January 27, 2009

A manual for life

I WAS FOSSICKING around in a used-book store the other when I came across a copy of A Manual for Small Yachts, by R. D. Graham and J. E. H. Tew. It was a 1946 copy, beautifully and miraculously preserved after all those years. I was greatly tempted to buy it because I have that very same edition at home, right down to the purple cover. But my copy is tattered and ravaged from the passage of time. I love it dearly, nevertheless, because, as far as I can remember, it’s the first book I ever stole.

I was 14 years old when I smuggled it off the sloop Albatross, then owned by Harry Pegram, one of the landed gentry from the wine country near Cape Town. It was inscribed “To the Boatswain of the Albatross. From the Skipper, 12/1/47. Thanks a lot.” I never knew who the Boatswain was, and he must have been gone for several years before I came on the scene. I think I replaced him as crew, though, after which the good old Albatross sailed without a proper bosun.

Now, all these decades later, we’re both showing signs of age, the book and I — honorable scars of usage and experience, I like to think. I don’t care what the book looks like now, and I realize it’s worth nothing to anyone else, but we’ve grown up together, we’re like family, that book and I. I have pored over it countless times and it has taught me many useful things you won’t find in modern books on the subject of sailing.

I do have other books, of course, some obscure, some fascinating, some given to me by famous sailors like Bernard Moitessier long before he became famous. And I have clippings from magazines with articles by people like that superb seaman and writer, Miles Smeeton, whose words of wisdom all too often (like Thomas Gray’s flowers) were destined to blush unseen and waste their sweetness on the desert air.

Most of my little collection is well thumbed (OK, pretty shoddy) and largely comprises books picked up cheaply from library sales, given to me for birthdays, and, very occasionally, awarded as a prize for some sailing competition. The only ones that look smart and new are ones that haven’t been opened because I wrote them myself and I already know what’s inside.

Almost every time I approach the bookshelves, my eye falls fondly on A Manual for Small Yachts and in passing I’ll give it a little pat, or open it to some page at random. Last time I picked it up it fell open at the last page of the glossary and there I read: “Way: a ship weighs her anchor but gets under way, but some of you spell it underweigh, which is incorrect until enough people do it often enough to make it right.”

That hasn’t happened yet, but many people, including the worthy editor of a magazine that employs me as a copy editor, insist that a boat gets underway. Why that should be, I can’t imagine. One doesn’t hide undertable when an earthquake threatens. A daring pilot doesn’t underfly a bridge. No, a boat gets under way, separated by a proper honest space, and that’s that.

I shall quote A Manual for Small Yachts in my long-running fight with my intractable editor. Thank you for your assistance Commander Graham. Thank you Mr. Tew. If I ever win that fight I’ll have your lovely little book rebound.

Today’s Thought
When I am dead
I hope it may be said
“His sins were scarlet,
“But his books were read.”
—Hilaire Belloc

Tailpiece
A new senator was irritated by poor service on the flight to Washington, DC.
“Do you know who I am?” he thundered.
“No, sir,” said the attendant, “but I’ll make enquiries and let you know.”

1 comment:

Duncan Cameron said...

Hi John
Hooray for your reference to Miles Smeeton, I treasure his books. I gave "The Sea Was Our Village" to some close friends who were talking of going cruising with their young daughter, and said "I think this is one of the best books you could read about this".

His prose reminds me of Roderick Haig-Brown, who wrote as well about fly-fishing as Smeeton did about cruising.

They both seemed to capture the spirit of lives very well-lived. Is it a coincidence they both lived on Vancouver Island?

It makes me dream that someday I may retire to cruise the West Coast and fly-fish for steelhead. And count myself lucky for these fellows who pointed the way.