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Eight Bells and Top Masts: Diaries from a…

Eight Bells and Top Masts: Diaries from a Tramp Steamer

by Christopher Lee

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I did not mean to read this book just yet – I am working through one of Simon Schama’s tomes – but I opened it to see if I would like the author’s “voice”. The following afternoon I finished and shelved the book.

Within just a few paragraphs I was excitedly telling my wife, “This book is my story too! I could have written it myself”. Well, perhaps, but not as well as Christopher Lee. As his story developed it drew away from my own similar experience, in the same time and on the same shores and seas. Lee had just the one trip – abruptly terminated in a Singapore hospital with acute appendicitis. He was flown home, and went to University, launching a new ‘trip’ as a career journalist and becoming the foreign affairs correspondent for the BBC. My own sea-going continued a further seven years, as Christopher Lee became a history professor and author.

This story is the authors description of his fist, and it was to transpire, only, trip on ”deep sea” articles aboard a ‘Tramp’ – one of that once huge fleet of wandering traders whose time was fast approaching an end, with giant ‘Container’ ships already looming above the blue horizons. It is built around his scribbled notes in school text-books, his memories and crafted with creative humour.

As a Kentish lad Lee worked the Thames barges around the estuaries and coastal towns in which we both grew up … Whitstable, Sheerness and up to the London docks. He joins the Merchant Navy to go ‘deep sea’ and in joining his first ship, he describes crossing the Thames to the docks on a ferry filled with early morning Stevedores. On reading this I recalled those dreich morning crossings with those darkly flat-capped Dockies with their wet ‘Old Holbourn’ fag ends, hacking out the smokers early-morning chorus of hawks and gasps! His words vividly brought back the weight and roughness of a kit-bag on the shoulder, and the excited but dreading anticipation of both ship and trip.
The author crafts a great tale, deeply involves the reader from the first page and leaves a void when the book is closed.

Even if you never hankered to run away to sea you should enjoy this well told tale of ocean wandering and, of course, of a young lad maturing.
  John_Vaughan | Oct 11, 2011 |
Very charming story. Adapted from author's own diary, written as an 18-year old apprentice on one of the last tramp steamers.
  jaygheiser | Jul 23, 2008 |
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Tramping - cruising from port to port around the world, loading here, unloading there according to whatever deals the owners could strike - gave the lad glimpses of Shanghai, Hong Kong, Colombo, Suez, Gibraltar and Havana. He remained innocent; when the rest of the crew were buying girls in Madras with bars of pink Sunlight soap, Lee visited the Flying Angels, Anglican chaplains stationed in every port 'to stop us bagging off', or having sex. Thus he avoided 'the full house - gonorrhoea, diarrhoea and pyorrhoea.'
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0747264201, Paperback)

The time is the late 1950s. It is the end of an era. The end of the trade in which an old converted coal-burning ship with a Chinese crew and a handful of British officers would tramp from port to port, picking up cargo where it could, never knowing where it, and they, would be heading next. Christopher Lee, respected historian and author of the highly acclaimed BBC radio series, 'This Sceptred Isle', worked on these ships as a boy, growing up quickly as he tramped around the world. He worked with rough, strange and fascinating men and faithfully recorded all he saw and heard in diaries that form the basis for this riveting record.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:32 -0400)

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Author's diary of two years on a tramp steamer.

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