A Tall Ship – ‘Bartimeus’

Originally published in September 1915 by a by then well known author of naval stories I was expecting tales of daring do on the high seas so was quite surprised that with the exception of the first and last stories in this collection the actual war didn’t really impinge on the stories being told. It all starts excitingly enough with the short story ‘Crab-pots’ which begins with the torpedoing of a ship and the unusual revenge that one of the sailors manages to take some time later. This sailor will become part of a recurring group through most of the other nine stories in this collection but this isn’t clear at the start as he gains the nickname Torps by story number two ‘The Drum’ which is also one of the odder tales as it has two parts with no link between them. This story starts with a couple of Cornish fishermen repairing a boat by hammering out an old boiler to make a plate to cover worn out timbers and then jumps to Torps and Margaret (who had nursed him after the sinking of his ship) on a hillside looking out to sea and not really getting anywhere as to a relationship that he clearly wants but she is not sure about.

I don’t want to work my way through all the tales but there is one which just consists of recounting the morning work of a naval captain, doing his paperwork and dealing with requests from the sailors under his command. Another has the ships officers arranging a children’s party on board which has one of the funniest lines in the entire book which takes place between two of the children on the harbour side waiting to be picked up on a small boat in what looked like choppy conditions

“My daddy’s a Captain” continued Cornelius James “and I’m never sick – Are you?”
She nodded her fair head. “Yeth” she lisped sadly.
“P’raps your daddy isn’t a Captain” conceded Cornelius James magnificently.
The maiden shook her head. “My daddy’s an Admiral” was the slightly disconcerting reply.

All in all though the book was remarkably dull and it’s no surprise to see that it and the other works by Bartimeus are long out of print. He was definitely popular in his time though but it’s hard to see why, this is the second book by him in the first 110 Penguin books a feat only matched by Agatha Christie and Andre Maurois (excluding two part books) but none of his other works have ever appeared in Penguin unlike the two other authors so it is clear he was waning in popularity even in the mid 1930’s.

As can be seen from the rear flap of the dust wrapper there are quite a lot of clues as to who the pseudonymous Bartimeus actually was. A little digging finds that the author was born Lewis Anselm da Costa Ricci in 1886; although he anglicised his name to Ritchie by deed pole in 1941. Joining the Royal Navy in 1901 he trained to become a naval officer, however while still young, he contracted Malta Fever (brucellosis); this cost him the sight of one eye and damaged the other. Unable now to pursue a career at sea, he remained in the Navy, initially in the accounting branch, but began writing stories about naval life. He finally left the Navy at the start of the Second World War retiring as captain of the Royal Yacht and became press secretary to King George VI from 1944 to 1947. He took his pen-name from the Bible, ironically hinting at his reason for leaving the career he loved by naming himself after Bartimeus, the blind beggar of Mark 10, 46-52.

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