The scene is the deck of a warship. The crew, doughty sailors all, are on battle stations. Klaxons are blaring and bells are clanging. Above, in a clear blue sky, a fleet of enemy dive-bombers comes sweeping into view. The ship is under attack from the air! There is shouting and panic and uproar. In the midst of it all, the captain on the bridge is laughing his head off, telling jokes, being generally puckish and amusing and, perhaps, suggesting they set up the ping pong table for a quick game of whiff whaff.
This, I surmise, is broadly speaking what prompted Captain Hugh Corbett, DSC, DSO, to be mentioned in dispatches for his “conspicuous cheerfulness under air attack”. Not bravery, nor presence of mind, nor true grit, but cheerfulness. There is somehow a hint that, when not under attack, he was a bit mopey and miserable. Then the enemy planes come roaring and swooping and he brightens up.
Captain Corbett has died at the age of 95, and his obituary appeared in the Grauniad in the Other Lives section where readers commemorate the otherwise unknown, uncelebrated and unsung who have passed away. Though the good captain may still be with us, in some ethereal realm, for after his retirement from the Royal Navy, we are told, he became the vice-chairman of the Churches Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies. He might use any psychic powers gained in the post to send eerie messages from beyond the grave. Given his warship experience, however, it is possible that any such messages might be rather disturbing.
“Feeling a bit down in the dumps being dead,” his psychic essence might communicate, “Could do with cheering up. Please arrange to have my grave subjected to aerial bombardment.”
I think it worth noting that Captain Corbett was cited not just for being cheerful but for being conspicuously cheerful. I wonder quite what this means. Perhaps it was simply that he laughed loudly and went around slapping other crew members on the back. Or maybe he dressed up as a clown, in the fashion of Bluebottle (see below). If his ethereal shade is reading this, should there be access to Het Internet in the Elysian Fields, it would be nice if he could psychically communicate with me to give me a bit more detail.
I can imagine that conspicuous cheerfulness could be somewhat irritating, particularly when one is being strafed by a Stuka. A fit of the giggles could also be construed as the verge of hysteria. It would be interesting to learn if any wartime ship’s captains were ever mentioned in dispatches for “conspicuous hysteria under air attack”. Or, indeed, a gamut of other emotions and reactions. Conspicuous grumpiness. Conspicuous irksomeness. Conspicuous desire to listen to Frippertronics. Conspicuous inconspicuousness.
That last would be a difficult one to pull off, but not, I would think, if one displayed psychic powers like Captain Corbett. Using eldritch manipulations of the space time continuum, it would surely be possible to be very much there, on the spot, conspicuous, and yet not there at all, hidden, occult, inconspicuous. In the midst of battle, while being attacked by machine-gun-rattling Stukas and dive-bombers, this could be a highly-prized quality. It would surely confuse the enemy, though of course it might equally confuse one’s own crew. And if one’s own crew became confused, skittering about the decks in haphazard fashion, not knowing their keels from their false keels, their gripes from their strakes, their garboard from their larboard, their bulwark from their cathead, or their orlop from their poop, then soon enough one is going to find oneself the captain of a ship of fools.
At which point I should confess that it has long been my desire to sail aboard a ship of fools. There are plenty of fools on land, of course, but the prospect of being aboard a ship on which every single person is an irredeemable fool has a peculiar attraction. Would my presence on such a ship make a fool of me, too? Well it might, but it is a risk I am willing to take, should any fool-ship see fit to invite me on board and give me a berth in a cabin of fools. Think of the jollity, the hysteria, and indeed the conspicuous cheerfulness to be found on a fool-ship! It would be a Dionysian bacchanal, afloat on the ocean wave.
The only drawback I can think of is that, as we well know, because we have had it drummed into us, worse things happen at sea. But they would only be mildly worse if we remained determinedly and conspicuously cheerful. To that end, it would be a good idea, to have among our complement of fools, a clown or two. Whatever else you might say about clowns, you could never accuse them of being inconspicuous. Take, for example, Bluebottle The Clown, pictured here at a gathering to commemorate Joseph Grimaldi on the one hundred and seventy-fifth anniversary of his death. (And my thanks to Spitalfields Life for the snap.) Bluebottle is both cheerful and conspicuous. But unlike Captain Corbett, I do not think he would have been best pleased had the grave of the legendary clown come under aerial attack. I think we can assume from his cheerful grin that bombardment of the grave did not occur.
Perhaps Lewis Carroll had a similar distinction in mind when writing ‘The Hunting of the Snark’, but its efficacy seems to have been doubtful:
‘The Bellman perceived that their spirits were low,
And repeated in musical tone
Some jokes he had kept for a season of woe –
But the crew would do nothing but groan.’
(Note also, ‘the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes’)