Sunday, 2 June 2013

Love Me Sailor: heterosexual desire on ships

Robert S Close's 1945 novel, Love Me Sailor, was banned in his native Australia and the writer imprisoned for writing something so obscene. It was a sort of forerunner to the controversial Lady Chatterley's Lover. Most entries about the book on the web say things like 'Why on earth would it be banned? It's moderate by today's standards.'

20th century pulp novels are something seldom discussed in histories of maritime labour. But I've just read it because I think it may have been a formative book for young male seafarers in the 1950s. Something so iconic might have helped construct seafarers' sexist attitudes to women on board.

That impact is yet to be explored. But after reading these 218 pages through my particular lens, what strikes me is:

1. the book's great literary merit. This is fine writing, especially about men's romantic idealised notions of women (Ern, the violin-playing Third Mate) versus butch Bill Hawkins, the Second, who just want to get into the solo woman passenger, Emma Miller.

2. that sex is so associated with violence and power. Almost everyone on board the Annabella is focused on 'rutting' Miss Miller as magnet/object. They all have different reasons, none of which include a desire for profound and equal communication.
It is as if her presence there is both a challenge and a taunt. She is 'matter out of place' (Woman on Man's territory)and therefore has to be punished and 'rutted' into a relegated place, back in order.

3. that sexual conquering seemed to be even higher priority than saving the (sailing) ship full of nitrate in a hurricane. Why did the writer suggests such unlikely prioritising?

4. that it is so binary: Emma Miller entirely loses her charm for the men the minute it's found out that she has gone 'all mad' (she was, it seems, always a bit 'mad', which means too sexy and anxious, the result of her father abusing her).
The final lines show that, after the storm is successfully survived, thanks to Bill's toughness, this once-alluring figure is bundled off the ship onto a steam ship that will take away her polluting presence. The once-temptress is now just in a makeshift strait jacket tied with curtain wire: 'Furled in the grey blanket, she looked as stupid as a booby bird in its next...[we] looked at her ...then we moved away from her. We went over to the rail and spat.'
Insanely penetration-focused men, it seems, only want partners who are certified sane and also desire-less.

On reflection I wonder if Close (who was himself at sea) wrote this as an exploration of emotions at sea? Or a critique of machismo in a place (an old-fashioned sail ship, not a namby-pamby steam vessel) where the ultimate rugged masculinity rules and where the most Alpha male inevitably gets to be top man? After all, Bill (who was fond of young Ern) smashes Ern's violin after his death, ie he tries to symbolically banish this token of tenderness and 'civilisation'.

Or is just literary porn-come-derring-do?

I'd be interested in what other readers think.

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