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A Man of Yet a Few More Words - by Swan Morrison

Press-ganged

It was eleven in the evening when I left the Spice Island Inn on Portsmouth’s waterfront and began my walk to Gunwharf Quays, where my car was parked.

I heard footsteps behind me. Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain at the back of my skull - then there was darkness.

I awoke lying on a bunk in a small, grey-painted room. My fingers explored a huge bump on the back of my aching head. As my eyes focussed, I noted the sea through a small porthole. There was motion, and the sound and vibration of a ship’s engine.

I sat up and became aware of a figure standing beside me. It was a man in the uniform of a naval chief petty officer.

‘Where am I?’ I asked.

‘You’re on board HMS Ark Royal, lad,’ he said.

‘How… Why?’

‘You were recruited by a press-gang.’

‘Press-gang?’

‘It’s been the tradition in the British Navy, since the time of the Mary Rose, for fifty percent of all Royal Navy crews to be pressed into service.’

‘But I can’t stay here,' I protested. 'I’m a social worker.’ I looked at the date and time on my watch. ‘I should be at work, now!’

‘You won’t be clapping eyes on Blighty again for the next six months.’ The officer glanced through the porthole. ‘We cast-off six hours ago to sail the two seas.’

Two seas?’ I digressed.

‘This tour’s around the Mediterranean,’ he explained. ‘We’re only doing the Atlantic and the Med.’

A door opened, and a man joined us wearing kit that I associated with aircrew.

‘Ah, Flight-Lieutenant Smith,’ said the officer, ‘this is your new cabin-mate, Seaman Morrison. I’ll leave you two to get acquainted.’

The officer left the cabin and closed the door.

‘Your first trip?’ enquired Smith.

‘This is ridiculous,’ I replied. ‘I thought press-ganging sailors ended in the nineteenth century.’

‘So did I,’ Smith sympathised. ‘I’d just come down for a day trip from London. The guide books don’t warn you against walking on Portsmouth's waterfront at night when there are warships in port.’

‘You were pressed too?’ I asked in surprise. ‘But you’re a pilot.

‘I drove a dustcart in Camden, last week,’ Smith said with a nostalgic sigh. ‘They picked me up the day before yesterday and forced me to fly an Apache Attack Helicopter.’

I was confused. ‘Did you already know how to fly?’

‘No,’ he confessed, ‘but it’s dead easy. It’s all computerised. If you can control the hydraulics to empty two bins into a dustcart, then flying modern fighter aircraft or attack helicopters is a doddle.’

‘Didn’t you object to being kidnapped,’ I said.

‘There was a banker pressed as the same time as me,’ Smith recalled. ‘The Captain ordered him to take control of radar and communications, but he refused unless he was paid a ridiculously high bonus.’

‘What happened?’

‘He was clapped in irons and given forty lashes with the cat o’ nine tails in front of the whole crew.’ Smith looked at me, earnestly. ‘Just do what you’re told.’

Our conversation was interrupted by a knock at the cabin door. Smith opened it.

‘Seaman Morrison to report to Weapons Control,’ barked a rating.

I followed the lad to a room filled with computer screens and myriad flashing lights. He led me to a large control panel where a man stood with the uniform insignia of captain.

‘Seaman Morrison,’ said the Captain, ‘I want you to manage the weapons systems for the ship.’

‘Yes Sir,’ I replied without further questions, mindful of Smith’s warning.

‘That’s the spirit,’ the Captain responded. He pointed towards the numerous buttons and switches on the control panel. ‘You’ll get the hang of it all after a while,’ he said reassuringly. He nodded his head towards the left side of the panel. ‘The red ones over there launch the nuclear missiles.’ He looked seriously at me. ‘Be a bit careful with those,’ he advised. ‘I had to have your predecessor keelhauled for accidentally nuking Fareham while we were still in port.’

Initially, I was anxious about my new role, but as the months passed, and the Ark Royal sailed around the Med, I began to relax. No reason seemed to be emerging to launch an attack on any Southern European, North African nor Middle Eastern country.

I must confess that, after consuming my entire week’s rum ration in one night, I did shell Tel Aviv, just for fun. Fortunately, I got away with it as the Israelis just assumed it was Iran, and launched their nuclear retaliation at Tehran.

My six month tour quickly passed, and I was soon standing, once again, on the waterfront at Portsmouth. I did not, however, wish to repeat my experience in the British Navy. My car remained in the underground car park at Gunwharf Quays, and, as I fed eight-hundred one pound coins into the parking ticket machine, I resolved that I would never again venture, after dark, onto Portsmouth’s waterfront.

*********************************************************

HMS Ark Royal at Portsmouth Dockyard, England
with Apache Attack Helicopters on deck

Apache Attack Helicopter shooting seagulls
over Portsmouth Harbour, England
(A seagull at 100 yards has the same
engagement characteristics as a MiG 29 at five miles)

Photographs Swan Morrison