My grandfather grew up in Littlehampton on the south coast of England, and his bedroom window may well have been one of these windows, looking out across the sea. He and his three brothers grew up in this house… or maybe the one next door… house numbers may have changed in the 125 years since he was born there!
I only knew my grandfather when he was old, and he died before I reached my teens; he was a true Victorian in many ways, a pre-war relic believing in duty and honour and good manners and shiny shoes. I believe that he was very, very intelligent, and never quite managed to achieve his full potential. He was trained as an accountant, but he didn’t pass the exams… I am not sure why, maybe the war intervened… who knows now? He was a superb linguist, as he proved when in the 1950’s a traveller speaking no recognizable language turned up on Cambridge station, and my grandfather went to the police station where the man was being accommodated, and spoke to him in a Brazilian dialect which he had picked up over thirty years previously when he had been on business in Manaus. My grandfather also went to the Cape Verde Islands, and was in the army during both wars… some achievement! But somehow, he was never quite successful, and his latter years were lonely and sad, and he lived alone reading Western novels, smoking, and maybe dreaming of his travels.
When I went to Littlehampton and found the house he had lived in, and realised he could have seen the sea from his window, and all the ships passing by and maybe stopping at the port, I could clearly imagine him gazing out at them, and dreaming of travelling to distant and exotic places; I wonder if he knew the poem ‘Cargoes’, by John Masefield… maybe he read it at school…
Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.
Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.