SHERRY HOUR: WEDNESDAY 19TH FEBRUARY 1936
This story was inspired by a sketch in R. A. Burt’s British Battleships 1919-39.
ISBN 10: 1848321309 page 286.
The ticking of the clock is the only sound in the room. It is a carriage clock; it sits on the mantelpiece. Ornate, Victorian, a gift from a former employer. The room is an office, papers are scattered on the desk and a large drawing board takes up one corner near the window. It is a cold grey day with a smattering of rain, darkness has fallen and the yellow glow of street lights colours the underside of the clouds. The clock chimes the hour.
As is his habit, Stanley Goodall, the Royal Navy's Director of Naval Construction takes the silver watch from his pocket and opens it to see if it agrees with the clock. He frowns and returns the watch to its place.
“Hmmm. They are late.” The other man in the room, Goodall’s deputy, Charles Lillycrap is sitting in front of the desk. His face wears an expression of concern.
“Yes they are, but meetings with the First Lord often run late these days, his department is making a habit of tardiness.” Goodall frowns again;
“I don’t think its Alexander’s fault. It’s confusion further up. My feeling is that a lot of the stranger policy decisions we are seeing are heavily influenced by the Prime Minister’s office.”
Lillycrap hesitates, then says; “You don’t think anything could have gone wrong at the meeting do you Director?” Goodall’s frown deepens;
“The case is straightforward and I believe Wilson and Price had a good understanding of how to present it.”
“Well yes, yes they did; but as you say, our current political masters tend to come up with some odd surprises don’t they? And I’m not sure about Wilson and Price - they don’t strike me as being the steadiest types.” Goodall checks his watch again.
“Delegation was unavoidable in this case and I chose those two because I felt they could be spared. Well we shall know soon enough. Anyway it is six o’clock.” He walks to the open door and calls through it.
“Mrs Edwards, would you bring the sherry and two glasses please.”
The pub is crowded, a hubbub of voices and a fug of cigarette smoke hangs about its ceiling. The bar is covered in every type of glass in various stages of emptiness. Two men make their way through the mass of people; rain has stained their overcoats, there is urgency in their steps and worry lines their faces.
“Two pints please.”
“For Heaven’s sake Price, shouldn't we get back to the office? Its six o’clock you know.”
“Not before we’ve had these Wilson, we’re going to need them, the boss is going to throw a screw.”
“Well what could we do? We presented the argument exactly as he told us to…”
“Yes I know, but we haven’t got the outcome he was looking for - bloody Labour Party”
“I voted for them you know.”
“And now you've got another reason to regret that - cheers.” Price takes a sip of his beer, then a much longer pull on the glass, when he lowers it there is only a third left and his upper lip is covered in froth. The other man, Wilson, sips his beer more hesitantly. He thinks for a moment;
“What are we going to say? We better get our story straight.” Price looks at him.
“What are we going to tell him?”
“The truth of course.”
“He won’t like that.”
“Look Wilson, as you say, we did what he told us to do. We’re not even meant to be meeting with Members of The Cabinet, were just lower level draftsmen and it’s not our place, but the meeting was called in a rush and neither Goodall or Lillycrap could be there, so we got the job. He’s not going to like it, but there it is. I’m doing you a favour right now because it would be best for you if he's got at least one sherry in him, but to be honest, either way, he’s going to have your nadgers.” Wilson splutters in his glass, some of the beer slops out of it.
“My nadgers? My nadgers? Were in this together Price.”
“Sorry Wilson, I don't think so – you’ve got beer on your coat.”
“Why on earth not?”
“Because it was you who showed Alexander the stuff about the man hours.” Wilson pales as Price drains his glass and lets this information sink in.
“Oh my God.”
“No use praying Wilson - drink your pint. You owe me sixpence for it.”
The mantelpiece clock shows twenty five past six when Price and Wilson enter Goodall's office, Lillycrap is the first to speak.
“Price, Wilson, there you are at last; what has been the delay? We expected you back at four.” Price answers him;
“Yes I'm very sorry sir, the meeting ran on rather, I'm afraid the First Lord had a great many questions.”
“Really?” Goodall says, “What about?”
“Various aspects of aircraft carrier construction, erm… particularly man-hours…” Price looks at Wilson as he says this.
“Yes sir, the First Lord has quite a fixation with those it would seem.”
“Explain yourself Price - what was the outcome of the meeting?”
“Perhaps Wilson better tell you sir…”
“I asked you Price. You presented the matter as I told you to?”
“Yes we did sir, we made it as plain as we could that re-constructing the five aircraft carriers along the lines their lordships wanted would actually cost nearly as much as building five new ones from scratch and take just as much time, we emphasised that a reconstruction would probably only have a life span of 10 years, whereas a new ship might last for 20. We told the First Lord that tearing an old ship apart and putting it back together was much more bother than building a new one and in the case of our five large carriers there is no discernable advantage in so doing - actually sir when I say we, I mean Wilson, it was Wilson who told him about the man-hours.” Wilson winces as Goodall turns towards him.
“Well speak up Wilson, what do you have to say for yourself?” Wilson squirms in his shoes.
“Well sir, he wanted to see the breakdown of the cost components and he fixed on the fact that the reconstructions would take many more man-hours than building new ships, though of course there would be a small saving in material. He asked me a direct questions sir, I couldn’t ignore it.”
“Well of course you couldn’t, what was the First Lord's decision?” There is a pause as Wilson looks at Price and Price at Wilson. Finally Wilson says;
“He decided on reconstructions.”
In the absolute silence that follows, the ticking of the clock and the patter of rain on the window are the only sounds, Goodall and Lillycrap look thunderstruck. Goodall puts his glass of sherry down on the desk, walks over to the window and stares intently out into the darkness lost in thought.
“Well well. That will mean a great deal of extra work for this department. A great deal of extra work…”
Again there is a long pause while Price and Wilson shift uncomfortably from one foot to another. Finally Goodall turns from the window and says;
“All right gentleman that will be all.” Price and Wilson look as if they can not believe their good fortune, both mutter thanks and almost run from the office. Lillycrap shakes his head.
“It isn’t their fault director.” Goodall sighs;
“I know it isn’t Lillycrap, I know it isn’t. But it presents a difficulty all the same. Our design staff are overstretched as it is, this will mean even more work for them. Instead of being able to proceed with a single class of 11 aircraft carriers over the next few years we are going to have to take on the detailed design of the six Illustrious class already approved, as well as the reconstructions of the Furious and Fearless classes. It doubles our workload on carriers.”
He goes to the drafting table; copies of the sketch designs he approved for the re-constructions are there. They have been drawn with the primary purpose of emphasising that the work involved would be considerable. They were old ships, based on battle cruisers laid down in 1916 and 1917. The three Furious class carriers worried him more than the two Fearless class. These were based on Hood class hulls and consequently were very large and the necessary stability for the weight of an armoured flight deck could be found with comparatively minor bulges. But the Furious class were another story entirely and the bulges would have to be immense. It was ridiculous, absurd even; but the First Lord had made his decision, or more likely had a decision foisted upon him from above and there it was. He shakes his head but even as he does a faint smile plays lightly at the corner of his mouth and eyes, Lillycrap says;
“Well director, if the Minister is so concerned about employment perhaps we can use this to make the point that we need a substantial increase in our staff. The expansion the Royal Navy is undergoing is enormous, we must have more staff to meet the design requirements we simply must.” Goodall contemplates this for a moment.
“Will it mean promoting some men before they are fully ready?”
“I don't see that it will director. I think most of our senior staff are up to supervisory jobs, it’s when they become overloaded with doing junior draughtsman’s work that problems set in.”
Again the Director of Naval Construction pauses, then turns suddenly towards the window and again he cannot keep a smile entirely from his countenance.
“Is something wrong Director?”
“Wrong? Not at all – your glass looks a bit empty Lillycrap?” As Goodall turns towards him with the bottle in his outstretched hand there can be no more doubt that he is smiling a smile of almost smug satisfaction. Lillycrap frowns. Why is he smiling? The bottle is still poised. He should be angry or at least disappointed but he looks almost pleased, that didn’t make any sense, unless…
“Director, if I were of a suspicious leaning, which of course I'm not, but if I were; I might say that you guessed. I might say that you guessed Alexander would authorise the reconstructions because they require more labour than new building and more labour means more jobs in the shipyards. I might say that you guessed that because the government are facing an election soon and that would be a critical issue for them. I might say that that’s why you sent Price and Wilson, who you previously described as, and I believe I quote; ‘Unable to find their own knobs with both hands and a diagram.’ I might say that. If I were of a suspicious leaning.”
Goodall smiles, the clock on the mantelpiece ticks and the rain, heavier now, beats on the glass.
“More sherry Lillycrap?”
Above left: Sir Stanley Goodall, the Royal Navy's Director of Naval Construction, 1936-44. Above right: Sir Charles Lillycrap, his deputy.