed into the Derwent, after those nine men died in the burning sea, I realised that the British weren’t making the rules anymore.’