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Literature / HMS Leviathan

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This ship has a mind of her own

"Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope in his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? Will he make many pleas to you? Will he speak to you soft words? Will he make a covenant with you to take him for your servant forever? Will you play with him as with a bird, or will you put him on a leash for your girls?"

This novel of the Royal Navy in peacetime, something of a tragicomedy, was written by ex-Navy officer John Winton and was published in 1967. It is set in a time where Great Britain might still be able - just about - to call herself a world power with genuinely global reach, but the last of Empire is ebbing fast. The British government, perhaps in a fit of hubris, has commissioned the largest warship ever built for the Royal Navy - the truly massive aircraft carrier HMS Leviathan. With nearly two thousand crewmen aboard, it is almost a floating city, or at least a small town with its own airport. The snag is, it is so Herculanean a prospect that its first shakedown cruise proved to be a humiliating failure marked by disasters and ill-feeling. It may be too much for one Captain to completely administer and call his own, a massive white elephant that nobody can make work.

Enter Commander Robert Markready, an old-school career Navy officer, who is tasked, as ship's commander and second only to the Captain, with gelling together those two thousand men, getting them to a peak of efficiency, and making Leviathan into a ship, and a ship's company, to be proud of. He sets about his task with a mixture of his long Navy experience, and some astute persuasion and diplomacy - but also a tendency not to truly understand people, and to get things dead wrong in his one-to-one dealings with people. He discovers there are two Royal Navies. The one he joined in the late 1930's and fought WW2 in. And the new Navy of the 1960's, which inevitably reflects the socially more liberal, questioning and permissive 1960's. An old-time "fish-head" with no previous service in carriers, Markready realises too late that his utter inability to understand pilots and aircrew, and the way he progressively alienates young pilots of The '60s' generation with his The '30s outlook and wartime understanding of the Navy, is going to destroy both his seagoing career and his future prospects in the navy.

Ahoy! Tropes on the quarterdeck!

  • Ace Pilot: Even on the ground as Commander(A), Dubonnet co-ordinates the movements of up to eighty aircraft and helicopters with panache and ease. Markready watches him directing air operations from the Air Wing's control island and is greatly impressed.
  • Armchair Military; Markready - and other front-line officers of the dwindling WW2 generation - suspect this is what the Royal Navy's upper echelons are turning into.
  • Butt-Monkey: Lieutenant Bird and Sub-Lieutenant Stiggins, who both fall foul of the wrath of Bob Markready. Stiggins in particular is humiliated by Markready to the point where his mental health is tipped over the edge.
  • Captain Crash: Sub-Lieutenant Stiggins, a pilot who manages to crash more than one multi-million pound jet aircraft, taking himself with it on his last crash. Stiggins also manages to wreck one of the ship's boats.
  • Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough: The affable and somewhat easy-going Captain McTeague and his deputy, the martinet Commander Markready. their teamwork and contrasting styles keeping the ship running.
  • The Engineer: Commander(E) who keeps his head down, stays out of the office politics in the wardroom, and focuses on the million-and-one things necessary to keep the ship running.
  • Ensign Newbie: Quite a lot of the new generation of young officers, Bird and Stiggins especially. Markready notes with distaste that practically all of them are on short-service commissions of two or three years - as if they are playing at being Royal Navy officers and are not prepared to fully commit themselves.
  • Mildly Military: The Royal Navy's air force, the Fleet Air Arm. This does not sit well with Markready's traditionalism and old-school Navy attitudes.
  • Passed-Over Promotion: The officer complement of a troubled ship become discontented, demoralised and restless that two promotion lists have been issued by the Admiralty - and both have completely missed any recognition or promotion for Leviathan's officers. The ship's chaplain remarks, as Easter is approaching, that at least we now know the true meaning of Passover. The Collective Groan and Lame Pun Reaction go some way to restoring good spirits. Being passed over for promotion is also foreshadowing what eventually happens to Markready as he finally fails on board the ship - he eventually receives a face-saving promotion but this is at the expense of his knowing he will never go to sea again and the rest of his service before retirement will be shore-based.
  • Roman à Clef: It is possible some of the characters here are plausibly deniable depictions of real people, or at least Royal Navy character types.
  • Take That!: Winton expresses real bitterness at the way, post-Empire, the fighting capacity of the Navy has been diminished and the most important people within it appear to be those who are ambitious not for military status but for quasi-political power in a uniformed civil service. He expresses the opinion of many British military officers, not just in the Navy, that the real and deadliest enemy they face is here at home - the civil servants at the Ministry of Defence.