Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Oh, What a beautiful post war!

‘Up Spirits’

How to drink Royal Navy rum

It was now six months since our No. 805 Royal Naval Air Squadron, stationed in readiness at Machrihanish in Scotland, and on the brink of departure for the Pacific War, had been signalled to stand down following the dropping of the two atom-bombs on Japan. It was also six months since I had flown the squadron’s Seafire XV fighters (the Royal Navy ‘s extra-powerful, Griffon-engine equipped, Spitfires)

Now, after reporting to HMS Daedalus, the Fleet Air Arm’s shore station near Portsmouth, I had turned twenty years of age, and was officially allowed to take part in the traditional pre-lunch ‘Up Spirits’ ceremony in the petty officers’ mess.

This time-honoured ritual drink of Royal Navy rum was the highlight of the day for the vast majority of my older fellow mess members — a mixture of gunner’s mates, quartermasters, regulating petty-officers, and other similar long-serving old salts. The serving of the rum was also rooted in many subordinate customs and revered classical etiquette.

A few minutes past eleven o’clock (six bells) each morning, the rum would be placed on a table at the far end of the mess. The paraphernalia that attended the ceremony would be arranged in traditional manner. The actual sacred rum, in the strong, neat and unadulterated form which was only allowed to petty officers, was in a large copper bowl at the centre. A copper jug of water was to one side for those very few devotees who might possibly want it, together with a large tray containing a quarter-inch of water. On this tray were a couple of dozen plain drinking glasses standing upside-down with their rims barely immersed. This was considered to be a more than fully adequate standard of hygiene in view of the overwhelming strength of the rich dark ambrosia being dispensed. Close to one side of the big rum bowl was a long-handled copper ladle of approved volumetric capacity which rested on a special saucer to catch any precious drips it might shed. On the other side of the rum bowl was another tray containing no more than a heavy dew of water for the empty glass to again be placed in an inverted position. This was considered by many old salts to be taking hygiene to lunatic lengths, but I always strongly suspected that by the end of the rum issue, the water in the two trays would have been transformed into grog of sufficient potency to warrant its use as a chaser by those chosen as special shipmates to the chief rum bosun.

Behind the table sat four assistant rum bosuns. The first had a list of all mess members entitled to draw their tot or rum ration. After being approved and marked off, the recipient would move to the rum bowl and pick up the glass of his choice. Then instead of inserting the ladle into the depths of the rum bowl and pouring its contents into his glass as might be expected, the common practice was to nearly immerse the glass in the rum so that it was almost filled, then smartly pour that same rum in an aerial parabolic cascade from the glass into the ladle and then, with even increased smartness, pour the rum back into the glass. Done with practised agility, deftness and eye-deceiving lightning speed, a certain amount of rum still in mid-air together with incipient droplets from the utensils could be entrapped to augment the practitioner’s daily glass to a more satisfying extent.

One hallowed practice directly related to the rum issue, especially when out at sea, was called Sippers. This was when a person celebrating his birthday, the birth of a child or some other legitimate occasion, was allowed to stay close to the rum table and importune his closest shipmates and other likely donors for a sip of their tots. The name was derived quite obviously from the rigid protocol that allowed only the smallest of sips, and definitely not Gulpers, to be taken by the receiver. Deadly enmity could be engendered by any breaking of this religious code of ethics.

The adding of the letters ‘ers’ to common words was prevalent in navy jargon. Thus we had clampers for bad weather, makers for make-and-mend, dampers for rain, sinkers for plum-duff pudding, and many others of like fashion.

Tots of rum were a very valid currency in everyday naval life. With so many expert craftsmen on hand, one could arrange to have tailor-made items of leather work, canvas, wood and metal specially created to one’s personal specifications simply by promising to hand over to the maker or procurer so many agreed upon calendar day’s tots of rum. This could be done by bottling one’s ration instead of drinking it or by arranging with the rum bosuns to give one’s tot to the petty officer concerned for each day the arrangement was in force.

With the ending of the war, every weekend at least saw at least half the mess members away on short or long weekend leave, which started on either the Friday or Saturday forenoon. Surprisingly, on those two mornings, for some inexplicable reason, the rum was quite late in appearing in the mess. This meant that all the fellows from places north of the big smoke who were eager to get going early from Pompey (Portsmouth) in order to catch their interconnecting London trains to Scotland and Newcastle etc, were unfortunately inconvenienced and unable to wait for their rum. And so unfortunately, when the late-arriving rum did finally arrive, there was often quite a surplus left in the firkin and rum bowl. Sadly left right there on the table. Unclaimed! In the mess! Ownerless!

Luckily, this situation caused little inconvenience to the minority of fellows not going off the station and the Londoners and other southerners who had lots of time to get home by the later afternoon trains. So the Saturday routine was rather pleasant for some of us. A couple of pints of Hammerton’s Oatmeal Stout and mild ale at the mess bar while waiting for the tardy rum to arrive, then a double and maybe even a triple tot, then an ample leisurely lunch. Then an unhurried walk down to the railway station adjacent to the Gosport ferry and a pleasant hour or so in the dining car with a bottle of Bass or Worthington or whatever. Then home by about four o’clock, a snooze to about six, supper, and then out with friends.

Crumbs! Let’s hear it for good old Harry Truman and Fat Man.

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