Sunday, 17 February 2013

W. S. Gilbert - sailors, the sea and light verse

My last post has kept me in a mood for sharing tales about the sea served up with a wry twist of pusser’s humour.  For my influence I turn to William S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame), who, many years ago wrote collections of light verse that were published as the ‘Bab Ballads’ – that was before he and Sullivan teamed up to produce those wonderful musicals, Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, Mikado – the rest is history.  I’ve got an undated copy of Bab Ballads (Routledge; Morrison & Gibb printers), and I’m always on the look-out for a better edition.  Gilbert was not a naval or military man, but you can tell by his dealing with verse about ships and sailors that he’s not totally un-familiar with the services – perhaps his influence came from his father who was a Naval Surgeon, and also a writer.  One of Gilbert’s better known ballads from the collection is, The Yarn of the Nancy Bell.  The rhythm gets you in – a rollicking five to four beats like a lively sailor’s jig….

The Yarn of the ‘Nancy Bell’
(W. S. Gilbert 1836 - 1911)
‘Twas on the shores that round our coast
From Deal to Ramsgate span,
That I found alone on a piece of stone
An elderly naval man.
His hair was weedy, his beard was long,
And weedy and long was he,
And I heard this wight on the shore recite,
In a singular minor key:
“Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And a bo’sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain’s gig”
And he shook his fists and he tore his hair,
Till I really felt afraid,
For I couldn’t help thinking the man had
been drinking,
And so I simply said:
“Oh, elderly man, it’s little I know
Of the duties of men of the sea,
And I’ll eat my hand if I understand
However you can be
“At once a cook, and a captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And a bo’sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain’s gig.”
Then he gave a hitch to his trousers,
Is a trick all seamen larn,
And having got rid of a thumping quid,
He spun his painful yarn:
“Twas in the good ship Nancy Bell
That we sailed to the Indian Sea,
And there on a reef we come to grief,
Which has often occurred to me.
“And pretty nigh all the crew was drowned
(There was seventy-seven o’ soul),
And only ten of the Nancy’s men
Said ‘Here!’ to the muster roll.
“There was me and the cook and the captain
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And the bo’sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain’s gig.
“For a month we’d neither vittles nor
Till a-hungry we did feel,
So we drawed a lot, and, accordin shot
The captain for our meal.
“The next lot fell to the Nancy’s mate,
And a delicate dish he made;
Then our appetite with the midshipmite
We seven survivors stayed ……….
............ There are another eleven verses to The Yarn of the Nancy Bell – I won’t include them here, so you’re going to have to get yourself a copy of ‘Bab Ballads’ to find out what happens.  I find myself often going back to the Bab Ballads to study metre – all of the ballads are strong.  I believe Gilbert wrote his verse with the intention of it being read out loud (thus the transition of his work into theatre and musicals).  In fact, at the time of the Bab Ballads people would recite them at parties and gatherings.  I like a poem you can recite.  But, then again, I like a poem you can read.  There’s a difference between reciting a poem out loud and reading a poem aloud.  A poem for recitation does need to have good metre; a poem with emotive depth is good when read aloud.  Is that the difference between poetry and verse?  That probably accounts for why Gilbert has qualified his Bab Ballads by stating underneath the title, “Much Sound and Little Sense”.
‘Much sound and little sense’ is a good lead in to my poem, The Day the Balloon went up.  I’m grateful to light verse poets like William Gilbert that I’m able to take some of the mad-cap memories from my Navy days and preserve and share them in written verse ………..
2009.  Sailors love to tell a yarn  -  ‘spin a dit’.  Sometimes they are true, sometimes they are variations of the truth.  In most cases, the ingredients for the recipe can be trusted  -  an ambitious First Lieutenant, a bunch of nervous boffins, a thick-head with a rifle and an upper-deck crowded with goofers.
The Day the Balloon went Up
At sea one day on our ship of grey,
The Jimmy made a blunder,
The Bosun’s Mate became irate,
And the Skipper roared like thunder.
It all began when the RAN,
Took a science team for a dawdle,
With instruments new, and costly too,
Tied beneath a big red bauble.
It was tossed in the air with professional care,
But the ball was over rated,
And sank to the sea, immediately,
Where it wallowed half deflated.
The scientists, wrung their wrists,
What to tell their boss and master,
Till the Skipper parked above the mark,
And said, ‘put a swimmer in the water’.
What a sight to see, the big AB,
Striking out for fame and glory,
With a heaving line tied to his spine,
Should have been the end of the story.
But the Jimmy paced, up and down the waist,
For he was in charge of the order,
So was very keen, to be the one seen,
Yelling threats of bloody murder.
Now it is the norm when swimmers form,
That a lookout stands with a rifle,
Ready to get any likely threat
Such as shark or deep sea turtle.
On this day, with regret to say,
The lookout’s name was Potter,
A cracking shot but not a lot,
Between his ears to hold grey matter.
He stands in a doze, a classic pose,
Vic Morrow’s younger brother,
Weapon on the hip with the safety trip,
But his mind’s in some place other.
Not the sort of stance to earn romance,
When the Jimmy spots a danger,
A bloody big snake about to make,
It’s mark upon his swimmer.
The Jimmy calls to the lookout stall,
In a voice made of barbed wire,
‘A snakes been seen on the starboard beam,
One hundred yards, on my command, fire!’
Time passes by as every eye,
Stays fixed on a spot out yonder,
Expecting a shot from good old Potts,
That will save our brave young swimmer.
The ship it lolls in a gentle roll,
Still nothing from the lookout station,
The Jimmy looks away to find the delay,
And is beaten by explanation.
What the Jimmy saw made his tonsils roar,
The lookout deep in slumber,
He spun on his heel and gave a squeal,
‘That man there, I want his bloody number!’
Panic sets in and the Jimmy begins,
To lose his calm composure,
‘Get the bloody snake! the nake! the snake! Get the snake!
Yes you idiot, up on the bridge enclosure!’
Snapped awake, Potter sights the snake,
Along the rifle at his shoulder,
Then the snake is dead with a shot to it’s head,
And Potter, he lives to be one year older.
Again relaxed, it’s the scientists pack
That the Jimmy once more resumes,
Above the clamour, he yells to the swimmer,
Now get the balloon! the balloon! Get the bloody balloon!
Suddenly, a rifle cracks a bullet smacks,
And everyone turns towards Potter,
Then as quickly back to the scientist’s pack,
But it’s sitting now at the bottom of the sea, and is flatter.
At sea one day on our ship of grey,
The Jimmy made a blunder,
The Bosun’s Mate became irate,
And the Skipper roared like thunder.
                                            J.O. White

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