Chasing the Bismarck

by Richard Pellatt

Chasing the Bismark

When men are young, when old age still cowers in the shadows of pumping muscles and nimble minds, busy with love and life and wars and women; and the world, in its spherical greatness, in its icy peaks and haggard deserts, its dusty savannahs and scratchy plains, oceans vast and skies vaster, is conquerable and attainable; when any idea can be grown and designed and drawn, and built and strengthened by a million more notions, breakthroughs, advances, blasted into space or sent to the bottom of the sea; when men are young, the universe is a boundless playground, where anything and everything can be done.  A myriad of factors will divide and determine the nature of our investment: social class, skin colour, appearance, intelligence; but in essence, when a man has his health and his youth, no matter his background or upbringing, he grows in his own way.  Some look to the seas or the stars, some yearn for power or understanding; still more simply want to be heard, others remembered.  The time is short; one has but a flicker in Time’s furnace before muscles and minds grow weary of the heat of youth.

At eighteen he leapt aboard those impenetrable black waters, a sailor, who would travel the world aboard the crushing sea, that broad and sparse infinity.  Through tumbling waves they would see distant lands: the Panama Canal, man’s construction brutally spliced between the world’s great oceans: “Like standing beneath some monstrous staircase; it was awesome, awe-inspiring, beautiful and terrifying.”  The Cape of Good Hope, where the seas are as unpredictable as a madman’s chatter, Table Mountain looming and brilliant in its flatness, but strangely incomplete or broken, as though sliced in two by some Godly sabre: “We had passed it in the dawn, red earth scorched by a redder sun, our red burnt faces gazing on.”  They rode the water pass that brought The Mediterranean and Red seas together, the Suez Canal, from subtle olive tree shade to bustling harbours in an instant.  And many more places; around the world twice he would go, a foot on every continent that civilisation had ever developed, to Taiwan and Japan, through hidden Africa with her dusty tracks and dusky faces and bursting America where the money was flowing, and men were stacking up their green dollar hoards; and always the animals strange and the people stranger.  And surely it is a story an older man would laugh at, would dismiss, that a Plymouth boy could ever sail the world twice, could ever see what he saw; perhaps he might laugh at the idea himself one day, house-bound with too many pills, when his legs struggled to carry him to the kitchen and back, and his skin was frail like the scales of a fish.

He told of the day they sunk the Bismarck, scourge of the seas, the cavernous flagship of Hitler’s fleet, which had so carelessly brushed aside Britain’s own Hood.  The Hun ship: burnished metal sheered and cut and then welded together into bullying strength, a hundred cannons and a thousand guns.  The British ships, his ship, as underdogs, smaller, flitting shadows beneath that great behemoth of dusty silver, whose cannons thrust up like daggers, salvos as deadly at sea as the blade is through the ribs.  The monster was majestic and proud, and hungry after the Hood’s pitiful stand.  But we were faster and quicker and bitter with revenge, the Bismarck floundering as torpedoes cut at her from all sides, savage hyenas tearing at a far stronger, much larger prey.  And then a lucky hit and her rudders creased and jammed, and suddenly she was not majestic, but fat, sluggish and wallowing; and a message over the loudspeaker: "Ship unable to manoeuvre. We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer."  And it was only a matter of time as the torpedoes clawed the holes that would let the sea take her. 

He was an engine man, a boiler boy, where the heat suffocated and torched you.  A dangerous place to be, all that fuel, and all those torpedoes coming at you.  He told of how men died, of one ship, sunk, only three men from a crew of two hundred surviving, his friends and comrades among those blown away; of how death was not honourable, but brutal and indignant, bits and blood, of anguished screams that no man should hear, of nightmares beyond comprehension.  In contrast, he told also of those strange occasions in war when the ghoulish and the brutal met with the light-hearted and the humorous.  One chef, cooking the evening meal, suddenly found himself thrown a good twenty metres as a torpedo buried into his kitchen.  Dazzled and bemused, he awoke to find himself crumpled against a wall, his white clothes blasted clean off in a shell around him.  He was utterly black with soot, save a perfectly white chef’s hat adorning his head, and not harmed in the slightest!

A trip to Jamaica.  His wife hated him going, jealous that his mistress the sea always called louder, that such curving slender waters might always seem more beautiful than her own figure, or perhaps, afraid that foreign delights would forever take him away.  Maybe also she couldn’t bear to see him miss the things that she saw; their children growing, their aging parents.  More likely, she wanted him to be a father: each night, before bed, their five children would blow a kiss to the uniformed adventurer hanging on the wall, so as not to forget, so that when eventually he returned he was no stranger, but a father who they knew well and they would not fear, but await with bright eyes and tingling spines his gifts and stories from afar. 

He grew older; he grew older, the muscles at first wiser, before they began to slump; the eyes at first keener, before they began to blur; the heart at first stronger, until it began to strain; then the cold came harder, and the wind cracked crueller, and the sun stung deeper.  A progression; a piano scale, starting at low C, creeping slowly up to D and then slinking over E-flat, the minor alteration marking the first pair of  reading glasses; then F followed by G and a screw of grey hair by the side of his neck; A-flat waited, a strange pain in his hip and that got the younger men jesting with him, and then B-flat and the hip became a problem, and the young men joked no longer because it was serious, and real.  When he reached top C he was 46, and the captain gave him early discharge, and he came home to Shirley, and he left the sea.


  *  *    


Paul Woodman spends his days sitting in an armchair and he finds it hard to speak to me because he has trouble breathing, because in his navy days they used asbestos down in the engines, before it was recognised as being dangerous.  In his old age he has developed diabetes, and has to watch his diet.  His sight is impaired – I can tell without seeing his case notes, because his eyeballs are coated with a thin opaque lining – and he doesn’t read anymore.  Television provides entertainment, although he can only listen, and only then with his privately-paid-for £1,600 hearing aids (the NHS ones wouldn’t fit).  Getting up is a struggle and through trousers his legs are a bandy impression on the fabric, like bones under a draped sheet, and I think that perhaps they might snap with a crack in an instant of pressure, the muscles hanging like slack ropes.  His wife takes good care of him, making sure that he eats the right things, although he insists on his autonomy in this matter!

There is a certain tender atmosphere when you enter a stranger’s house: the air differs in its very density because the windows are open instead of closed, or a different type of manufactured freshener is switched on, or the fire is gas and not coal or there are videos instead of books.  In an old house history is worn into the walls and slumps on the backs of the couches, and you can look at it in a small mantle-piece china doll, and smell it in moth-bitten clothes, and feel it in worn out chairs.  The Bismarck sails in a small landscape painting, and Mr Woodman points out his own ship hovering on the horizon.  In an old biscuit tin underneath a corner chair are newspaper clippings, the most recent noting Paul and Shirley’s fiftieth wedding anniversary; he jokingly adds that he hasn’t a clue what to get her should they make it to seventy five.  And the future, too: grinning from a hundred children and grandchildren and great grandchildren proudly framed.  There is little of the present, save for Paul and Shirley themselves.

Initially - in what was a response I’m sure has been shared by many a first year medic in such clinical innocence - was a feeling of sympathy, that I should in some way feel sorry, perhaps even guilty, that I was so healthy and he so old.  When he battled up to move a table, instinctively I insisted he let me do it.  I desired not to appear arrogant, some youngster just strolling into this old bock’s living room, when he had seen so much of life and I so little, and yet I acknowledged the superiority of my own body over his: such a balance, between respect and reason.  He had been me; in a million ways his life had differed utterly but fundamentally he had been young, had already lived my life; perhaps it is pointless to explain such a blatant congruence, perhaps it is paradoxical to draw difference and similarity in the same sentence; but he was once me;  I am young, and he had been young!  The nature of our respective youth could not differ more, but he still had that experience over me.  Although my conscience was bitten by that broken frame, I still realised that my sympathy should not forget life’s inevitable and unavoidable progression.  After all, I too would fail one day, and Paul accepted his old age with humbling grace and wonderful humour: he was content; I hope that when my own body begins to fail, that I will be content too.

And it was peculiar, because all through the time that we talked, it was obvious that he wasn’t really interested in telling us about his various ailments, about his pills or his eating habits or how he got up the stairs at night; they were simply things to be coped with, an inevitable consequence of time’s erosion, an irritation; and I fought to keep on track, to steer conversation back to his aches and pains, to enquire into how often he went to the hospital and whether his care worker was good or not and how much a week he paid for Meals on Wheels; this information we got, but what really ignited Paul was talking about his past, his youth, and admittedly it was this conversation that really interested me, the Bismarck and the Panama Canal, Jamaica.  And so I wrote what he really wanted me to tell; just as the physiological inadequacies of body were unimportant in his life, so they would but whisper in the background of this piece.  What makes us interesting and diverse is the narrative of our lives, that story that each one of us has lived.

Richard Pellatt

* names and details changed to maintain confidentiality

Looking back at the Bismark

I had been reading Ernest Hemmingway when I wrote this piece, hence the masculine manner and the winding sentences!  It is interesting to look back almost four years and read something that is now in the past.  I don’t think I could, or would want to write like that again, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way.  I will try and remember why I wrote it, and why I wrote it like I did.

We are always asked to “reflect” on experiences in medicine.  What did you learn?  How did you feel?  Can you paint a picture to explain this?  Perhaps contrary to some of my medic colleagues, I have always found this line of thinking to be, among other things, rather false, forced, and somewhat irritating.  I do not like “reflecting” (the irony that this piece is itself a reflection is not lost!).  To ask someone to reflect is to negate the reflection in the first place; you can hold a gun against a man’s head and ask him to think, and all he will think about is the gun.  In the same way, a “forced” reflection makes one only think about the reflection; it becomes a piece of work, a chore, something to be ticked off and done.

So when I am asked to reflect, I try and stay clear of the “This is how I felt” line of writing.  I try and forget even that I have been asked to reflect in the first place.  And what a thing, to be asked to reflect on an entire life!  To do this by remembering how something made you feel and writing a dull and dreary monologue – surely impossible!  It is only through art that we can even begin to arrogantly claim to glimpse these things.  What a thing, to articulate and encompass another human being’s life into words or paint or a sketch or music!

So for the Bismark, I wrote a fictional account of a patient’s young life.  I wanted to highlight the contrast between young and old age; the yearning for a life of youthful freedom, of choice; the burden of confinement within one’s decaying body or mind.  That a man who had sailed twice around the world (that part was true) now sat aching and sore in a chair in some musty room.  The experiences of a globe, traversing seas and far lands – now a fizzling memory in a globerous mass, an old wet brain.

I could have written “This gentleman is old and has arthritis in both legs”, but I don’t think that really explains the situation.  For a medical history, in a medical paradigm, it is suitable, concise, conveys t Scripts/tinymce/themes/advanced/langs/en.js" type="text/javascript"> he necessary information.  But it is not what a human being thinks.  It does not begin to explain or explore.  I could have written “This made me really sad”, but again, I don’t think that covers it.  I don’t think that is true, or accurate or right.  It seems to me like the gun syndrome, the “Oh God! now I have to bloody write something!”  

And I believe that this goes some way to explaining many medics’ dislike of subjects like Whole Person Care and Creative Arts in Medicine.  It bludgeons the issue.  I do not think even the most butch of rugby players could attend the delivery of a baby without the occurrence impacting on him, making him “reflect”.  The occurrence is beautiful without having artificial reflection imposed on top of it; the event itself is incredible.  And the reflection is so inadequate, so falsely designed, so formulated; so unlike the event, or the feelings at the event, so distant, so many times removed.

I enjoyed writing the Bismark.  It made me think to write it, made me try and see things from another man’s point of view.  I may have been, and in all probability was, completely wrong, but I don’t think that really matters.  In the same way, I don’t believe that it really mattered that the piece was, for the most part, exaggerated, false, too full of adjectives and a poor imitation of a great author’s work.  I hope it is at least interesting, and most of all, that it is different!

Creative Arts