Chasing Conrad is the second book by Simon J Hall (following Under a Yellow Sky) that I’ve had the pleasure of reading. This book is set in the mid-1970s during the closing years of the golden age of British shipping, when cargo carriage at sea saw radical change and the romance of being at sea in old-style cargo ships came to an end. The author is a Master Mariner, now working in the financial sector. This book is his account of the five years he worked as a sea officer in the Far East and South Pacific.
In his Acknowledgements Page Hall gives thanks to, among other things, Doom Bar beer (one of my own favourite real ales!), Admiralty charts 1263 and 748B, his discharge book, all the letters he wrote home (which his mother kept) and his many seafaring friends. He also acknowledges he has been brutal in his descriptions of some of the British ports in the 1970s – and this lack of embroidery of the truth gives the book a gritty reality and memorable narrative.His prose can also be tactile and atmospheric. He describes a night watch in the Indian Ocean:
‘Alone on the bridge wing in the warm tropical night, I heard the wind sing through the stays as an Aeolian harp and I felt anointed by my good fortune.’On loading rubber and timber in Sarawak he writes:
‘The whole pace of life slowed, it felt as torpid as the idle Rajang river itself and we all slowed with it. Everything was so still, so unmoving, as if the whole world had lain down and gone to sleep.’I enjoyed his descriptions of jaunts to various parts of the world, some of which overlap with my own sea travels in the Navy. His passages on stepping ashore in Hong Kong certainly brought back memories…
‘We slid in through the West Lamma Channel and anchored in Victoria Harbour, before being taken to our mooring buoy. There was a buzz in Hong Kong like nowhere else. The harbour was alive with all manner of vessels: a mass of deep sea ships, small coasters, Chinese junks, small inshore boats, bumboats running supplies to all the ships. The green and white Star Ferries ran constantly between Hong Kong Island and the mainland…We stayed in Hong Kong for one week…I ordered some clothing from Goh Kwok, the company recommended tailor. He measured me up for six shirts. The cost was about the same as a price of one shirt from Marks & Spencer in England. The shirts were ready the next day; a runner brought them out to the ship on a morning bumboat, handing me a package neatly wrapped in brown paper tied with string…
One afternoon I explored the Walled City of Kowloon, the notorious crime district controlled by the 14K Triads. Humanity was packed close in the Walled City, the building was unregulated and blocks leant dangerously close together, sometimes it was hard to see the sky. I never felt menaced although I made sure I was out before the sun went down.’
Hall’s recounting of his struggle against alcohol abuse is a particularly poignant aspect of the book:
‘I ordered another cold beer and lit another cigarette, then sat with the ghost of my past dreams while the afternoon died around us and we surveyed the wreckage of all my hopes.’This, along with his first volume, is an important work that captures the spirit of an era of our maritime heritage now vanished but bridged for us by works such as this.