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Shades of Grey
The Ship That Died of Shame

by Rick Kennett

  • This article first appeared in All Hallows #21, June 1999

First published in 1952, Nicholas Monsarrat's novella "The Ship That Died of Shame", collected in The Ship That Died of Shame and Other Stories (1959), has for its first sentence a no-nonsense sailor's disclaimer from its narrator, Lieutenant-Commander Randall: "There are a lot of things about this story I still don't understand. I've had a good deal to do with ships — too much, maybe — and if there's one thing I know about them, it is that they are not alive. They are made of wood and metal, and nothing else: they don't have souls, they don't have wills of their own, they don't talk back. In fact, they're not like women at all." Yet for the following forty-five pages, with Monsarrat playing the "is it/ isn't it" game, the reader soon gets the feeling that Randall has lied to us and to himself.

Ostensibly a crime yarn, it tells the story of motor-gunboat 1087, a vessel with a proud war record, and its ignominious fall from grace at the hands of her former first lieutenant, the criminal-minded Hoskins, and his ex-captain and dupe, Randall.

Beginning with one of 1087's courageous wartime actions, the story picks up some years later with Randall down and out in post-war England. Here he is re-united with the affluent Hoskins who has a scheme to buy 1087 and use her for smuggling.

Randall, normally a man of principles, buries his conscience under rationalizations and falls in with Hoskins' plans.

In accordance with M.R. James' dictum of allowing the supernatural to gradually creep in until it holds centre stage, both the criminal and the uncanny (if any) are slowly introduced. To begin with, Randall and Hoskins' operations are practically innocuous: "... we were, as smugglers, quite respectable characters," Randall says. But soon French wines and nylon stockings, tinned ham and cigars give way to fake ration cards, bogus Scotch whisky and gun running. And it's here that the 1087, for the first time in her existence, begins to play up. The spark plugs oil up, the engine refuses to start, the steering breaks down, water in the switchboard puts everything out of action. "... and even when there was no ascertainable mechanical fault," says Randall, "she seemed to act in a curiously sluggish way, as if she were beginning to lose heart."

Inevitably, drugs are added to the cargo 1087 carries, and it's on the first of these runs that her engines fail in the middle of a storm. This almost throws them onto rocks, but a fortuitous change in the tide saves them.

Narcotics soon become routine. White-slavers, lead-lined coffins to be dumped at sea, and illegal immigrants who are arrested the moment they get ashore ("I wondered if he [Hoskins] had organized that as well," says Randall) are added to their itinerary. Meanwhile, as the cargoes Hoskins arranges for her to carry become uglier, 1087 continues to misbehave, breaking down, sailing sluggishly, wallowing heavily in any sort of sea, broaching-to and shipping water no matter how skillfully Randall handles her.

Their penultimate job has them loading boxes bearing Post office cyphers. Within ten minutes of starting out for France with this cargo weed wraps itself about 1087's propellers, causing a two hour delay while Randall clears it away. Then the ship develops an oil leak, a short circuit, dirty petrol, a loose rudder pin and a faulty compass. "1087, in fact, behaved all the time as though she could hardly bear to be touched," says Randall. Finally, after delivering the boxes to four silent men in a little bay south of Le Touquet, Randall discovers what the boxes had contained when Hoskins smugly shoves a newspaper under his nose: gold stolen in a Post Office van heist. A robbery in which two guards were murdered and a little girl fatally injured by the get-away car.

Randall wants out, but makes only feeble protests, knowing he's in too deep. Hoskins for his part doesn't care and becomes more ruthless still.

Their next — and last — cargo is a pudgy, bald, egg-shaped man who Randall recognizes from newspaper photos as Raines, the rapist and killer of four young children. But Raines is also rich and is paying Hoskins twenty thousand pounds to escape the British police hunt for him. Despite his disgust, Randall obediently sets course for France. But: "I don't think she'll stand for this," he tells Hoskins.

The weather turns against them. The waves "seemed to race and roar against the ship, throwing themselves against her with the full shock of malice." Slowly, gradually, the engines begin to fail. Randall's opinion varies between mechanical explanations and "perhaps she was just ashamed of us all." Eventually the engines cut out and 1087 begins to sink. Raines jumps overboard and drowns. "Thus we were all dead or dying: Raines, Hoskins, the ship and I; dying in hatred and shame and anger, amid a raging sea." In a moment of black comedy the ruthless Hoskins admits he can't swim. "That's all right with me," Randall answers and jumps, finally making it to shore. But 1087 dies and takes Hoskins, the man who brought shame upon her, with her to the bottom.

There is nothing overtly supernatural about The Ship that Died of Shame. Nothing happens that could not have a rational explanation. Yet despite his disclaimer at the beginning, Lieutenant Commander Randall — and in turn, ourselves — know better. And in this perhaps the story conforms to another Jamesian dictum of allowing a narrow loophole for a logical explanation — a loophole that's just a little too narrow.

If this is so and motor-gunboat 1087 was alive and did have a soul, then she was the only one of the three — Hoskins, Randall and herself — who also had a conscience.

#

In 1955 Ealing Studios produced The Ship that Died of Shame, an effective and atmospheric black and white film, featuring George Baker as a pliable Randall, and Richard Attenborough as the progressively nastier Hoskins. The film follows the Monsarrat novella with reasonable faithfulness, starting with the same disclaimer in a voice-over by Randall. But here, more than the original, there's a definite emphasis on portraying the ship as a conscious entity. Randall is more prone to talking to and about his ship as if she were a living thing. An eerie moment — something not really found in the printed version — occurs when Randall objects to their progression from wine smuggling to transporting counterfeit money, their first step into big time crime.

"This job stinks and you know it!" Randall shouts at Hoskins, and as Hoskins turns and glares at Randall 1087's engines, smoothly purring a moment before, suddenly choke off into a ragged gurgle and stop. The two men stare about, bewildered in the ensuing silence. For a single instant they are afraid.

A character found in the film but not in the novella is Birdie the coxswain, played Cockney style by Bill Owen. He, like Randall, becomes a pawn in Hoskins' criminal schemes, following orders while beneath their hands 1087, the only one to really protest, malfunctions more and more.

In a quite atmospheric scene, the child killer Raines, silent and afraid, is picked up from a foggy shore. 1087 gropes her way across the Channel, but approaching the French coast, they are hailed by a police boat. Randall attempts to steer into the fog to lose them, but the helm resists him. The engines begin to choke and gurgle again, then die. "I reckon she just don't want to know," says Birdie. Wallowing helpless in the water it's only a matter of time before the police boat finds them. Hoskins throws the terrified Raines into the sea.

Another character original to the film is Fordyce, a small time gangster played by Roland Culver, perhaps better known as the genial host Eliot Foley in the classic anthology movie Dead of Night (1945). It was Fordyce who had organized Raines' escape abroad; now, after shooting a customs inspector who got wise to Hoskins' operations, Fordyce also now needs to escape. At gunpoint, Hoskins, Randall and Birdie are forced to assist him. The 1087 has other ideas.

A storm breaks at sea. The ship's engines are playing up again. Birdie desperately tries to keep them going. "I've been down here for hours saying kind words to them!" he tells an agitated Fordyce who's convinced Randall and Birdie are sabotaging the engines. Birdie is shot and wounded. Randall struggles with Fordyce, the gun goes off and Fordyce dies.

Up on the bridge Hoskins is trying to keep the ship's head into the wind as she battles huge waves. Randall tells him they'll have to turn back because of Birdie's gunshot wound. "To hell with Birdie!" Hoskins retorts callously. "We're going on, I say!" A fight erupts, and as the two men sprawl across the bridge, 1087 takes matters into her own hands, spinning the wheel uncontrollably, sending herself careering sideways through the storm waves, bucking and tossing like a wild horse.

Randall regains the wheel but it won't respond. The ship's boat breaks loose and, with apparent deliberateness, bats Hoskins overboard. As he flounders in the water, 1087's stern rears up, her triple propellers spinning, and with an almost animal shriek comes crashing down on him. All at once the wheel relaxes in Randall's hands.

Despite his injury, Birdie nurses the dying engines. "Come on, me old darling, you can do it. Birdie loves you." Randall brings him up on deck as power fails. Drifting, borne on storm waves, 1087 piles up onto rocks. Randall and Birdie are thrown into the water and struggle to shore. As they watch, 1087 slides off the rocks and sinks.

"And so she died," Randall says in voice-over. "She gave up and died; in anger and in shame.

"Yes, she had her pride."

 

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