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Outside the Gates of Sultan

Short story By: Carl Halling

A seventies dandy at sea and onshore.
Image: 1975?

Submitted:Jul 24, 2007    Reads: 124    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   

The Siege of La Rochelle

If my memory serves me faithfully, some weeks after returning from the Ocean Youth Club trip to the Baltic in the summer of 1975, I sailed with the RNR to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast of France. La Rochelle was the French city that adopted Reformist ideas during the Renaissance, and thenceforth became the unoffical capital of Protestant France, that is, from the year of the Edict of Nantes (1568). The latter, issued by Henri IV, accorded Huguenots certain rights until 1627, when a British-aided Protestant uprising resulted in the Siege of la Rochelle, during which Cardinal Richelieu blockaded the city for 14 months. Following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685, some 200.000 Huguenots migrated during what has become known as Le Refuge. Among the destinations of the Huguenot diaspora were North America, notably New York and South Carolina, Great Britain and Ulster, Germany, Dutch South Africa and the Netherlands. London became a key Huguenot centre. In South Carolina they rapidly integrated into the nascent Southern Anglo-American society.
My best RNR friend Colin, now a Chief Petty Officer, phoned me only a few years ago from his east London home to remind me of one memorable evening we spent in La Rochelle in the summer of 1975. There, in a dingy dive we fell in with some wild locals led by a Romany-like minstrel and his winsome female companion who spoke to me protectively possibly fearing that as military men Colin and I might be in some physical peril. However, on the way back to our ship from a night club in the early hours of the morning we were set upon not by local cutthroats but a pack of mangy looking pariah dogs, and it was Colin who somehow persuaded them to retreat. It may be that I owe that lovable east London sailor my life.

The Pool of London

Soon after returning to London, I was with the RNR again, this time in the Pool of London, subject of a famous British crime film directed by Basil Dearden in 1951 and referring to that stretch of the Thames lying between London Bridge and Rotherhithe.
In order to reach my ship, I was compelled to take a motor launch with a group of other seamen, one of whom, very much a handsome sailor of about 30 or thereabouts, had taken unofficial charge. Once we were all safely aboard, it was the turn of our self-appointed leader to join us, but as he stepped off the launch, he somehow lost his footing and slipped into the Thames beneath him. Within a horrifyingly short space of time his heavy clothing and boots, helped by a truly ferocious current, had dragged him beneath the river's surface and he was lost.
Upon returning to London, I told my mother about this terrible occurence, and as she broke down in tears it brought home to me for the first time just how deeply tragic an incident it was. I am reminded thereby of the words of that beautiful song "How Men Are" by Roddy Frame and Aztec Camera, which was a British hit in 1988: "Why should it take the tears of a woman to see how men are?"

A Gosport Discomaniac

Staying with the maritime theme, 1975 was also the year I attempted to pass what is known as the AIB or Admiralty Interview Board as a means of becoming a Supply and Secretariat officer in the Royal Navy. This involved me taking the train down to HMS Sultan, the Royal Navy's specialist training centre in Gosport, Hampshire, and spending three days attending various examinations and interviews intended to assess my potentiality as a naval officer. Today the tests consist of Maths, English, verbal and non-verbal reasoning, and general and Service knowledge, and there is a leadership task, a group discussion exercise and two interviews, and presumably little has changed since '75.

On one occasion early on in the sojourn, clad in my usual finery and delicately putting the final touches to my costume in preparation for one assignment or another, one of the hopeful future officers I was sharing a dormitory with made a comment to the effect of: "Oy, mate, it's an interview board for the selection of naval officers not some flaming male fashion parade". Not my sort of man, which is to say the kind I wanted accompanying me to the local discoteque as soon as I had an evening free. Ultimately two of my fellow interviewees were up the task, at least that's what I thought at first. I can recall asking one of the them precisely what he was expecting of the evening soon after we'd plunged into the exhilerating semi-darkness of the disco, and he muttered something to placate me, but it was pretty clear on retrospect that he was anxious to return to Sultan, and sensibly so I'd say.
In the event I was left alone at the club dancing with a soft-spoken local girl by the name of Shiralee. Every inch the gentleman, I accompanied her homewards along a busy main road on the way back to base, with several cars sounding their horns as they passed by, only to discover to my horror that Sultan's main entrance had been locked and was now being manned by an armed guard.

Outside the Gates of Sultan

If the young man nervously trying to reach someone in authority within the training centre on a walkie talkie was wondering precisely what kind of man returns to base dressed to the nines after a night's carousing when he was supposed to be in the midst of three days of gruelling tests and interviews that were vital to his future career, then he gave no indication of it. He did eventually make contact, and I can vaguely recollect passing through an officer's mess soon afterwards and engaging in good-natured conversation with the officers inside, shamefaced I should hope, although given the condition I was bound to have been in, probably not.
To my credit I tried my best to impress my assessors at Sultan beyond this appalling performance, because at the time I was genuinely enthusiastic about becoming a legitimised officer and gentleman. However, my efforts failed to convince them that I warranted a commission in the Royal Navy, and so for me it was back to life as a jack tar.


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