Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Mal de Mer

Oliver Percy Bernard (1881-1939) was an odd bird—at very least—albeit he called himself "Bunny." An Art Deco-era architectural, furniture and scenic designer, he was profoundly deaf, conspicuously short, large-headed, and splenetic. He was, in the words of his former secretary, "amusing, utterly impossible, kind, and a bully" (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). Other distinctions include his having survived the sinking of the Lusitania (although completely unable to swim), as well as extended service as a British camouflage artist (or camoufleur) during World War I (he worked directly with Solomon J. Solomon and André Mare, among others), an experience he later described in a wonderfully readable memoir called Cock Sparrow [his wartime nickname] (London: Jonathan Cape: 1935). There are remarkable passages on nearly every page of that autobiography, including this description of the most dreadful seasickness in his godawful days as a deck boy—

…Sickened each day by revolting food, becoming more and more nauseated every night on lookout at the fo'c'sle head, Bunny gradually starved and finally collapsed; after two days helpless in his bunk, he was hauled out by the captain, who put a broom in his hands with which he had scarcely strength to balance himself on his feet. So, after four voyages across the Atlantic without digestive embarrassment, he now experienced genuine mal de mer, without attention of stewards, under conditions that would kill a good many "saloon" sailors. Clinging feebly to a deck broom, bewildered, starving for some of that affection without which daily bread the soul is famished, through eyes of despair he gazed at just such a coast as tortured Ulysses in his bonds; it was the coast of Cornwall and Devon, so near and unmistakably so far from a floating slum under foreign flag. Tottering into the captain's cabin, scarcely above a whisper he begged to be put ashore. Captain Knudsen harshly inquired, "And who will take you that way, unless you swim?" (pp. 52-53)