Often some of my clients (assurance) whose husbands were at sea, would tell me what their men were putting up with when the wind blew. Then to myself I would think “I know all about it”. But I never told them I had been through it or that I had experienced all or perhaps more than their men were now doing.
Charles V. Skargon, ‘From Boy to Man the Hard Way’, p. 232.
For a humble man like Charles V. Skargon, writing an autobiography was not an exercise in projecting the author’s ego. He thought of his life at sea as ‘a great adventure’, (24) but not with himself at the helm. Ships gave him passage and work; transported him through their experiences. They were not directed by Skargon’s impulse. Skargon was at the mercy of the tides, social, political, financial and literal, and revelled in the voyage he found himself in from boy to man.
Regenia Gagnier in Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender writes an intriguing theory for the process of working-class autobiographers. She states they ‘unanimously state that their reasons for writing are functional rather than aesthetic: to record lost experiences for future generations; to raise money; to warn others; to teach others; to relieve or amuse themselves; to understand themselves.’ (342) This is true of Skargon as his memoirs are written from an ordinary perspective and address some of these criteria.
From Boy to Man the Hard Way is a reflection on the writer’s years working at sea. Skargon’s life before and after are mentioned but not at length. His ‘great adventure’ is the focal point of his life upon reflection, and the passion and love Skargon expresses through his writing during this time gives the reader the feeling he is certainly relieving and amusing himself. This is perhaps best expressed in the recurrent phrase, ‘What a life!’
Skargon goes into great depth when describing his experiences and the lifestyle of the mariner, from detailing the features of the various ships he worked on to chronicling the day-to-day jobs and activities of crewmen:
Sixteen seamen seemed such a small number for such a large ship. The victualling department numbered nearly two hundred. The engine room gang numbered about fifty, which was made up of engineers, oilers, firemen, donkey men. They worked three watches of four hours on duty and eight hours off. We, on deck, worked watch and watch, which was four hours on and four hours off, except in the dog watches which was from four o’clock to six o’clock and six to eight p.m.
To go to such lengths to account the specifics of the lifestyle gives the autobiography a didactic nature; ‘to teach others’. It is a record of a niche of social history that Skargon endeavoured to produce in reflection. Perhaps one of the factors which motivated Skargon to write was the opinion that there was not enough material on the lives of seamen during and after the First World War. These men were important and honourable to Skargon as is evident in his writing. ‘The reason that I have written this long script about lightships is to let whoever might read it know about this service and the men who serve in them.’ (188)
Foremost, From Boy to Man the Hard Way is a celebration and veneration of those men Skargon worked alongside. The hazards and hardships that confronted sailors particularly of this period are always made clear throughout the autobiography as well as the ill tidings that befell many of his colleagues and ships he worked on over the years at sea.
On arrival I learned one item of news. It was that my uncle’s ship, The Brussels had been captured by several German destroyers in the North Sea and had been taken into a Belgium port which was then held by the Germans. All the crew were made prisoners… After many weeks in a prison the Germans held what they called a trial and they sentenced the Captain to be shot… A few days after this trial the sentence was carried out.
I believe Skargon deemed audience as largely the same as purpose. He wrote his autobiography aged 74, an age at which many look back and think about their past. His time at sea was very important to Skargon and the people around him helped him learn and mature, making a far greater impression than his brief time in school. They helped sculpt him into the man who would one day record their adventures and tribulations. Perhaps Skargon felt he owed it to these people before he passed to address them as an audience, to immortalise them in literature, ‘to record [their] lost experiences for future generations,’ and offer his respect and gratitude for bringing him up the hard, but the right, way from boy to man. Whoever else would read his memoirs was to be enlightened by these men and too be reverent of their lives, and learn that men who seem ordinary can be extraordinary beneath the surface.
‘Charles V. Skargon’, in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent. ‘The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography‘, Brighton: Harvester, 1984, vol. 2, no. 712.
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363.
Jstor, ‘Victorian Studies.’ [online]
Available at: http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublication?journalCode=victorianstudies
[Accessed 15th October, 2014]
Skargon, Charles V. ‘ From Boy to Man the Hard Way’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography. University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:712.
The Mission to Seafarers, ‘The Commemoration of the Battle of the Atlantic in Thunder Bay.’ [online]
Available at: http://www.missiontoseafarers.ca/thunderbay/LestWeForget.html
[Accessed 17th October, 2014]