My grandfather and the ‘Cutty Sark’

A bit of the Fisk family went up in smoke last week. For when the Cutty Sark burned, the wooden deck upon which my grandfather Edward once walked – no doubt a little unsteadily in the great storms off the Cape of Good Hope – was turned to cinders.

Edward Fisk was a cantankerous, tough, recalcitrant old man: my father William refused to visit him when he was dying – just as I later refused, foolishly, to visit Bill on his deathbed – complaining that he “didn’t see the point in driving all the way from Maidstone to Birkenhead to see the old man through a glass window”. But when I showed a friend of mine around the Cutty Sark back in 1987 – the Thames mist cowling the old tea clipper, much as she must have been smothered when becalmed in the Pacific 100 years earlier – I found an extraordinary photograph on the lower decks.

It showed a group of seamen gathered beneath the masts in Sydney Harbour, and one of them – about 19 or 20, I’d say – bore my own face as a young man. They say that a man resembles his grandfather more than his father and this was true in my case. Edward Fisk had my eyes, my large forehead; even his hair was combed with a parting on the left. He was smiling, standing to the right of the other seamen. He had been born in 1868, a year before the Cutty Sark was built – and long before it became synonymous with a well-known brand of whisky, a beverage with which my grandfather later became too familiar.

By the time Edward was sailing under the mast, the great vessel had abandoned the tea route from China and was carrying wool from Australia. I don’t know whether he was aboard when the Cutty Sark made its record-breaking trip via the Cape – Bill rather thought he had – but he ended up as first mate on the legendary clipper and I still possess his sailing manual, passed on to me by my father before he died. It is a slim, leather-bound volume of ship’s flags and sailing technology; how to turn a four-master around in a gale – it took about five miles minimum – and how to operate a compass in high seas, and its very feel made young Robert once decide that he wanted to be a merchant seaman when he grew up. (This was not long before I resolved upon being the driver of a steam locomotive.) For what struck me were the ripples on the black leather cover that had almost washed off the gold lettering. They were made of salt, the very physical mark of the massive seas through which my grandfather sailed more than 120 years ago.

When my father Bill applied to join the army in the First World War – his first, underage effort was thwarted by his mother Margaret – his British service log noted that he was “born 1899 at ‘Stone House’, Leasowe, Wirral, Cheshire”. This was Edward’s home and the document lists him as “Master Mariner Born 1868″.

Margaret – referred to as “Market Gardner’s (sic) daughter” – was a year younger than her future husband. “She was a wonderful, dear woman,” Bill once enthused about her and it was only many years later – in 2004 – that Bill’s niece Jean sent me one of those sepia prints so beloved of the Victorian age. It showed Margaret in a very tight, over-flowered dress with a bun, a serious-faced woman – slightly suffering, I thought – who must have found it a fearful experience living with a hard-drinking ex-seamen – even though Edward did become deputy harbourmaster of Birkenhead.

“I came home once with a terrible wound on my head because I had been fighting with some other lads,” Bill told me once. “My mother was cleaning the floor with a mop and a pail of water and when she saw me she just dipped the mop in the bucket and brought it down on my head. There was blood all over the floor.” Bill said sometimes that his father “treated my mother terribly” and there were hints from time to time that Edward would return home drunk and beat poor Margaret in front of the children.

Either way, he clearly didn’t save much money. Before the First World War, Bill was taken from his school “because my father was no longer able to support me”, and apprenticed as a bookkeeper to the borough treasurer’s office. This was his first step – interrupted by the Third Battle of the Somme – to becoming borough treasurer of Maidstone, a post he held when I was born in 1946. Yet Edward’s spirit – he was to die aged 96 after recovering from typhoid at 92 and my own father managed to reach the age of 93 – lived on.

In 1980, at the start of the Iran-Iraq war, I was in the Iraqi port city of Basra when Jon Snow (now of Channel 4 News) was asked to rescue the crew of the British ship trapped in the Shatt al-Arab river. Problem: the Iraqis had no maps of the Shatt al-Arab. But Edward’s grandson remembered his father Bill once telling him that Edward said every British merchant ship was required to carry charts of the waterways it sailed.

And sure enough, the first ship I boarded in Basra provided me with a Royal Navy chart of the Shatt al-Arab. So Jon set off on his successful, crazed mission, courtesy of the Cutty Sark’s long-dead first mate.

Seamanship must have been in the family. Only at the end of the First World War did Bill discover that his grandfather – Edward’s dad – had fought at Zeebrugge in 1915 as a Royal Naval Reserve officer. God spare me, the old boy must have been at least 70. And as a little boy, my father would take me (as well as to the battlefields of the Great War) to Gravesend in Kent to watch the great liners steaming from Tilbury down the Thames for the faraway corners of what was still, in many cases, our empire. The big white P&O ships sailed for India, always chided down river by the red-funnelled “Sun” tugs that stood alongside at Gravesend.

Edward finally earned Bill’s contempt by remarrying within a few months of the generous Margaret’s death. Jean went to see the old man in his nursing home some years later and found him deeply sad that he had lost Bill. Which is why his only physical reward to the world is that old, salt-encrusted seaman’s manual that survived, safe in my own library shelf, the death of the great ship upon which he once sailed.

Correspondent for the Independent, Robert Fisk is resident in the Middle East and comments on events unfolding there