memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for March 3, 2012


John Masefield could write a mean poem too:



Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir                                                                                               Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,

With a cargo of ivory,

And apes and peacocks,

Sandalwood, cederwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,

Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,

With a cargo of diamonds,

Emeralds, amethysts,

Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with salt-caked smoke stack

Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,

With a cargo of Tyne coal,

Road-rail, pig-lead,

Firewood, iron-ware and cheap tin trays.

The Bird of Dawning

I’m a re-reader of books. One of my favourites is The Bird of Dawning by John Masefield. It’s a yarn of the sea about the famous tea-clippers towards the end of the 19th century at the time of their glory.

Built for speed these great ships, with their narrow hulls and lofty masts with great clouds of sail, swift and beautiful, were the queens of the seven seas. Once a year the clipper fleet used to race across the oceans, from Shanghai to the Port of London, to be the first to bring that year’s crop of valuable tea to the English markets.

They would set sail, often on the same tide, from the Chinese port, cross the South China Sea, pass through the Sunda Strait of Indonesia, across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope of Africa and up the Atlantic to the English Channel.

The famous race of 1866 took just 102 days to fly across three quarters of the globe, with the three leaders reaching the chops of the English Channel on the same afternoon and spectators lined the coast of Kent and beaches of Normandy to watch the Taeping and the Ariel with every stitch of canvas set race side-by-side up the Channel all that glorious windy sunny afternoon and evening.


The background to the plot of The Bird of Dawning is based on this famous race. The Bird of Dawning is a fictionalised name for one of the fast clippers of the first rank. It’s a feel-good book – comfort reading. The narrative is fast-paced and full of accurate detail.

Suffice to say that the young and self-effacing hero wins out in the end – the race, the glory and of course the girl with beautiful eyes who is waiting for him on shore.


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