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The Rim Worlds

... out on the Galactic Rim things are very iffy and if you fart really hard your're liable to blow yourself on to an Alternate Time Track.

A Bertram Chandler.

The Mentor No: 43 - Apr 1983
(Cover Esther Mace)

The Mentor No: 43 - Apr 1983


Today, February 14, is the anniversary of the introduction of decimal currency into Australia. Although I detest decimal weights and measures (although I can cope with them) I did approve the switch to dollars and cents, It is so much easier to convert a royalty cheque from the U.S.A. into $A than into £.s.d, But I still maintain (but nobody ever listens to me) that the nautical mile which means something, one minute of latitude, should have been made the standard, not the kilometre which, like the land mile, is one of those utterly meaningless arbitrary measurements. Celsius temperatures and millibaric atmospheric pressures I don’t mind; during my years at sea, concerned with meteorology, I could switch from degrees Fahrenheit to degrees Celsius, from inches to millibars, with ease.

The change to metrics is not the only Big Change that I have seen in my lifetime. There was one in the 1930s, when I was a very junior officer in the British Merchant Navy, which had all, the old shellbabks frothing at the mouth, prophesying collisions, strandings and horrendous loss of life and property. After the Big Change there was no marked increase of marine casualties. Probably there was a decrease.

When I first went to sea, in 1928, the old (and utterly absurd) system of helm orders was still in force. Suppose that you were officer of the watch and wished to take avoiding action - another ship, an iceberg, a rock or whatever. Suppose you wanted to turn to starboard. You would give the order, a-port!” The man at the wheel would reply cheerfully, “Hard a-port, sir!” He would then turn the wheel to starboard. The ship’s head would swing to starboard. But the tiller, actuating the rudder, would swing to port. This was a hangover from the days when ships were steered directly by tiller and not by wheel.

At last the long overdue change was made and we all survived it.

Like most people in my age group - I like to tell people, quite truthfully, that I’ve been under fire in both World Wars (all right, all right, in World War I I wasn’t in uniform and had no means of shooting back at my disposal- I tend, now and again, fondly to recall the Good Old Days. A pound of prawns for 2/6 (25c)... A Penguin paperback for 6d (5c)... A hardcover book for 7/6 (75c)... And so on, and so on.

But, in many ways, those were the Bad Old Days. The prudery, the God- bless-the-Squire-and-his-relations-and-keep-us-in-our-proper-stations attitude of the lower classes (in England, anyhow, if not in Australia). The banning of books for alleged obscenity, which persisted in Australia even after the Poms and the Yanks had a sudden rush of brains to the head in such matters. Do any of you remember when, in Australia, only medical students (why them, of all people?) were allowed to purchase James Joyce’s Ulysses? Do you remember when Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy was nabbed in Australia and the then Prime Minister, Pig iron Bob (who was never one of my pin-up boys) said that he’d read it and that he didn’t think much of it, so it could stay banned? I’d read it too (if it hadn’t been banned I’d never have bothered to get a copy from England) and I didn’t think much of it, but even I, in my most impossible moments, could never aspire to the mindless arrogance of the late Sir Robert Menzies.

Back to God-bless-the-Squire &c &c...

At the tine of the Abdication, when Teddy VIII renounced the throne so that he could marry the woman he loved, I was having a spell of leave in England. The members of my then-family were, I suppose, either upper working class (I detest “working class” as a label; as a shipmastar I had to work for my living and as a writer I have to work for my living) or lower middle class. My maternal grandmother said, about dear Wally, “But she’s only a commoner.” I said, “What the hell doss it matter?” and got thrown out of the house. I’d say the same today if Randy Andy announced his intentions of marrying Koo, but I don’t think that I’d get the same reaction from any in earshot.

Yes, times have changed and, except for escalating prices, for the better. No longer are subscription copies of the American Playboy seized by Her Majesty’s Customs. (At one time even Astounding as it was then, was on the Australian Customs’ black list.) No longer do writers, either in this country or overseas, either have to watch their language or see their dialogue ruined by acme blue-pencil-wielding editor.

But, even now, editors can strive to maintain outdated standards of decency. A recent example was with my Kelly Country, which should be published, by Penguin, early this coming November. My narrator, an ancestral Grimes, is second mate of a tramp windjammer bound for Melbourne. He and the captain have words, during which the shipmaster calls Grimes a mother-fucker, as a result of which Grimes strikes his commanding officer, as a result of which Grimes jumps ship in Melbourne, makes his way inland, gets a job with VicRail and is among those present at the Siege of Glenrowan.

Penguin books’ editor complained, among other things, about the “modern” bad language used in 1880. I replied that “mother fucker” was been a term of opprobrium ever since Oedipus, if not before. I said that the only reason why we have no record of the sort of had language used in the 1880s is that no writer, either of fact or fiction, would have dared to put the wicked words down on paper, that no printer would have dared to publish them. I said, too, that I went to sea in 1928 and that my tender ears, in those long ago days, were often assailed by picturesque expressions that I, even today, would hesitate to use, either as a top-blowing shipmaster or as a writer. There was one in particular with a most ingenious blend of blasphemy and obscenity....

Even though I’m a broadminded agnostic I refrain from inflicting it
upon you.

As a matter of fact seamen, today, are far less foul-mouthed than they were in 1928. Probably seamen in 1928 were less foul-mouthed than they were in 1880. Among my more amusing memories is a refusal of my crew to sail
on a certain occasion a few years ago.

At the time I was master of a ship on the Port Huon-Sydney trade - pelletised paper pulp (referred to as rabbit droppings) from Port Huon to Sydney, back in ballast from Sydney to Port Huon, The discharging berth was in “the duck-pond”, that part of Darling Harbour beyond the Pyrmont Bridge. The Pyrmont Bridge was not under the control of the Maritime Services Board but of the Department of Main Roads. Road traffic had precedence. During peak hours - morning, round about noon and later afternoon - the bridge would not be opened to permit the passage of ships. Therefore we, on the Port Huon trade, tried to adjust our arrivals and departures to suit the bridge opening times.

Well, I completed discharge about lunchtime. I arranged my sailing time - 1600 hours - add ordered tugs and linesmen. For some reason - which I still don’t know - my crew were putting on a go-slow, taking their time (a most considerable time) battening hatches and stowing derricks. I knew that if I could not get through the bridge by 1700 hrs. I should have to wait until 1900 hrs, at that time of the year an after dark sailing.

I told the Chief Officer, “Try to hurry the boys up, Gordon.”

He did. Among other things he called them a shower of bludgers.

The crewing up was completed nonetheless but the crew refused to sail. Their allegation was that the wicked Chief Officer had sworn at them. By this time hadn’t a hope in hell of getting through the bridge before 1700 hrs. So amended my sailing time to 1900 hrs., informed all concerned, and sent all hands to their evening meal.

After we had fed I received the crew delegates, representing deck and engineroom ratings. They said that they would not sail unless the Chief Officer apologised for his use of bad language. I took this gentleman to one side and told him, “The word ‘bludger’ could just be construed as being an obscenity. It’s original meaning is a man who lives on his wife’s immoral earnings. I’m not ordering you to apologise. I’m asking you to apologise - and only for the use of that one word.”

The apology was made and received. The delegates went down to a mass meeting in the crew’s messroom and eventually returned. They had a fresh demand - for a written and signed statement and apology from the Chief Officer.

I said, “Come, come. This is too much. I was brought up never to sign anything.”

One of the delegates said smarmily, “Yes, Captain. But you were brought up never to use bad language.”

The other delegate was my “mud pilot”, my harbour helmsman. More than once he has heard me blistering the paintwork around the bridge and wheelhouse, “What the fuck does that christless tug think he’s doing?” “Tell the second mate, on an occasion when that officer, at the after end of the ship, was having trouble heaving alongside... “that he couldn’t pull a soldier off his sister!” and so on and so on.

The “mud pilot”, having heard me at my best/worst, collapsed in helpless laughter.

I seized the opportunity and said,. “This bloody silly business, has gone on too long. You’ve had your apology. Either you sail now or I’ll put the fucking lot of you in the Log Book for disobedience to lawful commands.”

(When a man is “logged” it means that he is fined, according to the scale, for whatever crime he has committed. The ultimate penalty is Instant Dismissal combined with a Bad Discharge.)

We sailed.

If’ I had been writing this sad but true story one hundred years ago there would have been a profusion of asterisks.

Recently I struck another example of changing social attitudes. The nudist club to which I have belonged for over twenty years recently underwent a change of ownership. During the final year or so before this change there was a drive for new memberships. The new owners are pleasant people, but just a little strait-laced, and are trying to weed out some of the new members whom they consider undesirable. One lady, with her family, was sent official notification that her membership had been cancelled.

It was one of those hot afternoons, with a shade temperature of 40c. The lady in question turned up, with all her family, to cool off in the swimming pool. The club manager ordered them off the premises. They refused to leave. He called the Police.

In the old days, not so very long ago, if any outsider on any kind of’ business, came on to the club premises any members around at the time would put something on, even if only a beach towel. (I recall one occasion, a delivery of lolly water and such being made to the shop, when one poor girl was sort of trapped, away from her clothing and even her beach towel and, blushing all over, was trying to hide her tender body from the lecherous leers of the lolly-water-deliverers behind a most inadequate palm tree...)

Nobody bothered to put anything on when the Police came, We weren’t embarrassed. The police officers weren’t embarrassed, although they were most definitely uncomfortable. The ringleader of the trespassers insisted on being interviewed in full, blazing sunlight, ignoring the pitiful plea, “Can’t we move into the shade, madam?” And the junior constable was looking longingly at the pool, attracted even more by the clear, cool water than by the half dozen or so shapely naiads,

So times have changed - and mainly for the better.

I like to kid myself that I am the best judge of what books I read and what films I watch. Most pornography, either on the printed page or the screen, I find boring. But now nobody tells me that I mustn’t read it or watch it. (If anybody told me that I must read it or watch it - then I’d scream!) I am not a believer in Progress-For-Its-Own-Sake - but such disbelievers are found, happily in increasing numbers, in all age groups. As a writer I enjoy the freedom to call a spade a spade - or, when the occasion demands it, a bloody shovel.

And I often wonder if the old Chinese curse - you live in, interesting times!” - is really such a curse.