Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Tower of Song: Travels with Thomas H Cook

Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on
I'm just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song

Leonard Cohen

A book arrived in the post at my office on Friday that made me gasp with joy; even though it is ultimately a melancholic lament; a reflection upon sadness. But perhaps most interestingly it is an examination of what it means to traverse a reality, a planetary landscape that is as random, as it is dangerous. It also reminds us what it means to be human when monsters surround us [many of whom hide among us, well disguised], and observations of the places [on this planet] that haunt us. But it is a work that is ultimately uplifting; for the human condition is a complex one, where the extremes are troubling and where our existential thoughts can become real.

Melancholia is one of many characteristics of what it means to be human. As an emotional state of mind, Melancholia often lays dormant, awaiting a trigger or triggers. It is often a by-product of our thinking – ‘existential’ but it can be transformed into ‘the real’ by external as well internal forces [and dangerous lines of thought, or inquiry].

I am often reminded of the words [and music] of Leonard Cohen, who I turn to when my own mind turns melancholic, reflective.

Though melancholia as a state of mind has to be handled carefully, as it has legitimate purpose; for those who can manage the dark feelings that confront us from time to time. For those who understand Melancholia and can wrangle these feelings and gain strength from these existential thoughts.

Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’ alludes to this, particularly with this line -

There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in”

If you cannot tame feelings of melancholia that many of us get from time to time, there can be danger, as melancholia can alter our thinking, and brain chemistry leading us mentally into some dark places.

Incidentally, Cohen’s ‘Anthem was truncated and adopted [with permission] by the award-winning [and fellow Canadian] mystery writer, Louise Penny for the title of one of her Inspector Armand Gamache mysteries. It was Headline Publishing of Great Britain that first brought Penny’s mystery novels into print, with ‘Still Life’ being first showcased at the Canadian Embassy in London where many of us from the CWA gathered to celebrate its publication in 2005. Louise’s debut was a runner-up in the Crime Writers Association’s 2004 Debut Dagger Competition.

Many of us were deeply saddened last year to hear of the passing of her devoted husband Michael. Many of us had gotten to know this gentle Paediatrician over the years, as he often accompanied Louise to many events and cheered away when her talent was acknowledged by her peers [when her work gained award recognition]. To many of us, Louise and Michael, were one person, but in two bodies. The loss of a partner on the human mind is a hard thing to bear, and the management of grief and melancholia a task that takes effort and resolve; avoiding what writer John Irving once referred to as ‘the allure of the open windows’, from his 1981 novel The Hotel New Hampshire, which was filmed in 1984 by Tony Richardson.

A few colleagues [and friends] have my business address, so on occasion I receive reading material mailed to me at work. When that happens, it’s usually an item that is either ‘urgent’ or ‘important’. Anyone who has been sent on a time management’ or a ‘getting things done’ course will know the importance of being able to discriminate between these two existential states.

Last week was a tough but an enjoyable one. I arrived back in the office Friday, weary and looking forward to the weekend for a break. Despite having a number of pressing books awaiting my time; as well as a page count [in my own writing] that sits like a petulant child waiting for attention; something extraordinary arrived Friday morning in the mail that made me gasp.

My colleague Dan passed a parcel to me as he sifted through the incoming correspondence. I opened the package without thinking. When I saw the book it contained, I let out a ‘whoop!’ much to the amusement of Dan and my fellow colleagues. From the corner of my eye, I could see the good natured smiles and chuckles from my team. My colleagues understand my love affair with books, and the written word; in fact sometimes my passion for dark literature and film spill out into my day-job.

As I held the book in my hand, I realised I held a physical manifestation of the existential thoughts captured by one of the greatest exponents of mystery writing; now ripped from his mind, and held onto paper for others to absorb. It was a book I had thought a great deal about for some time now, as well as pondering about the life of its writer, and his own journeys; some which provoke deep and at times troubling thoughts.

I am talking about Thomas H Cook, one of the most literate of crime writers and an enigma in his own right.

I have to thank Publisher, Editor, Writer, Raconteur Otto Penzler, as well as George Easter and Larry Gandle of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine for first introducing me to the work of Thomas H Cook; a writer who has challenged my way of thinking, as well as providing me insights into the dark side of human nature, while entertaining me with narratives that remain in my mind, like shards of jagged glass.

It was during my first Bouchercon, back in 2003 when I first met Otto, Larry and George. As bibliophiles we always exchange notes on our reading. Otto, George and Larry were surprised that I had never read the work of Thomas H Cook. In fact their surprise indicated to me [that as well read as I consider myself], something was missing, something lacking, something I had overlooked.

Thomas Cook has been published sporadically in Great Britain; back then he was with the Orion Publishing Group. Anyway, I corrected this omission in my reading by devouring as many Thomas Cook novels that I could lay my hands on, and ordering from the US any work not available in the UK. 

Over the years Tom’s path and mine have crossed either in London, Harrogate or at an annual US Bouchercon event; for the insight his imagination [coupled to his narrative ability] have brought to me has been very important. The novels of Thomas H Cook have made me ponder about human nature [especially its darker side], as well as providing me outstanding entertainment.

I have reviewed his work many times, as his fiction has deeply affected me so much so it is always a highlight when we meet up, and we talk. A particular time that is retained fondly in my memory is the lunch Tom and I shared with David Morrell and Larry Gandle during 2009’s Bouchercon Indianapolis. It was good to break bread and suck back a beer with very dear and old friends who share the pleasures of Crime and Thriller Literature. David Morrell is a literature professor, while Tom Cook also has a distinguished academic background in literature; while Larry Gandle and I are both Scientists and in our free time are Assistant Editors at Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine and Shots Magazine respectively – but all four of us are very good friends so when we meet up – it’s like we were never apart.

The main topic over lunch was the runaway success of Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, as Tom, Larry and David were amused at my championing this work from the get-go; though there was also a blanket of melancholia over the lunch. We knew of some recent troubling news from David Morrell. I am always in awe of David’s ability to manage unimaginable adversity; and then to have to confront heart-breaking adversity again; holding strong for the family takes inner resolve, stoicism – and for some, this means we have to write, in order to manage our thinking.

With writers, sometimes you can detect the frame of mind that they were in [at the time of writing a specific novel]. With David Morrell, his mind sometimes reflects and examines the melancholia in the lives of his fictional protagonists. David [like many writers when faced with deep adversity] threw himself into writing; fictionalizing the adventures of the Victorian writer Thomas De Quincey, in a stunning sequence of historic thrillers, which started with the award-winning Murder as a Fine Art. The third instalment in the series Ruler of the Night has just been released. David admitted to me that the Thomas De Quincey historical thrillers came to him during that dark period in 2009; though it would not be until 2014 during Bouchercon Long Beach that ‘Murder as a Fine Art’ would be awarded the 2014 Sue Feder Historical Mystery Award [as presented by Janet Rudolph of Mystery Readers International].

I am reminded of some words from British writer Graham Greene that helps explain why some of us are compelled to write.

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”

Anyway, as ever I digress.

I was delighted when Quercus Publishing was set up, as the hands of Anthony Cheetham and Otto Penzler were evident in this niche publishing house’s inception. One of their first publications was Thomas H Cook’s Red Leaves, which was awarded the 2006 MWA Edgar Award, as well as Nominated for the CWA Gold Dagger. I have reviewed Tom’s work many times, as have far more lucid and qualified literary commentators. Though one factor that always haunts me is why Thomas H Cook’s work is not Stephen King in terms of sales; sure his mantelpiece is congested with many literary awards, from around the world, and is known and read avidly by the key critics of the Crime and Mystery Genre; so sure he sells well – but in my opinion, he should be selling in the volumes of someone like Stephen King. My reasoning is that he is the most literary of writers that have traversed my reading table; and he can tell a fine story, one that makes you think, ponder about our situation – the human condition.

The theme of Thomas H Cook being one of the treasures on the Crime and Mystery Genre, but a secret [of sorts], became the pivot in my 2009 feature interview at Linda Richards’ January Magazine [with a fine edit by Jeff Pierce] –

Ali : And you’ve become quite prolific since. So why -- despite your having received awards and critical acclaim -- do you remain a secret to many readers?

Tom : I truly don’t know the answer to that question, but the experience can be very disheartening, let me tell you. I think many readers just want a fast read. Which is fine. They have that right. But I don’t write fast reads. I think mystery readers in particular are quite demarcated in their reading habits. People who read puzzle mysteries don’t read thrillers, and people who read thrillers don’t read puzzle novels, and so on down thorough several subgenres. I write a combination mystery-mainstream novel, and that is a big problem, I think, in that mainstream readers very often never give mysteries a chance. I fall through a lot of cracks, and so far, despite wonderful reviews over a period of 20 years, I am still one of the best-known unknown writers out there.

Oddly enough, I have absolutely broken through in France and Japan, and seem close to doing it in England. The U.S., however, has not yet fallen under my spell. But I’m still working on it.

Ali : It just isn’t fair. I mean, some of my all-time favorite novels have come from your pen. Something’s not right here.

Tom : I couldn’t agree more, of course. And I am trying very hard to write the best books of my career at this point in my life. I may not always succeed, but I am always trying to deliver a very strong story, one that delivers in the writing, the story itself, and what lingers once the story has been put down, that strange, haunting aftermath.

Ali : Might the problem be that some readers classify you as a “literary writer”?

Tom : I am a literary writer in the sense that the writing really matters to me, and I try to do it well. But I am, more than anything, simply a storyteller, and for that reason I try not to abandon the story to my prose. I want each to serve the other, and yes, that makes me literary in that sense. That said, I would never write a novel in which the main character is a cigarette butt floating in a urinal, or a novel about a number, say eight, or a novel about a family so freakishly repellant that I wouldn’t spend dinner with such people, much less the time it takes to read 500 pages.

Read the Full Interview Here

Tom’s work often features in my best annual ‘reads of the year’, such as his remarkable novel Sandrine’s Case which was published in 2013 by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press and by Anthony Cheetham’s Head of Zeus in Great Britain.

I wrote at the time –

Cook constructs his narrative like a courtroom drama, but this novel offers a much more compelling tale about what actually led to the death of Sandrine, a woman as enigmatic as the ancient history she taught and brooded upon. Cook deftly explores the question of what we truly know about the people we love -- and, in reflection, what we truly know about ourselves. This novel was published in Britain as Sandrine (Head of Zeus).

Read more Here, and you may be amused to see that my review of this remarkable novel, has my thoughts regarding Stephen King’s Joyland just above it. As book reviewers, we do what we can to support writers that help our thinking, our insights into the world we find ourselves in. I am not ashamed to state that I have felt my eyes moisten at the end of some of Tom Cook’s novels; such has been the emotional impact his narrative skills and stories have brought to bear on this reader.

I know Facebook gets much maligned as a time-waster; but I have to temper that comment, that for many writers who work on a keyboard all day; it provides a break from the swirl of our thoughts as well as a quick way of keeping in touch with people [especially when they are scattered globally]. I had grown fond of Thomas Cook’s presence on FB as he had been putting up photographs of his travels, with his beloved wife Susan and daughter Justine. I have been fascinated by travel and what it does to our mind, and understanding of others, so I enjoyed seeing Tom Cook’s photographs. My annual trips to Bouchercon have allowed me to traverse North America over the years, and with purpose – my fascination with Crime, Mystery and Thriller fiction.

A specific series of photos from Tom’s FB page haunted me – they were images of ‘The saddest places on Earth’. Like the magnetism of viewing a car crash, I found the photographs intriguing as well as provoking deep thought. During some correspondence with Tom, he indicated that he was considering publishing a book featuring his travels to these sad places; regions on our planet that today are solemn reminders of the dark side of humanity and our plight here.

Then I heard the tragic news in 2014 that Susan Terner passed away, leaving Tom and Justine alone. He wrote an eloquent and heart breaking lament and celebration at the time about his wife, which I have pasted the opening -

Justine and I would ask that you remember Susan fondly as one who danced on table tops in Paris, Madrid and New York City; who belted songs and directed actors on the stages of Cape Cod; who put every conceivable thing in a plastic bag; who never saw a hammock or a cat she didn’t love; who claimed to have only 30 pairs of shoes when she actually had 147 and who, when confronted with that fact, declared that the additional 117 pairs in her collection didn’t “count” because they were inexpensive; who staunchly held to her non-belief through all her pain and anguish; who edited manuscripts so superbly her method is taught in master classes; who incessantly corrected everyone’s grammar, and once told a doctor to stop touching the bottom of his shoes; whose true vocation, as I often reminded her, would have been to be the Third Grade Teacher of the World.

So let’s move these recollections of mine to December 2016.

It was during the Peter James Christmas Lunch, hosted by The Ivy, in London that I found myself seated next to Alice Greary; a publicist who works with my very dear friends Tony Mulliken and Sophie Ransom. Over lunch, Alice and I got talking and she remarked that she really enjoyed my 2009 interview with Thomas Cook at January Magazine and found it most useful in researching a book and author she was working on. I asked which Author? Which she replied ‘Tom Cook’, and then told me about a non-fiction book by Thomas Cook that Quercus Publishing were going to release in 2017. 

The book was titled Tragic Shores : A Memoir of Dark Travel. The penny dropped, and I realised that it was indeed the book that Tom had alluded to with the photos he posted on Facebook, detailing some of the world’s saddest places. Poor Alice witnessed the heights that my enthusiasm can scale, for when I get excited, I can become quite a sight. I pleaded with Alice, that when the first review copies are available I implored her to send me a copy.

Now we’re in January 2017.

The book arrived last Friday, and was inside the package that made me yelp and gasp amusing my colleagues; and the same book that I alluded to at the opening of this article.
I called Alice immediately to thank her. I asked her that I had assumed that Tom’s book on the ‘Saddest Places on Earth’ would have some illustrated pages from Tom’s Photos. Alice confirmed that indeed, there will be photographic plates in the finished book; but they were not present in the Galley-Proof. She kindly emailed me the photos, which I have permission to re-print a few here.

I also contacted Tom who currently resides in Los Angeles and he too granted me permission to reproduce any of his photos I wished; including the one that opens this article - of his beloved Susan and himself in a Tropical forest.  

Alice also sent me this synopsis of Tragic Shores : A Memoir of Dark Travel

'I have come to thank dark places for the light they bring to life.'

Thomas Cook has always been drawn to dark places, for the powerful emotions they evoke and for what we can learn from them. These lessons are often unexpected and sometimes profoundly intimate, but they are never straightforward.

With his wife and daughter, Cook travels across the globe in search of darkness - from Lourdes to Ghana, from San Francisco to Verdun, from the monumental, mechanised horror of Auschwitz to the intimate personal grief of a shrine to dead infants in Kamukura, Japan. Along the way he reflects on what these sites may teach us, not only about human history, but about our own personal histories.

During the course of a lifetime of traveling to some of earth's most tragic shores, from the leper colony on Molokai to ground zero at Hiroshima, he finds not darkness alone, but a light that can illuminate the darkness within each of us. Written in vivid prose, this is at once a personal memoir of exploration (both external and internal), and a strangely heartening look at the radiance that may be found at the very heart of darkness.

Melancholia manifests itself in many shapes and forms, and one way of managing this state from becoming high anxiety, is [quoting Graham Greene] to write. In the hands of Thomas H Cook, rarely has a feeling of Melancholia been as insightful as to our condition; our humanity – and all from his mastery of the darkest edges of literature, Crime and Mystery Fiction.

I look forward to re-entering the thoughts and emotions that Thomas Cook’s narratives provide; but this time, it’s his first non-fiction work, a travelogue of sorts that appears as insightful and as thought-provoking as his fiction.

So to close this feature, I leave you with a cover version of Leonard Cohen’s The Tower of Song, by the Jesus and Mary Chain which not only provides the title for these thoughts of mine, about one of the finest of Crime and Mystery Writers.

You will be hearing from me again, as I will be reviewing this long anticipated work by Tom Cook, who has also kindly agreed to be interviewed by me again.

Until then, we’ve made sure that the Shots Bookstore has copies of Tragic Shores : A Memoir of Dark Travel by Thomas H Cook available for pre-order [release date 6th April 2017] – Here

Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on
I'm just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song

Leonard Cohen

Click Here, for the comprehensive 2009 interview with Tom Cook from January Magazine, that Alice Geary found on the Damp Floor of the Internet that Tom and I recorded during Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.

I hope you found this article of interest, and piqued your interest in the work of Thomas H Cook, David Morrell and Louise Penny.

Ali Karim
London, England, January 2017


The only issue I see with regard to British Publication of this highly anticipated first non-fiction work by Thomas Cook, is that in the UK, the name Thomas Cook is synonymous with the nation’s most well-known travel agency; so some who purchase Tragic Shores : A Memoir of Dark Travel maybe a tad confused with this poignant travelogue; but will be ultimately rewarded by writing of the highest order; even if this volume is not what they anticipated by the Thomas Cook slogan “Don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it!”.

Photos from Ali Karim, Thomas H Cook and Quercus Publishing reprinted with permission 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

“The Two Bucket Theory” versus “Waste Another Year”

While in Dublin, Ireland between Christmas and New Year I spent much time with the family, as well as in the embrace of my thoughts. I thought about the time I spent in the Arabian Gulf and at Sea back in the late 1980s; as well my usual ruminations related to the past and how I came to be who I am, from my days as a Barman to my present reality of an Industrial Chemist.
These are some thoughts from my little black book, that I record my thoughts and episodes of contemplative naval-gazing.
I've been thinking a great deal, and reflecting upon on days now passed. When I was young, my Father (the psychiatrist) would often explain to me that the formative years in childhood, as well as moments of trauma shape ones' personality. He would also indicate that though it is vital to understand ones 'self', to survive reality - but would warn that self-reflection has hidden dangers because what we uncover is not always good.
My brother-in-law Gerry and I visited my beloved Father-in-law Mr Keogh yesterday in the hospital. He's in his mid-nineties and not well currently, though he has moments of lucidity which reminds me of the man he used to be - and when he recognised me and smiled at my jokes as I held his hand, I felt good.
Seeing both my own Father Dr Karim and Mr Keogh my Father-in-Law's mental faculties in decline is troubling. I'm writing away, shaping the memories I have of these two men from these existential scribbles into the reality of my fiction. I guess this is due to trying to bring back who [and what] these two men were; not who they are now; their physical bodies and intellect now barely a husk of who, and what they were in their prime.
Being back in Ireland has unlocked memories. Ireland was one of places I visited back when worked a rota of 6-weeks 'on' in the Middle-East followed by 3-weeks 'off' (when I would travel, on my own). The company would pay travel costs to the value of return flights to London. For tax reasons, I could only spend 42 days in the UK hence I got to see a bit of the world; and learned about reality, as well as myself.
I recall on my first trip to The Kingdom, while supervising loading operations on a Crude Oil Tanker, one of the old-hands told me something that stayed with me. It was in the early hours, we were on deck, measuring the cargo, taking samples and as we did so, Bob explained 'when you work in Saudi Arabia, think of it as being issued two buckets'. He continued talking as we worked away watching dawn break over the ocean on the starboard side. 'The first bucket is for the money you earn, and the second bucket is for the shit you have to take. When the 'shit bucket' weighs more than the 'money bucket', it's time to leave.' He smiled 'the analogy is the same for life, for when the shit you take becomes too much, it's time to leave'
I was up early this morning as these memories plagued my dreams, as I thought of that time in the Arabian Gulf and of Dr Karim and Mr Keogh and these thoughts, these dreams found themselves embedded in my writing.
The two bucket theory is useful when contemplating our lives, for when the road forks, it's useful to survey our two buckets.
I also thought of a song I first heard on the Aramco US radio station I listened to while stationed in The Kingdom.
Sometimes, going back in our memory helps us shape our futures, as we check the contents of our two buckets, especially when we feel low.
The photo that starts these reflections, was taken many years ago, when I visited the 'lowest' place in America; Badwater Basin in Death Valley, California.
I also thought of My Father and of My Father-in-Law. The significance of which is only evident in my writing; for the memories of a man in his sick bed, are the deeds of a Man in his Prime. I also thought of my children, and my Godson and extended family, as age awaits them, as do their own two buckets.
Melancholia expresses itself in ways we don't always understand until age comes upon us, and then we combat it the best way we can.
"(Don't Go Back To) Rockville" / R.E.M.
Looking at your watch a third time
Waiting in the station for the bus
Going to a place that's far
So far away and if that's not enough
Going where nobody says hello
They don't talk to anybody they don't know
You'll wind up in some factory
That's full-time filth and nowhere left to go
Walk home to an empty house
Sit around all by yourself
I know it might sound strange but I believe
You'll be coming back before too long
Don't go back to Rockville, don't go back to Rockville
Don't go back to Rockville and waste another year
At night I drink myself to sleep
And pretend I don't care that you're not here with me
'Cause it's so much easier to handle
All my problems if I'm too far out to sea
But something better happen soon
Or it's gonna be too late to bring you back
Don't go back to Rockville, don't go back to Rockville
Don't go back to Rockville and waste another year
It's not as though I really need you
If you were here I'd only bleed you
But everybody else in town only wants
To bring you down and that's not how it ought to be
I know it might sound strange, but I believe
You'll be coming back before too long
Don't go back to Rockville, don't go back to Rockville
Don't go back to Rockville and waste another year
Don't go back to Rockville, don't go back to Rockville
Don't go back to Rockville and waste another year

Thursday, January 5, 2017

We're singing a song, so won't you give us a hand

Whenever I feel a bit down, and need to lift my spirits, I listen to the Irish Band The Saw Doctors. Within minutes, the infectious beat, the self-deprecating lyrics, coupled to the humour of the absurd have me tapping my toes, and singing along.

On New Year’s Eve 1990, my wife Muriel and I danced to ‘I Useta Lover’ in Dublin as we started our honeymoon, and I defy anyone not to feel their spirits lift singing along to this wonderful song, and this most amusing video.

‘I Useta Lover’ was from their album “If This Is Rock and Roll, I Want My Old Job Back” 

I have fallen for another she can make her own way home
And even if she asked me now I'd let her go alone
I useta see her up the chapel when she went to Sunday mass
And when she'd go to receive, I'd kneel down there
And watch her pass
The glory of her ass

I useta to love her, I useta love her once
A long, long time ago
I useta to love her, I useta love her once
A long long time ago
It's gone , all my lovin' is gone
It's gone , all my lovin' is gone

D'you remember her collecting for concern on Christmas eve
She was on a forty eight hour fast just water and black tea
I walked right up and made an ostentatious
And I winked at her to tell her I'd seduce her in the future
When she's feelin looser

So now you know the truth of it she's no longer my obsession
Though the thoughts and dreams i had of her would take six months in confession
See i met this young one Thursday night and she's inta free expression
And her mission is to rid the world of this sinful repression
Then we had a session

I useta to love her, I useta love her once
A long, long time ago
I useta to love her, I useta love her once
A long long time ago
It's gone , all my lovin' is gone
It's gone , all my lovin' is gone

It's gone, long, long gone
I have fallen for another and she can make her own way home

Copyright: P.Cunniffe/D.Carton/L.Moran/P.Stevens

Though one of the most life affirming pieces of music to me, is The Saw Doctors live version of Joyce Country Ceili Band. The link below is a live performance from Galway, and is wonderful, makes your feet tap and your voice sing, as well as making you smile with its absurd but gentle melody and verse.  

We're the Joyce country ceili band
Playing away and we're doing grand
We're singing a song won't you give us a hand
'cos we're the Joyce country ceili band

Friday night , off we go
Tune the fiddle , strain the bow
Take it handy for the first few sets
Sure there's hardly anyone listening yet

Thomas and Mary out on the floor
Well they never lost it, that's for sure
in his sparking shoes and his daz-white shirt
She's got a brand new perm
And a pleated skirt

We do do's and functions
Weddings and wakes
Meats and salads, buns and cakes
Well if you need a few tunes just
give us a call

For the house the pub or the parish hall
There's a princess on the floor all night
She can fairly throw them shapes alright
Howya Bridie are you on your own?
How're ya fixed far a spin back home

We're the Joyce country ceili band
Playing away and we're doing grand
We're singing a song won't you give us a hand
'cos we're the Joyce country ceili band

Copyright: P.Cunniffe/D.Carton/L.Moran/P.Stevens

I consider The Saw Doctors from Galway, Ireland to be better than Seroxat for lifting the spirits, so pour a Guinness and Jamie as a chaser and put the volume to 11.

And revel in the warm hearted absurdity of the boys from Galway; for managing our moods is very important in these days of geo-political strife, for the bark of the black dog is never far.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

“And the thing about a shark is he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes.”

On the first day back at work; my memories of my days at sea as a Chemical Surveyor and my adventures in the Arabian Gulf drifted back to me; following a wonderful time in Ireland for New Year, traversing the Irish Sea.

I will share one memory from the 1980s, when I was stationed in the Arabian Gulf where I worked as a Chemical Cargo Surveyor. There is no need to read on, as life is short, and I am a bore. I only write down my anecdotes as an aid to keep them from vanishing from my memory; and to help me examine and understand who I have become, via the recollections of youth; as well as recording the absurd aspects of my life.

Back in the 1980s, cargo ships would load bulk Palm Oils, Palm Fatty Acids and Veg Oils from South East Asia [Singapore etc]; discharge their cargo in Rotterdam, then tank cleaning en-route to Saudi Arabia where they would load Methanol [and other industrial chemicals], and then sail to Japan; discharge; then tank clean while en-route to Singapore, where they would load Palm Oils, and come back to Rotterdam. And the supply-chain circle would continue, Far East, Europe and Middle East.

Naturally mixing edible food items and chemicals for transit [with tank cleaning between cargoes] was not cool, due to possible contamination of the edible oils; but back in those days, road tankers did the same - edible oils, tank clean, then chemicals etc. Now bulk tankers [be they sea or road] - are now dedicated to food or chemicals, to prevent cross contamination risks.

It was a hard life, 6 weeks on with 3 weeks off, working as a Chemical Cargo Surveyor in the Middle East; coping with the heat and erratic and long working hours. I lost a lot of weight, during that time, so my overalls used to hang off my skin like a baggy jump suit, due to my weight loss.

Anyway; one time a Burmese ship arrived at Jubail port, KSA [ex-Rotterdam] to load Celanese Grade Methanol. When I went on-board it was obvious the crew had been on the Rum. Though the booze was now locked away, as Saudi Customs Officials always boarded the ship to ensure all alcohol was locked away. You didn’t need to be Uri Geller to ascertain that the Mariners had been drinking, and I mean HARD drinking.

Once the vessel was berthed and ‘customs cleared’, I got to work inspecting the cargo tanks.

The tanks were filthy, with the walls, the coils, pipes, hose-exchange all smeared with the last cargo of PFAD [Palm Oil Fatty Acid Distillate]. It was obvious the crew had been partying hard from Holland and didn’t tank clean. In fact the chief officer was nowhere to be seen, so his XO was embarrassed as I wrote a letter of protest, refusing to allow them to load the Saudi Methanol cargo. The XO called the Captain who appeared calm, and told me to come back in 24 hours and he’ll have the tanks cleaned while berthed on the Jetty.

So the next day I returned, and immediately noticed that tanks hadn’t been touched. The captain and crew had found the Chief Officer, who had locked himself in a store room in the Engine Room; he was in a drunken stupor. He must have stashed some of the Rum for himself while they were in port when they entered Saudi waters. This was a No-No, as the penalty for drinking alcohol in Saudi Arabia is severe.

Chatting to one of the deck-hands, I was advised that the vessel had indeed discharged their Palm Oil / PFAD in Rotterdam; and one of the Burmese crew had gone on shore while she unloaded, and returned with Marijuana and Hardcore Porn VHS tapes. During the voyage to Jubail, KSA instead of tank cleaning in readiness to load high grade [Celanese] Methanol, they smoked dope and drank Rum, watching Dutch Porn movies on VHS.

Anyway, when I failed the ship again on my second tank inspection; I issued another letter of protest [at the state of the tanks] which we always sent to the ships owners, when there is any issue with the ship – and I added that I didn’t feel the crew to be competent.

Within 36 hours a new crew were sent. I arrived the following day back at the Port just as the old crew were escorted off the ship and to the airport. The new Captain indicated that rather than waste more money staying on the berth and incurring port fees, they would buy some Methanol for tank cleaning and go off and tank clean off-shore; returning only when they thought they would pass my inspection for loading.

Three days later we get a call from the port, and rather than risk a rejection again [berthing fees etc]; the Ships Master would pay for an inspector to go aboard the ship by pilot-boat, and inspect the tanks at sea. Then subject to approval, the vessel would come back to the berth for loading. So off I went with my equipment and testing gear to the port and joined the pilot boat. Curiously, I recall at the time when I embarked onto the pilot boat, it reminded me of ‘The Orca’, the fishing boat that Quint [as played by Robert Shaw] Captained in Spielberg’s JAWS. 

Now when an ocean-going bulk chemical tanker is empty at sea – it rides high in the water, like a cork in a water-trough; revealing many notches on the hull’s Plimsoll line. Without cargo as ballast, an unloaded ship does bob-up and down with the sea currents; as ballast and cargo balances the buoyancy and stability of the Vessel.

The sea that day was choppy with big swells. The pilot boat pulled alongside the Burmese ship; the crew lowered a rope ladder over the bow; so slinging my equipment over my shoulder I started up the rope-ladder like a pirate clambering aboard, with trepidation as the ship bobbed up and down with the heavy swells. I had barely reached the ladder, when the ship hit a really big swell, and I went down under the waves. I held the rope ladder for dear life, panicking. I held my breath clinging to the rope ladder, and tried to climb up faster; but my billowing overalls were caught by the water currents, dragging me back down to Davy Jones’ locker.

As I finally broke the surface I felt something pulling, jerking me back into the water. I looked up and the crew were shouting at me, pointing below me, and frantically gesticulating to me, to come up the ladder quicker. I felt something sharp tug at my overalls, and scratch my buttocks. As I looked over my shoulder, down at the waves below, I saw a small shark had its teeth embedded on the bum of my overalls and was thrashing trying to pull me back into the Ocean. As I looked down, I saw it staring at me, with dead eyes, like a dolls eyes. I grabbed my bag of sampling and test equipment, and furiously hit the shark hard repeatedly, feeling it tug at my blue overalls. I finally dropped my gear onto its head hard like a hammer. 

The shark fell back into the water below, with a big splash, and then thrashed and attacked my sampling and test equipment that I had used to defend myself.

I climbed back on the ship rather fast, and was yanked on-board by the Burmese deckhands. As I stood on deck, I noticed I had a big tear in my overalls with my arse hanging out, which was cut [but were really only a couple of scratches]. The Ship’s Medic cleaned the scratches, and gave me a clean pair of overalls. The Captain appeared and passed me a bottle of Rum, which I necked, before handing it back, half empty. We were not moored in Saudi Arabia so the booze cabinet had been unlocked.

Anyway, I soon discovered what had happened to attract the school of sharks.

While the ship had anchored off-shore, and had been tank cleaning out in the ocean; the cook’s assistant had been throwing the leftover food scraps from the galley over the side of the ship [this is now barred under International Maritime Organisation’s MARPOL regulations]. The food waste from the galley had obviously attracted the sharks.

When I looked down over the side, I saw the fins in the water below and thanked the God Poseidon that one of the bigger fuckers hadn’t taken a bite out of my arse. I was also thankful to Poseidon for my weight-loss; as my baggy overalls, flapping and billowing in the water had saved me, as the baby shark had only scratched my skin, as the billowing overalls took most of the shark’s bite, as its teeth tried to find my skin. I thought of the feature length Batman TV film, when the same thing happened to the Dark Knight, except he was climbing the rope ladder to a helicopter.

As I lost my sample and testing kit when I hit the shark’s head as it clung to my blue overalls, I could only do a visual inspection on the vessel’s tanks, but they appeared fine; so we soon sailed back to port, where we would load the ship with Methanol.

The sailors gave me a guest cabin on the journey back to Port, which I retained while I supervised the Methanol loading.

During the process, I spent time in my cabin once the Shore Pumps started loading the cargo. I smiled as amongst the tatty paperbacks and VHS tapes in the cabin; I found a copy of Spielberg’s JAWS [with Burmese subtitles] as well as a copy of the Novel by Peter Benchley.

As I looked out of the port-hole from my cabin [on the Starboard side] facing the ocean; I  thought of the Mariners on the USS Indianapolis and the remarkable speech that writers Howard Sackler, Robert Shaw and John Milius came up with for JAWS, nailing Quint’s motivation for battling the Great White Shark –

 “Sometimes that shark looks right at ya. Right into your eyes. And the thing about a shark is he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes.”

Thankfully, the shark that took a bite out of my overalls was a baby, unlike the one Quint battled. Though it was the Shark’s Eyes that remain with me today, for they were lifeless, black, like a doll’s eyes.

I also recalled a favorite line from Stephen King, about how the arts help manage the nightmare that is our reality from time to time; even if our recollections now exist as mere fragments of memories from those days now passed.

“Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around.”
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Read More Here about the remarkable writing behind Quint’s monologue about what happened to the mariners of the ill-fated USS Indianapolis, from JAWS which remains one of the most memorable pieces of screen writing.

Happy New Year