SHIVER my mainbrace, splice the
yard-arm and hoist the jolly white ensign, I have recently seen the film
adaptation of Patrick OíBrianís Nelsonic novel, Master and Commander: The
Far Side of the World, of true British sailors ranting and roaring against
the perfidious French matelots, as well as blowing them and their ship
into a blazing inferno of wood splinters, torn canvas, tottering masts and
Spectacular stuff: but while that grim tale of a
British captainís obsessive desire for revenge for nautical humiliation by
tactically-adroit Froggies was, for me, often tedious to the point of
producing yawns as big as cannonsí mouths, I was impressed with the
unstinting way the rival crews grappled in combat that had the vigour of
the rugby field and the lyrical enthusiasm of aggressively-flailing crowds
spilling from pubs at closing time.
Nobody held back, no poltroon
quavered, "Cease shoving, will ye?", and nobody retired with a sick
headache or the complaint that the noise and the people were simply too
Just as it should be - in fiction and fact. The
Navy that guards our stern and rockbound shores has traditionally been
manned by stern and rock-jawed sailors, from the Dane-defeating days of
Alfred the Great, the Spanish Armada, when remote and ineffectual dons
were scattered by good Queen Bessís battling sea-dogs, to the "Nelson
touch" triumph at Trafalgar, the big gun broadsides of Jutland and naval
actions in the Second World War and beyond.
DRAKE may be in his hammock, a
thousand miles away, but you knew where you were with our sailor lads, not
just a-dancing heel-and-toe at Plymouth Hoe, but steadfast chaps with
hearts of oak and nerves of steel - or so it seemed.
that a "shakedown" voyage by the nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Trafalgar,
was postponed because 11 sailors complained to the captain about being too
stressed to sail, could dent the imperturbable image of our fighting
Trafalgar, which had a £5 million repair bill after
hitting the seabed off Skye on 6 November, 2002, during a training
mission, injuring three crew members, was due to return to service on 23
The men, possibly suffering from post-traumatic
stress disorder, were landed for medical assessment. One man is facing
disciplinary action. The submarine is now back at sea again.
Barnacle Bill and the seven scurvy sons of Sinbad the Sailor, Iím out of
my depths here. I donít doubt for one psychiatric moment, the sincerity of
the complaints of the submariners, but 11 crew members going "on the sick"
with what might be the mental equivalent of the bends because of the
stress of working in what is, in effect, a bombshell, is doubtless
understandable, but tends to send public confidence into a crash-dive
about the way our nuclear strike vessels are operated.
as a disabling affliction, seems out of line with the maladies of our
"Charge for the guns."
"Sorry, sir; got a
stress-related nosebleed coming on."
"Once more unto the breach."
cannot abide this press of arms, dread sovereign. Methinks I must lie in
my tent awhile to ease my perturbed spirit."
captín, after weíve received our counselling ration and relaxation therapy
from the Chatham Sailoring Tween Decks Stress Relief and Spirits-Raising
In stressful times of shot and shell, Britons have
displayed admirable phlegm. Lord Uxbridge told Wellington at Waterloo
after being hit by a cannonball: "I have lost my leg, egad."
Wellington replied: "So you have, egad."
Lord Raglan, who lost an arm
at the battle, said: "Let me have that arm back. Itís got a ring given to
me by my wife on a finger."
Stiff upper-lipped Britain
has, alas, almost vanished. Young Army recruits nowadays receive what
amounts to stress-reduced training.
Out, are parade-ground
bawling, so-called, mindless discipline, ridiculing and tough punishment.
In, are internet access, condom machines and welfare and emotional support
Rookies could still suffer from stress. It might
spread to all the forces, making thousands too flaked-out to fight. Spread
globally and added to back trouble, it could mean an end to wars with -
shiver my mainsheet - consequences too stressful to contemplate.