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What is a Matelot?

OF ALL THOSE who wander in and out of our midst there is none more widely discussed nor so little understood as a Matelot. Cloaked in the anonymity of uniform, classified in the ledger as a number and regarded in the drafting office as just one unit to move here or there, irrespective of class, race or religion, he nevertheless contrives to rise above it all and emerge as an individual, uniquely different from his neighbour in the same rig, able to wear his uniform in a thousand ways, all frowned upon by Their Lordships, yet all just inside the law of the clothing class, and to generally act the living lie to the adage that regimentation is soul-destroying. He will drip, moan and howl about his job, his ship and the Service, yet should any outsider dare run down these same things, he will demolish the critic with a flow of invective as picturesque as it is blistering. 

A Matelot can be all things to all men at all times. In the messdeck argument he will don the profundity of a lawyer and discourse at great length and detail on subjects about which he knows nothing. A piped order can change him without pause for breath, or alteration of tone, from a happy optimist to a cynical pessimist. On board, ashore, on duty or on leave, waking or sleeping, he seems eternally to be at the mercy of some mysterious `dozen', the expiration of which he will likely, sadly, hopefully, winsomely, imploringly, scathingly, or frantically, entreat to `Roll on'. And when the `12' has duly rolled by he goes to the ship's office and asks for another ten. This being granted, here turns to his mess and ever after raises the cry, `Roll on my pensh' ! In this matter, as in many others, he is his own deceiver. 

In his ship is no one as `hard done by' as he. He will voice this sentiment as he performs some difficult or dangerous task for which he claims, `Some blankety-blank browned him off'. Yet, if discreet inquiries are made, it will usually be found that, unknown to anyone, he volunteered for the job in the first place. If, however, he finds that his chum working with him has volunteered also, he will go into fits of laughter and deliver a long lecture about never volunteering. When ashore a Matelot is, by his own light, a paragon of virtue. He seeks lurid experiences and strange adventures, not so much for his own satisfaction but for his subject of conversation at next morning's breakfast table. If he doesn't find these adventures - and he rarely does - then he just invents them. Should a young, storm-tossed irresponsible actually involve himself in trouble ashore, the punishment he receives from authority is many times lighter than that received from his own messmates; for the motto which guides a Matelot is the one which says 'Never get found out'. 

A Matelot is a person who goes to Home Park with the express purpose of cheering the visiting side. If he can do this from the middle of a crowd of Argyle supporters, so much the better. Yet hear the same Matelot speak when his ship is at Portsmouth, `Come to Guzz if you want to see football'. His favourite pastime is to start an argument in a hitherto quiet pub, leaving silently when the noise is at its zenith. He is a jack-of-all-trades and master of them all. He is a dishwasher and a plasterer; a model-maker; a midwife; a dressmaker and a cook; an electrician and a child's nurse. When a job comes up which he has not the faintest idea about, he will set about it with a curious mixture of common sense and brazen `flannel', which convinces any onlooker that he is watching the original inventor at work. 

The phrase which a Matelot never uses is `I don't know'. This in itself leads him into strange places. He is a born navigator and he takes his bearings from naval tailors and public-houses. The phrase `out of bounds' intrigues him greatly, no matter what obstacles authority places in his path - such places will draw him as a magnet to find out why they are out of bounds. He lives for the `first boat' ashore and then wonders who is making a fortune out of suppers he does not eat. He is fully convinced that he and his kind are being perpetually `seen off'. But the fact is that the business expert who can put one over on jack has yet to be born. 

He is a man whose natural nautical up-bringings and training have coated him with a shallow veneer of artificiality. But beneath this, and it is never far below the surface, is a deepness not to be found in other men. He distrusts the rites of the Church but very willingly he attends a service at sea. There on the same oceans in their many moods he places his faith in God, the ship, and her captain. He never talks over much about such things, because he is aware that those who have not attended such a service cannot possibly understand. A Matelot is a suitable combination of applied indifference and deep concern. He is humour with a pusser's sausage; near truth at the defaulter's table; Casanova with bell-bottoms; a bon viveur with a pint of beer. He is, my friends, A MATELOT