Happy Birthday to Freya Stark, born on January 31, 1893. In this extract taken from her book The Zodiac Arch, she recounts a trip across the Atlantic Ocean, 1943, November, during World War II.
When I was asked to write about my ‘worst journey’ I looked back over what is now a varied collection of adventures and was perplexed to find no single one among them that I could consider definitely bad. There are days in every journey when everything goes wrong. To be weather bound in some snug place unknown to all your friends and even – you may hope – to Destiny itself, is one of the cosiest experiences in the world: but to be caught by weather in the open, or at the wrong moment, or with sickness as an added complication, is as unpleasant as anything external can be. And nearly every journey has some such days or hours. There is in fact almost always a moment when you wonder with amazement why you ever set out at all. You have left your props behind you, all the furniture of your life, the barricade of things and people erected by yourself and your forebears against the attacks of circumstance; and circumstance is now all about you, with pin-prick or stiletto as the case may be; and nothing but yourself to pit against it, for even the best of guides or hosts or friends you may have collected are new and unsettled in your ways, and if your own inner power gives out they too are bound to fail. It is, I think, the fear of one’s own exhaustion that makes the bad moment of the journey – with the knowledge that nothing is there to supplement your own resources if they give way.
In these moments, the best thing to do if one can is to sleep. When I was a child, I used to think of my bed as an island of safety; the dangerous shadows that lurked – especially around the corners of the bedroom – were there, by some mysterious power, kept at bay; and my camp-bed has retained this sort of magic, and often receives me in a short neutrality of peace when chaos threatens all around. But there is one place where even this refuge fails and the privacy of one’s bunk is merely one more cell in a whole system of misery. This is the Atlantic under what the stewardess will tell you – with that hard brisk cheerful air – is merely ‘a bit of a breeze’. One should, I think, be ready to pay for one’s pleasures, and I could bear the horror, if the Atlantic in its happier moments seemed to me worth anything at all. But let us face the fact: except in the eyes of a few fanatics (untrustworthy as all lovers) an unmitigated expanse of water is dull even when blue: not in a small boat, where you are a part of the winds and currents and tides and are allowed to hold the tiller now and then; but from those decks which the shipping companies with subconscious insight try to make as suburban as possible so that the impact of the monster outside may be lessened, and where the unrecognized boredom is so deep that a wispy smear of smoke on the horizon will queue up a crowd as if for a Valkyrie passing.
This gives the measure of the Atlantic when kind – and when unkind, who can assess it? I look back over all the bad hours it has given me – its freezing coldness, its instability, its nauseating whiffs of oil from the engine-room and smell of paint in the bathroom, its horrid way of making the bath-water slant, so that one feels that something in the laws of gravity has gone askew; above all its efforts at entertaining, like a virago’s smile with no kindness beneath it – deck tennis and sweepstakes for all, and the officers’ attentions turned on like switches; until one wonders whether any of the other big fish swimming about around us out of sight carry as much dreariness inside them as we do. Nor is the recipe I am always being given against boredom of any use to me at all. One should study one’s fellow passengers, they say: a fatal thing to do if one feels as I always feel on an Atlantic crossing.
I have faced the northern ocean five times and the last time was the worst, and I feel that I can choose it without a runner-up for my worst journey. It was in 1943, the middle of the war, and November. Because I am an optimist in spite of past experience, a faint, doubtful glamour hung about the thought of the convoy gathering in the North, as I rattled up in a pleasantly and unusually warm sleeper from King’s Cross. I had been in two convoys twice through the Red Sea, and what with islands in sight, and aeroplanes – some friendly and others not – and warm weather and a boat too small for deck drill, the time had gone pleasantly. And Glasgow gave us one of those soft mild winter days, with an illusion of spring round the corner, with the Clyde lying grey as a kitten curled in mists, the woods of its headlands soft as water, and its open basins pale and bright as sky.
There, in an open but noticeably secret solitude, the convoy was gathered, steamless shapes sheltered from sight by the hills. Out of the special train which took us from Glasgow to our unnamed destination, we were piloted and embarked on the Aquitania. A last little halo of luxury surrounded the name in our imagination, as we climbed up the side: and then we were shown our quarters, and illusions vanished. The ship was ‘stripped’ of course; she was carrying, we were told, five thousand British troops – to America – to the Pacific beyond – who knows? But there they were, with their hammocks slung deck below deck in view when we went down for meals, in air which – compared to the pleasant openness of a bedouin tent – seemed to me unbreathable, packed so close together that some of them must surely think now and then how a bomb here and there is not so undesirable if it makes a little more room on the planet? They were admirably cheerful, and filled our only saloon with a sort of collective haze, a turmoil in which individuals vanished and only khaki wreathed in tobacco smoke and punctuated with faces seemed to exist with an amorphous, temporary life. Over their heads, cleared now and then by the eddies of the smoke, the Aquitania’s luxury ceiling appeared and hid itself; and it was this sight of former splendour under the stripping, a gilt bracket, a tattered skirting, a bit of painted doorway gone dark with unwashed touches, that gave us our atmosphere of squalor: a clean bare boarded room would have been clear of this nostalgia of decay.
There were a few women, nearly all with babies, who seemed (by the carefulness of his instructions) to weigh heavily on our captain’s mind; at all costs infants are sheltered to grow up for another war. Their pink little faces wrapped in shawls were inured twice a day to deck drill, with kind officers helping mothers to arrange the cork jackets for two. The Atlantic howled by in its usual gruesome and useless hurry, putty-green flecked with white. The seagulls made sudden dips sidewards, their round eyes fixed on food. The day rolled low in the sky from squall to squall. After an hour or so of standing about, thinking perforce of shipwrecks, the fug in the saloon was quite welcome.
A little cabin for one person had been arranged to hold four of us women bound for the U.S.A. Here we could lie on our bunks and read in an atmosphere of friendliness and comparative privacy; for we soon discovered that it is people who are the chief bane of the collective life. Our little oasis looked like a slum, with all we needed for six days or seven hung out on various strings; but the heart of it was sound, with great helpfulness and kindness inside it; and its worst irritations were the luxury gadgets made for a single occupant, which uselessly used up valuable room, and the thin threads of icy Atlantic air that seemed, like ghosts, to pass through solid metal, for the darkened porthole was battened down from seven at night to seven in the morning, for fear of submarines.
We were, we soon discovered, not in convoy at all. The Aquitania was so big and so strong that she could do better by herself and relied on secrecy and swiftness to get her across. Like a greyhound through grass, she sped day and night with her strong thudding heart, and those dismal Atlantic waves flattened themselves against her, with their sodden possibilities of death inside them. How is it possible, I thought, that people ever cross this detestable ocean for pleasure? For three days, morning and afternoon, the siren hooted and we took our cork jackets, that filled up half our cabin, on deck, and the inhabitants of each boat began to form a pattern that recognized itself, and the sea – as we came towards its middle fastnesses – stretched its waves into long wizened sinews and even its foam seemed grey like the storm-clouds above. On the third or the fourth day out, I cannot remember which, I developed acute appendicitis. I was not told what it was but the pain was so violent that the doctor came, and looked at me with a blank young face of panic inspired, I thought, merely by the awfulness of having to deal with a woman in this world of men – for the ship’s hospital was full, and there were no nurses but only orderlies about. The one stewardess, her time already overfull of mothers and babies, looked compassionate but remote. They gave me what I was afterwards told was M. & B., and explained that I had a gastric cold; I was exonerated from boat drill and had the relief of thinking that, if necessary, I could now drown in a quiet independent way by myself. For the next three days I lay in my bunk, fed by kind companions with such few things as are suitable for appendicitis out of the menu of a troopship in war. I had books; and the horizon kept itself quiet below the circle of the porthole: but the weary nights dragged minute by minute in an almost intolerable absence of air, interspersed with icy intervals down the long dim clanking corridors of metal, groaning and straining as they pulled us through the sea. How I longed for seven o’clock and the opening of the porthole, and the sight of the sullen, wind-ripped grey! And lifting myself to look out over the sunless ridges, I tried to remember the existence of the blue Mediterranean, the little journeys from harbour to harbour in ancient grooves, the well-worn Graeco-Roman world. When we berthed in Halifax, late on the fourth evening of my illness, I felt suddenly as if nothing could keep me alive through another night of this captivity; the doctor, increasingly worried, evidently felt about it as I did, and at eleven at night I was tucked up on a stretcher in blankets and lifted down a gangway on to land.
The five thousand troops must have thought that some pampered general was being allowed ashore while they were battened down for another set of hours almost as uncomfortable as mine. Tier above tier up the huge ship’s side their dim crowding faces lined the narrow slits of decks as they leaned out with whistles and cat-calls of annoyance; until, in a slanting drizzle, preceded by a small lantern and with four men carrying the stretcher, my small self appeared like the funeral of Sir John Moore at Corunna, surrounded by darkness and rain. A complete silence fell on the five thousand while they looked down and I looked up, and the stretcher bearers stumbled along; and the immense smooth flank of the Aquitania seemed to lift itself out of sight into the starless region of the elements where she belonged. But I was now on a pleasantly quiescent cobbled street; lifted into an ambulance; transported to an infirmary; unwrapped by a kind and soothing nun and put into a four-legged bed with sheets that could tuck in. Little I cared for what happened to me.
When the surgeon came in the morning, I was operated on at two hours’ notice and, as the appendix had meanwhile already broken, the chances of success seemed small. But I passed through it all without a hitch, and was walking in a fortnight, and travelling to NewYork in three weeks or four. This remarkable result, which – I learned afterwards – surprised everyone except myself who knew nothing about it, was due in the first place to the skilled surgery and devoted nursing which I think of with gratitude often; but in the second place I think it was also due to the unsurpassable unpleasantness of the Atlantic, which inspires a philosophic and placid acceptance of any other trial – the best psychological preparation for operations of any kind. And this proves, too, what I wrote at the beginning of this article, that no journey can be called wholly bad or good; since nothing but the monstrous wetness of the Atlantic can inspire that passionate relief and rejoicing in the mere dryness of land when it appears. ■
The Zodiac Arch is the latest re-issue in our Freya Stark Collection and is out now.