The First Mate’s Log – Robin Collingwood

Review by Tim Johns

When I was still at school I was persuaded by a remarkable history teacher to read R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History. I’m not sure how much I understood of the book (and today, I’m even more unsure how well I understand it), but at the age of eighteen I was greatly impressed by the author’s depth of knowledge and power of argument. I had no idea then that as Robin Collingwood he had been a close friend of Arthur Ransome, my favourite childhood author, and indeed had camped with Ransome on Peel Island and raced him on Coniston in a small dinghy named Swallow. Once I had discovered the Ransome link, I found that I was not alone in finding Collingwood’s intellect a shade intimidating. In 1917, writing from Petrograd to his mother who had invited Robin Collingwood to dinner, AR imagined the occasion:The problem for the modern reader, as for his contemporaries, is that it can be difficult to get past that ‘steel blue and polished manner’ to the human being beneath the surface. He had an astonishingly wide range of interests: as a philosopher he wrote on the philosophy of history, on political philosophy, on the philosophy of religion, and on aesthetics.

…you have watched Robin’s steel blue and polished manner with which he always enters upon such functions, turn to softer metal and even to cheerful remnants of Rugby, as humanity makes itself felt. (Signalling from Mars p. 56)

In addition he was an historian and archaeologist of distinction, being joint author of the Oxford History of Roman Britain. Yet even in his Autobiography he remains a rather remote figure: he is concerned with the development of his ideas, and there is no mention of his personal life – of his sisters, for example, let alone his friend Arthur Ransome. The book in which we get closest to Robin Collingwood the man is The First Mate’s Log, which has similarities to – and also differences from – another famous cruise book, Racundra’s First Cruise.The First Mate’s Log contains enough information about wind and weather and tide, about courses set and landfalls made, to satisfy the most demanding of fellow mariners. Yet what one remembers above all is the picture of a community of high-spirited, intelligent young men discovering the Mediterranean, and Greece in particular, for the first time.

Much of the book is taken up with a description of the numerous faults of what turned out to be an extremely ill-maintained boat, and how those faults were tackled and, in most cases, finally conquered. The standing rigging was in an appalling state, and needed a complete overhaul, work which went on throughout the voyage. The gangway turned out to be unusable until repaired. The engines (there were two: a diesel used for propulsion and a petrol engine that drove the generator and supplied compressed air for the diesel) failed time and time again. The water tanks sprang a leak which had to be repaired. And finally the boat’s propeller shaft broke as she was approaching the end of her voyage. In dealing with these recurrent crises the crew, with the first mate to the fore, showed great ingenuity: this is the book for anyone who believes that philosophers thrive only in ivory towers far removed from the practical concerns of everyday life. Particularly noteworthy are Collingwood’s description of the method of calculating the capacity of a ship’s water tanks (a technical description to set against the swinging of the ship in Racundra’s First Cruise) and his account of how he constructed an azimuth compass from an old box compass, together with pieces of cardboard and sticking-plaster).

At two points in the voyage Collingwood exercises his philosophical muscle. Pondering the disappointment of Americans who come to Britain on Rhodes scholarships, expecting Oxford to be a “bigger and better Harvard”, he explores the differences between English and American university education. And when the ship puts in at the island of Santorini, he visits the monastery of the prophet Elijah, an experience which leads him to consider, and reject, the argument that criticises the monastic life on the grounds of its lack of ‘social utility.’

One incident that takes place when the Fleur de Lys puts in at Stromboli is likely to catch the immediate attention of members of the Arthur Ransome Society:

…although it was nine o’clock our mountaineering party had not yet shown up. Soon afterwards we saw one of them swimming off to the ship with his clothes held in one hand like Julius Caesar at Alexandria. I have often tried to do this in fresh water, but have always failed; the nearest I remember to it was when I was camping with a friend on Peel Island many years ago (you mustn’t now, it is National Trust property and therefore less accessible to the public than it was in the bad old days when it belonged to the Duke of Buccleugh) and a sister of mine swam across with the proofs of my friend’s latest book tied on the top of her head. (pp. 31-2)

The ‘friend’ here is of course Arthur Ransome, whose Autobiography supplies detail to fill out Collingwood’s account: the sister was Ursula Collingwood; the book was Ransome’s on Edgar Allan Poe; the year was 1910; and Robin helped with the correction of the proofs.

…I suggest a comfortable chair, The First Mate’s Log to hand and a bottle of good naval grog to fortify the reader for the journey.

There are dark notes in the background of this happy cruise from the approach of the Second World War, a war that Collingwood himself, who died in 1943, was not to survive. Nevertheless it is hard to resist the cheerful conclusion of the Introduction by the Collingwood scholar Peter Johnson to this reissue of The First Mate’s Log:

Illustrations

  • Portrait of Robin Collingwood – Histroiefilosofi, Helsinki (web site)
  • Fleur de Lys – The First Mate’s Log