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Tomorrow The World
In Which Cadet Otto Prohaska Carries the Habsburg Empire's Civilizing Mission to the Entirely Unreceptive Peoples of Africa and Oceania
By John Biggins
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1994 John Biggins
All rights reserved.
Recorded at SS of the Perpetual Veneration
THEY SAY — WHOEVER "THEY" ARE — that a drowning man's entire life passes before his eyes. But as a lifelong sceptic, and also as one who has himself come near to drowning on several occasions during a long seafaring career, I must say that I find myself raising a number of queries about this confident assertion. Quite apart from the obvious one: how do they know? (Did they ask people who had nearly drowned and then been fished out and resuscitated?) there is also the question of whether this is a privilege granted only to people dying from an excess of water in the lungs. Do people who are in the process of being run over by a lorry experience the same phenomenon, or those who are slowly and unwittingly being asphyxiated by a leaking car exhaust? Surely, if time is an illusion, then where reviews of one's entire life are concerned it makes no difference whether one is dying a leisurely gurgling death by drowning or being summarily snuffed out by the high-speed train at Taplow Station after venturing too near the edge of the platform.
Many years ago now, about 1908, when I was a young lieutenant in the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy, my ship was on a visit to Toulon and I went for a day's outing to Marseilles with a lady acquaintance. Not having much else to do, since it was a public holiday, we went for a stroll and chanced upon a small museum of the police force, packed with relics of notable crimes solved by the local Gendarmery over the years. Among the exhibits, I remember, were two mounted skeletons of convicted mass-poisoners. Each had the fifth neck vertebra painted red to show how neatly the guillotine blade had sliced through it, "thus causing" (the display card read) "no suffering or distress whatever to the condemned person." Even then I found myself moved to ask: how were they so confident of that? But suppose that the entire life-passing- before-the-eyes business applied to them as well, when did it start and when did it finish? When the catch clicked to release the blade, or as it struck, or as the head tumbled into the basket? And if they did have their entire lives pass before them in that instant, was it the whole thing: every last cup of coffee and every last darned sock over forty-odd years? Or was it only selected highlights? If it was the former, how did they distinguish it from the real thing? And if it was the latter, on what basis were the significant bits selected? And did they view it as spectators or in the starring role?
No, no: the whole thing is too shot through with difficulties and unresolvable questions for people to pronounce upon it with any confidence. All I can add to the debate is to say that on the occasion when I came nearest to drowning, aboard a sinking U-boat off Corfu in 1916, I was perfectly conscious almost until the end and really felt nothing but a curious inner calm and a strong desire for it all to be over with as soon as possible. My last thought before I passed out, I remember, was that I had not settled my wardroom bill for September and that I hoped my servant back at Cattaro would find the envelope and take it to the purser's office for me.
But even if I doubt this business about drowning people being treated to a replay of their entire lives, I have to say that now my own life is drawing to a close — and about time too I might add, now that I am into my hundred and first year — I have noticed lately that long-forgotten events have been bobbing to the surface among the flotsam of the present, as if my past life was indeed passing before my eyes as a series of disconnected episodes, like pieces of film salvaged from a cutting-room waste-bin. I suppose that this is not to be wondered at really: just before the Sisters moved me down here to Wales last summer my old photograph album from the First World War was retrieved from a West London junk shop and restored to me; an event which might well be expected to turn even the most hard-boiled materialist towards reverie. That started me talking with young Kevin Scully, the handyman here, about my experiences as a submarine captain, and that in its turn led me to commit other memoirs to magnetic tape, once he and Sister Elisabeth had persuaded me that it was worth recording. Then I was laid low with bronchial pneumonia over Christmas — but perversely refused to die of it. So now that the harsh weather of January has given way to a February of equally unusual mildness, I find myself once more with time on my hands, allowed now to get up and dress and even to sit out in a sheltered corner of the garden, provided that they wrap me up well beforehand and keep me under supervision.
I was out there this afternoon and really it was quite delightful: the usual westerly half-gale subsided into a calm, the sun shining and the waves rolling gently on to the sands of Pengadog Bay. With the limestone headland in the far distance at the other end of the bay, I might almost have imagined myself to be at Abbazia in late winter — minus the palm trees, of course.
No, most definitely not with palm trees: the Antarctic beeches of Tierra del Fuego would have difficulty surviving the wind out here on the far end of the peninsula, with nothing beyond for three thousand miles until one reaches the shores of Massachusetts; nothing but a heaving expanse of slate-grey waves and roaring westerlies. The trees about the Plas are no more than bushes and grow along the ground to escape the wind. All things considered the Sisters would have been hard put to it to find in the whole British Isles a spot less suited to be the last earthly abode of fifty or so aged Polish refugees of the male sex, attended by eight or nine almost equally decrepit Polish nuns.
By the looks of it Plas Gaerllwydd was built about the turn of the century by one of the Swansea copper barons, who chose this windswept headland partly (I suppose) out of late-Victorian romanticism and partly from a more practical desire to be upwind of the poisonous fumes from his own smelting works: also perhaps with an eye to defence against his own employees if things got nasty, since the house is at the end of a two-kilometre sunken lane and Llangwynydd post office would have had ample time to telephone for the mounted constabulary. Such considerations aside though, the place was clearly an ill-judged venture. A low, two-storey building in Jacobethan style — all mullioned windows and oak panelling now painted a dingy umber colour — the house is surrounded by terraces cut into the hillside above the cliffs, long since overgrown by shrubbery run wild and connected by slippery flights of rocking flagstone steps which produce such a regular crop of broken hips each winter that Swansea Hospital now keeps two beds and a Polish-speaking nurse on standby from October to April. And not only broken hips: Mr Stankiewicz went for a walk the November before last, I believe, and was picked up six weeks later on Ilfracombe beach, to be identified by his false teeth. The roof leaks, the gutters are collapsing and while I was laid up in December a gale brought two chimneys crashing through the roof, which has now been patched up with plywood and polythene sheeting.
Young Kevin does his best with the place, but the Sisters of the Perpetual Veneration are hard up, and anyway it would need a regiment of pioneers permanently based here to keep the place in order. They should really have sold it and used the money to extend the Home in Ealing. But then, who would have bought it? It was a deathbed bequest from a local Polish farmer who purchased it with a partner in 1946, then (it is said locally) killed the partner in a drunken quarrel and disposed of the body so neatly that in the end the police had to accept his explanation that the man had gone back to Poland and been liquidated by the communists. The people hereabouts regard the Plas as being haunted, Kevin tells me, and, although most of the land was sold off over the years to allow the proprietor to maintain his daily intake of vodka, no one would come near the house. I suppose when we are all dead, in about twenty years' time, the Sisters will move out and the place will finally fall into ruin or suffer a convenient fire.
Myself, having been a seafarer, I do not mind the Plas Gaerllwydd very much. But for my fellow-inmates it is a bleak place to spend their last years: a place of exile for people who are exiles already, uprooted from their own land-locked country and dumped here at the very outer edge of nowhere, left to quarrel among themselves and to dream their dreams of a world dead now for half a century. Exile to the moon could scarcely have been crueller, since one can at least see the moon from Warsaw. For them, brought up among the cabbage fields and pine forests of the Polish plains, a thousand kilometres from saltwater, it must be a very unsettling place indeed. But for me the howl of the ocean wind and the crash of the gale-driven waves on the rocks below are not at all disquieting. True, I am a Czech by birth, brought up in northern Moravia at the very centre of Central Europe. But I chose a seafaring career at a very early age, and, even if it is now many years since I felt a ship's deck roll beneath my feet, there is nothing particularly alarming for me in the faint but still perceptible shudder when a particularly large wave hits the headland below, or in the salt spray being lashed against the window panes by the winter gales.
Yesterday afternoon though, the weather was fine and calm. Dr Watkins had examined me that morning and found me to be in reasonable shape, so Sister Felicja, the large and ugly Prussian-Polish nun who acts as adjutant here, gave leave to Kevin and Sister Elisabeth to take me out for a couple of hours' drive to give me a change of scene: very welcome indeed as it was the first time I had been outside the confines of the Home since last autumn. It was not very far: only to the other end of Pengadog Bay, but it was most refreshing to be out for a while away from the miasma of incontinence and pickled-cucumber soup that hangs over the Plas like the clouds over Table Mountain. So we set off in Kevin's battered, rust-pocked Ford Cortina with a vacuum flask of lemon tea and a couple of rugs to put over my knees. Sister Felicja was even in sufficiently jolly mood to wave us goodbye from the kitchen door as we left, perhaps hoping that they would bring me back wrapped in one of the same rugs, much as the Spartans came home on their shield rather than with it.
I suppose that for someone who has already passed the century I am not really in too bad shape at all: continent, still mentally alert and capable of getting up flights of stairs without assistance. Cataract and stiffness of the joints trouble me a little and I get breathless, but apart from that I am not in bad condition. They helped me out of the car when we arrived at the bottom of the muddy lane beside the little church, but after that they merely stood near by to assist me if needed: none of this officious fussing around supporting me under the armpits and steering me by the elbow as if I would wander down the beach and into the sea unless guided around by my attendants.
They are an ill-assorted pair, this uneducated, uncultured Welsh youth and the dowdy little Austro-Polish nun in her mid-sixties with her wire-framed pebble glasses and her mouthful of stainless-steel teeth. Yet both are wonderful companions, instinctively kind and with none of this tiresome nonsense about speaking loud-ly and slow-ly to an old man whose wits are undimmed and whose hearing is still quite sharp. I suppose it was as much an outing for them as for me. Kevin is long-term unemployed apart from this job "on the side" arranged for him by Father McCaffrey, confined otherwise to some dreary housing estate in Llanelli; while as for Sister Elisabeth — or El–zbieta as they call her here — the Order of the Perpetual Veneration has been her prison ever since she came back from Siberia in 1956. We looked at the little graveyard (the church has no congregation and is permanently locked now). There were a couple of Commonwealth War Graves tombstones, one from each world war — Merchant Navy badges, so drowned sailors washed up on the beach I suppose — and a row of nineteen creosoted wooden crosses marking the graves of Poles from the Plas. I said that they ought to run a sweepstake on who would be number twenty: me or someone else, and Sister Elisabeth laughed — without affectation since I can safely make heartless jokes of that sort with her. Then we walked down to the shore.
They are fine sandy beaches here at the end of the peninsula, but too windswept and difficult of access to attract more than a handful of holidaymakers even at the height of summer. Above the sands, cast up by the storms, is a long bank of pebbles curving the length of the bay. We stumbled up the reverse side, Kevin and Sister Elisabeth supporting me, until we were on the crest and could watch the blue Atlantic waves rolling on to the beach. Then I saw it some way along the bank: the skeleton of an old wooden ship embedded in the shingle; blackened ribs of oak eroded now to spikes, some side-planking and a few rusted iron knees, a decaying stem and rudder post, and the rotting stumps of three masts still pointing forlornly at the sky. She must have been quite large, I thought; perhaps eight hundred or even a thousand tonnes. We went to examine her. A sizeable section of deck with the remains of a hatch coaming lay on the landward side of the bank, dune-grass growing up through the cracks between the crumbling planks. Sister Elisabeth and I sat down on a fallen deck beam among the ribs while Kevin leant against the stump of the mainmast and pulled a little book out of his pocket.
"There, Mr Procházka, always prepared: that's me. Brought a guide book with me I did." He thumbed through it. "Ah, here we are then: Pengadog Bay.
In the beach below the church, visitors can see the remains of the Swansea copper barque Angharad Pritchard, 830 tonnes, built 1896 and beached here in October 1928 after a collision with a steamer in fog off Lundy Island. The ship's figurehead can be seen outside the Herbert Arms public house in the village.
I was silent for a while. Surely not?
"Excuse me, Kevin, but what was the name of this ship?"
"The Angharad Pritchard, Mr Procházka: built 1896 and wrecked 1928."
Yes, it must have been her: the name and age, and the tonnage and the Chilean copper trade. It was a very curious feeling, to realise suddenly that, eighty-something years before, my own juvenile feet had trodden perhaps that very same section of silvery-bleached deck that now lay decaying there among the grass and pebbles. And that now we had met again, both washed up at the end of our days on this lonely shore at the far edge of Europe.
Kevin wandered down the beach after a while to throw pebbles into the incoming tide while Sister Elisabeth produced her mouth organ from the folds of her habit (the Sisters of the Perpetual Veneration still cling obstinately to the old long-skirted style of dress). She really plays quite well, having learnt the instrument about 1940 in a labour camp in Kamchatka, but she has little opportunity to practise up at the Plas. Émigré Polish Catholicism is intensely conservative, and harmonica-playing is still regarded as an improper pastime for a nun whatever the Second Vatican Council might have had to say on the matter. It was a sad little air, "Czeremcha" or something of that kind, the wind sighing in the far-off Polish birch trees as we both sat absorbed in our own thoughts.
So the wheel had come full circle: eighty-four years since I had last been aboard the Angharad Pritchard, the day of the earthquake at Taltal. It was — let me see — February 1903 and I, Ottokar Prohaska, third-year cadet in the Imperial and Royal Naval Academy, was with the steam corvette S.M.S. Windischgrätz, eight months out from Pola on a scientific cruise which was now turning willy-nilly into a circumnavigation of the globe. We had been there for two days in Taltal Roads off the desert coast of Chile, anchored among twenty or so other ships: mostly sailing vessels like ourselves but with a sprinkling of steamers now that the despised "tin kettles" were eating even into the difficult and unprofitable South American trades.
Excerpted from Tomorrow The World by John Biggins. Copyright © 1994 John Biggins. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
John Biggins is an excellent storyteller. I really enjoy the level of humor, such as in the sentence "In those days Hungary was run as a huge outdoor museum of feudalism, its landless labourers more wretched and downtrodden than the Negro slaves of the Mississippi plantations." There's tons of this, plus a plot that turns and twists. It manages to be funny without being too cute about it.
There is a reasonably good chance that you have never heard of John Biggins. Let me put it this way: If you have ever enjoyed one of the Flashman novels or one Patrick O¿Brian¿s sea tales, then you should stop what you are doing and find obtain a copy of one of John Biggins¿ marvelous Otto Prohaska books. They are just that good.Our man Otto Prohaska was a naval officer in the relatively short-lived and long-departed Austro-Hungarian Navy. Prohaska spins out his tales to a tape recorder and his caretakers from the unlikely vantage point of the advanced age of 101 while residing in an old age home on the edge of world ¿ Wales. Biggins makes Prohaska far less randy than Harry Flashman (happily, also far less bigoted). Biggins writes with more irony and humor than O'Brian. But Otto's adventures are on a par with anything experienced by Flashman or Jack Aubrey.The first three books take place during the Great War, but in Tomorrow the World, Biggins takes us back to Prohaska¿s days as a naval cadet in 1900. He manages to win a spot on a scientific cruise while still in school. Otto¿s sails aboard a modest-sized sailing ship (The ship is also equipped with a small mostly useless steam engine). Biggins creates a palpable sense of a world on the cusp of momentous change and nowhere more so than in the lives of sailors.Biggins sends Prohaska to West Africa, Brazil, Cape Horn, and the South Pacific. His descriptions of life at sea match any produced by O¿Brian. The attempt to round Cape Horn going east-to-west is a testament to fortitude, discipline, and irrationality (one is left wondering why any sane person would ever again venture aboard any watercraft after surviving the terrors of the cape). Ottokar¿s experiences on shore are a joy and a marvel. The `clashes of civilizations¿, if you will, that Biggins describes are somehow incredible, yet entirely believable (or nearly so) and stupendously entertaining. At least some of the tales are based on historical events or persons, such as Otto¿s encounter with the `lost¿ archduke of Austria (google John Orth) in the islands of Tierra del Fuego. Tomorrow the World is the fourth and sadly apparently final book in the series (it was published in 1993). I usually recommend starting with the first book in a series, but one could logically start the Prohaska adventures here. Once you do you will read the other three anyway. Highest recommendation.