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"I was eating a jam sandwich when the first ship in our group went down."
So begins the personal log of Chief Officer Jonathan Kent of the M.V. Cyclops in 1941. Obviously, the British merchant fleet suffered terrible losses in the Second World War yet what follows is less a naval war story and more a mystery or thriller set on a WWII merchant ship.
A small convey of three, very fast merchant ships are racing from Britain through the South Atlantic, heading for Australia. They are protected by a Royal Navy corvette, fitted with depth charges for anti-submarine warfare. After one of the ships is sunk, the Captain of the M.V. Cyclops reveals to our protagonist John Kent that they are carrying a set of documents in their hold that is of utmost importance to the war effort.
It becomes apparent that, despite their best precautions, they are being hunted by U-boats and perhaps even surface ships. Do they know what the Cyclops has in her hold? If so, how can they escape? And perhaps there are even men on board who cannot be trusted. There is something very suspicious about the new Third Mate...
A Flock of Ships is Brian Callison's first novel and was published in 1970. It is a very assured piece of work for a first novel. In fact, it was a bestseller and Callison went on to write plenty of other novels, most of them to do with the sea (sticking unrepentantly with the formula of his debut title he has also written; 'A Plague of Sailors' 'A Web of Salvage' and 'A Thunder of Crude')
Callison was a merchant seaman for many years - though after WWII - and the language and descriptions are therefore completely authentic. I imagine he served with some veterans who had some stories to tell (30,000 men killed, nearly 3,000 ships sunk, almost all by torpedo). But, despite the superficial similarities, he's no Joseph Conrad. He is, however, a very solid thriller writer, who often displays more skill than more famous novelists.
The characters are relatively well drawn, mostly of course our protagonist, as the story is told in the first person. We see his suspicions and fears and experience the horror of the violence through him. John Kent is not a hero. He's not especially brave, or even very bright. He's not that pleasant, nor nasty. So he's not a great character but it is very easy to relate to him because he is so realistic in his attitude. The other characters are all clichés. The nervous kid on his first voyage, the gruff but wise captain, the decent best friend, the tight Scottish engineer. Still, that's to be expected in this sort of thing and it doesn't spoil the book at all and they all seem to fit in with the bygone age of shipping we're reading about (One thing I wasn't sure about was whether the casual racism of the characters was supposed to be authentic 1940's or was incidental 1970).
Style-wise, there's not much literary pretension here. In fact, much like the practical, matter-of-fact characters themselves, Callison takes a no-nonsense approach to his writing. It is stripped down and efficient, so my 1980 edition is only 255 pages long, and that with a pretty large type. I am a fan of that kind of writing and I enjoy the way it whizzes along. At the same time, when there is a big event, Callison takes the time to describe it in great detail, as well as the characters' reactions to it, and these moments stand out very vividly.
"Nervous reflex made me bite another half moon out of the sandwich as I watched the spray reach its zenith and hang, suspended momentarily like a slow motion shot from some old film. It was a silent film, too, for a few eternal seconds. Nothing seemed to mar the noiseless passage of the four ships through the whispering sea, yet I knew that great mushroom of atomised water just shouldn't be there."
Callison builds up an atmosphere of dread and impending disaster, but there is humour to break the tension, often in the form of old sea-stories that I suspect Callison heard in real life. For example, talking about seamen being in tune with their ship, he says "several years ago aboard one of our old coal burners, the venerable 'Lamps', a hoary old seadog of a lamptrimmer, had actually appeared on deck during the middle watch and climbed the foremast just in time to replace the masthead light bulb as it went out." That's good stuff, and Callison has an ear for comedy as well as horror.
I have a profound respect for people who make a living upon the sea, largely because I don't think I ever could. Having said that, I'm not at all into naval stories generally and I don't like mystery novels either, as they are so terribly contrived. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this because it's a cracking good story and it's very well told. I've read it three times over the past ten years and I'll probably read it again. I'd recommend it for anyone after an exciting, quick read (4-5 hours worth?). Obviously, any dads or granddads that are into sea and/or WWII stories will probably like this and so would make a good present, although if they're that into WWII naval stories then they may well be a Callison fan already.