Schooling for me was not a happy memory as far as liking it was concerned and I’m afraid I was not a very good scholar. The headmaster was, I suppose at that time, a hard old man, but strict and looking back I now realize that he was a good headmaster. He used the cane very freely and often I wondered what I got it for. Education at that time was not of the Highest Standard but I suppose the foundation of my life was laid in his school.
Charles V. Skargon, ‘From Boy to Man the Hard Way’, p. 3.
Skargon left school at the age of twelve due to sickness. He was put to work immediately, running errands for his mother and helping her with the mangling work she did for the local neighbourhood. However, this work was not enough to earn a good keep so Skargon’s mother asked her brother, a merchant navy captain in the Great Eastern Railway company, whether a job could be obtained for her son there. He found a job as a ship’s steward for his nephew and, at only thirteen years old, Skargon embarked on a truer education at sea.
Skargon picked up his duties quickly, but his real test came when war broke out six months after he began this work. He had to quickly adapt to an environment which even adults were afraid in and still continue his work with the constant danger of enemy submarines and naval mines terminating his short life. He had to learn how to maintain composure, keep focused and work on with no tutor, and in his writing he gives this challenge little regard: ‘All part of the war!’ (36)
This period for Skargon must have expanded his boyish view of the world and matured him beyond his years. It certainly taught him the importance of cooperation as he remarks, ‘It was just a job or work to do and our ship was just one cog in a big wheel, all set to get this war to an end.’ (28) He places little emphasis on his own role in the war effort, believing himself only to be a seaman and a steward whom would ‘carr[y] on regardless’ in war time or not but acknowledges that he was there and his work contributed in a small way.
His progression from steward to seaman however seems the greatest learning curve in Skargon’s life. Miraculously finding employment as a seaman without any experience or connections a few years later, Skargon was embroiled in a tough unforgiving world where he was forced to learn fast or suffer. On one occasion, he is struck by a boatswain for tying the wrong kind of knot in the lacing of a boat. ‘That is how I learnt to tie a reef knot!’ (53) The harshness of sea life seems to have brought out a vivacity in Skargon to do well and prove to others and himself that he can perform his duties well and be a competent member of the crew. This work ethic he develops here carries on to his future life on land when he works in insurance, the struggle to find new clients to maintain an increase in sales in his branch a constant uphill battle requiring diligence and commitment.
Yet to overcome these challenges posed to him not just required commitment, but courage as well. Skargon learns courage allows him to achieve remarkable feats he initially deems impossible. The boatswain on one of the crossings to New York orders Skargon to climb a ninety foot high pole with his bare hands and attach an aerial singlehandedly to the top. Through impossible odds and the very clear danger of being knocked off and swept away into the Atlantic, Skargon perseveres and, although it takes him several hours, completes the task. Courage sculpts Skargon’s future, giving him the power to overcome difficult situations and adversity such as “Captain L.” of the lightship service whom attempts to trick Skargon into going out to sea for several months despite his earlier refusal. For the sake of his wife and daughter, Skargon is defiant and is taken back ashore to his family.
Though literacy, learnt through schooling, was an important aspect of Skargon’s life. He would write letters often in his spare time to his mother and later his girlfriend and wife, keeping him in contact with those precious to him whom he could not for great stretches of time see. It offered escapism from the difficulty and repetitiveness of life at sea from which it was impossible mid-voyage to physically escape from. Importantly to us, it gave Skargon the means to immortalise his life in writing and let us read and share his memoirs now and in years to come.
‘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.
Edinphoto. ‘Torphichen Street School: 1906.’ [online]
Available at: http://www.edinphoto.org.uk/0_g_p/0_groups_and_outings_torphichen_street_school_1906.htm
[Accessed 10th January 2015]
Skargon, Charles V. ‘ From Boy to Man the Hard Way’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography. University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:712.