It was eleven in the
evening when I left the Spice Island Inn on
Portsmouths 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 ships 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
Youre on board
HMS Ark Royal, lad, he said.
You were recruited by
Its 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 cant stay
here,' I protested. 'Im a social worker.
I looked at the date and time on my watch.
I should be at work, now!
You wont 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.
around the Mediterranean, he explained.
Were only doing the Atlantic and the
A door opened, and a man
joined us wearing kit that I associated with
Smith, said the officer, this is your
new cabin-mate, Seaman Morrison. Ill leave
you two to get acquainted.
The officer left the cabin
and closed the door.
Your first trip?
This is ridiculous,
I replied. I thought press-ganging sailors
ended in the nineteenth century.
So did I, Smith
sympathised. Id just come down for a
day trip from London. The guide books dont
warn you against walking on Portsmouth's
waterfront at night when there are warships in
You were pressed too?
I asked in surprise. But youre a
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?
confessed, but its dead easy.
Its 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.
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
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
Our conversation was
interrupted by a knock at the cabin door. Smith
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
said the Captain, I want you to manage the
weapons systems for the ship.
Yes Sir, I
replied without further questions, mindful of
spirit, the Captain responded. He pointed
towards the numerous buttons and switches on the
control panel. Youll 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 weeks 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 Portsmouths waterfront.
Ark Royal at Portsmouth Dockyard, England
with Apache Attack Helicopters on deck
Attack Helicopter shooting seagulls
over Portsmouth Harbour, England
(A seagull at 100
yards has the same
engagement characteristics as a MiG 29 at
Photographs © Swan Morrison