Saturday, 17 October 2009

'Tom Bowline'

James Fitzjames is the subject of my forthcoming book, with a publication date targeted at July 2010. With the date on which the text will be frozen fast approaching (my publisher would point out that actually we have pased that date already...), I continue to find out more and more links with Fitzjames in all sorts of unlikely places. Here's one of them.

It is well known that Fitzjames fought in the First Anglo-Chinese War, or First Opium War as it is better known. This was a shameful episode in British history when the machinery of the state was manipulated by unscrupulous drug smugglers into forcing the Chinese government to allow the British to trade Opium with their subjects. Setting aside the morality of the War it was a brilliant demonstration of British military and naval superiority. As well as Fitzjames, a number of people who would become well-known in the Franklin story took part in it including Sir Edward Belcher, Henry Collinson and Richard Kellett.

It is fascinating to trace some of the different threads of the story over time. Fitzjames was a great humourist and a talented writer. During the War he served on HMS Cornwallis and he wrote a huge 10,000 word poem, 'The Cruise of the Cornwallis', which described the war in verse. I guess it was written in stages and recited over dinner for the amusement of his brother officers. After the War it was published anonymously in the Nautical Magazine where it can be found still to the general bemusement of its occasional reader. It was too long to include in my book, more's the pity, so when I've worked out how to do so I'll put it on the web with a link from this blog. Fitzjames was a fine poet but I don't think he would have claimed this as his best literary work. The subject matter can be extremely bloodthirsty but has flashes of quirky humour. Like this couplet, for example:

'We get plenty of rice, fowls, egg and chow-chow;
But no milk to our tea, though so near to My-cow'.

An asterisk at the bottom of the page explains that 'My-cow' means 'Macao'. Traditional Chinese cuisine does not include dairy products, so there we have it: 'No milk in Macao (= my cow)".

He published the poem anonymously and chose 'Tom Bowline' as his pseudonym. At that time 'Tom Bowline' was a generic name for a sailor like 'Jack Tar' is and like 'Tommy Atkins' would become for British soldiers. The name was popularised by a famous song "Poor Tom Bowline" by Charles Dibdin. Dibdin wrote it for his elder brother Tom who had been killed when he was struck by lightning at sea. This was not such an unusual occurrence then, as the traces of lightning conductor rod from the Erebus and the Terror found at Crozier's Landing will testify. But what extra-ordinary links with the past and the future Fitzjames' use of this name brings!

Dibdin was an eighteenth and early nineteenth century composer and actor who had written the music for Garrick's play 'The Padlock' which opened as far back as 1768. Dibdin had also acted in this play under the direction of Garrick. So Fitzjames' use of this pseudonym takes us back to the eighteenth century London of Garrick and Samuel Johnson. The mournful song remained popular throughout the nineteenth century, although at some point it changed its name from 'Tom Bowline' to 'Tom Bowling'.

Then in 1905 Sir Henry Wood put together his "Fantasia on British Sea Songs" to celebrate the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar. He performed this every year at the last of his Promenade Concerts in London. Since then the 'Proms' have become world-famous as one of the greatest music festivals of the world and the "Fantasia on British Sea Songs" has been performed every year until 2008 when, sadly, the BBC dropped them. And Sir Henry was not the only twentieth century composer to use this song: it was a favourite of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears and an arrangement by Britten has also been published.

The tradition at the Proms was for the song to be played slowly with much weeping and mourning from the Proms audience. What a bizarre link this is to James Fitzjames! For those who are not familiar with this strange British tradition, here are two links. The first is to a simple recital of the song as originally composed and sung by Robert Tear:

For those who prefer the more irreverent touch, here is a characteristic performance from the ninety-ninth season of the Proms in 1993 sung by John Tomlinson with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth:

Reminds me; must find an occasion to wear my white tux soon.

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