Saturday, 5 November 2011

Singing in the Shrouds

A guest on BBCR4's A Good Read chose Singing in the Shrouds by Ngaio Marsh as her 'good read'. This was one of the books on board the summer we sailed round Corfu, and finally motored through the Corinth canal to tie up at Piraeus, the port of Athens. 'Ngaio' is such an odd name. We used to chant it to pass the time. The routine was to anchor in some isolated, rocky bay and swim off the boat. In Greece, we were usually taken for Germans, and there was evident disappointment when we revealed ourselves to be British. One of the lessons we learned as we sailed on successive years through the Med in the late 50's and early 1960's, was that we -the Brits - were not necessarily as popular abroad as we had assumed, raised on a diet of back-patting WWII movies and books. Singing in the Shrouds is a murder mystery set on an ocean-going liner - I had completely forgotten the plot until it was mentioned on yesterday's A Good Read. Ngaio Marsh was a New Zealander - Ngaio is a Maori name pronounced 'Nigh-yo'. My memories of Greece in those far-off days are those cliches of silver-leafed olive trees and goats, ripe figs and lemons. Other books we read on those holidays included My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell; and Ernle Bradford's The Great Siege of Malta (the year we sailed round Malta). Singing in the Shrouds was published in 1959, so I guess we brought it on board that year. Where would we have been? Sicily? Sardinia? I forget. If Sardinia, that was the summer we had to evacuate the then desolate rocky islet of Sparghi off La Maddalena on the north coast of Sardinia, in a Force 10 or 11 (hurricane force) wind which blew for days out of a screaming blue sky. We had anchored against a concrete landing stage (in those days, Sparghi was uninhabited, boasting only a deserted former naval barracks whose ruined walls were decorated with graphic depictions of the sailors' organs). The movement of the boat as she bucked up and down in the waves due to the wind that got up was gradually cutting through our hawser so we had to put up a small sail and pray that our unreliable and inadequate engine would push us out of the bay. We all crammed into the cockpit in our life jackets as our crew, the redoubtable Campbell Odlum, a native of English Harbour Antigua, hummed a hymn. Those holidays certainly introduced us to history and the rise and fall of empires. My father would never go near a church, but in every other way we were encouraged to learn from reading and seeing with our own eyes. Shrouds in the context of sailing are the wires or standing rigging which hold the mast up from side to side; when the wind blows through them it can cause an eerie shrieking noise or 'singing'.

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