Saturday, 16 November 2013

Alexander Fullerton and the Mariner of England

In many ways I'm surprised it's taken me so long to come across Alexander Fullerton. In my teenage years during the 1980s his work was the sort of fodder that I used to devour by the bucketload (Douglas Reeman being a particular favourite). Every once in a while though, it's fun to revisit old stamping grounds, and late last year while nosing through a list of historical naval fiction I came across a reference to his “Patrol to the Golden Horn”, which piqued curiousity. Having sat in the to-be-read pile for longer than it should have, it eventually got picked up and proved a pleasant surprise, as was the discovery that it formed part of a much larger narrative describing the Royal Navy during the two World Wars primarily through the lens of Nick Everard (the 'mariner of England'), with nine novels published between 1976 and 1984.

Rather than attempting to be comprehensive, the series chooses a number of seminal points between 1916 and 1943 to highlight how the conflicts evolved. Bearing this in mind the Mariner of England collection will probably be a little hard to approach unless the reader already has a fairly solid grasp of how the naval elements of both wars played out. Armed with this level of contextual familiarity the reader will however find a wealth of interesting detail embedded into the novels, which while clearly fictional, serve to emphasise some core historical points which have escaped more general histories (for example highlighting the impact of Nagumo's presence south of Java in early 1942 and how this affected the ABDA defence of the Indonesian archipelago).

Fullerton's choice of events flagging up the Royal Navy’s activities in the two World Wars is interesting. Running in order we see Jutland, the raid on Zeebrugge, a fictional submarine attack on the Goeben in 1918, Narvik and the Norwegian campaign in 1940, Crete in 1941, a fusion of the battle of Java Sea and an adapted version of the Operation Pedestal convoy to Malta , the raid on St Nazaire and the submarine war in the Mediterranean, and the Torch landings in North Africa (all during 1942), before concluding with the Arctic convoys and midget submarine attacks on the German surface fleet in 1943. While it's possible to think of some additions which could usefully be made to this list (Taranto? Bismark? Force Z?) all of this serves to effectively tell the back story to some of the most significant events in RN history that go to build the tradition so proudly held by the service.

The nine novels are textually interesting, Fullerton is incredibly strong in writing action sequences, in particular involving submarines, presumably reflecting his own wartime experience. He succeeds in conveying tension and the mixture of terror and calm experienced in combat, but the device of telling the Everard back story, through background mention and reflection, while it does the job, at times can frustrate. Let's focus on the strengths however, the unflinching account of naval warfare, and a stark refusal to sugarcoat the narrative makes for a memorable experience and paints a much richer picture than is sometimes found elsewhere. Be warned, there are not novels that always provide a happy ending.

As with any series of novels written over a prolonged period of time, the changing style of authorship is clear. Initially the novels are written explicitly from the perspective of the protagonists, so if an event takes place beyond their field of view, it is not referred to. This evolves over time, with different narrative styles being used, some of which work better than others, the elements ashore in Constantinople in "Patrol to the Golden Horn" being reminiscent of John Buchan's "Greenmantle" (and suffering by this comparison) perhaps being a low point. By the end there’s an impression that Fullerton may have been a little tired of the Everards, and tries to do something a little more conceptual, which now, thinking about it, is surprisingly effective.

Does it work as fictionalised narrative history? It probably does. For all the bitty recounting of the personal back story, and the leaving of several threads hanging can frustrate the overall effect serves to deliver a memorable story. I suspect had I come across them as a teenager they’d have fallen short in comparison to Reeman in particular, but as a richer long running tapestry there’s real satisfaction to found in reading them. It’s easy to end up caring about the wider Everard family, and in that light the stylistic shift in the concluding volume, “The Gatecrashers”, is both appropriate and welcome. It provides a fitting closure to the Everard story, as the narrator fittingly puts it, "the end became the man".

The Mariner of England Series 

"The Blooding of the Guns", Jutland 1916 
"Sixty Minutes for St George", Zeebrugge 1918 
"Patrol to the Golden Horn", Raid on Goeben in Constantinople, 1918 (fictionalised) 
"Storm Force to Narvik", Narvik 1940 
"Last Lift from Crete", Crete 1941 
"All the Drowning Seas", Java Sea / Operation Pedestal 1942
"A Share of Honour", Mediterranean Submarines / Raid on St Nazaire 1942
"The Torchbearers", Torch 1942
"The Gatecrashers", Arctic Convoys / Tirpitz 1943

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