This slim book–just 119 pages–contains some of the simplest and most powerful writing I’ve come across in a long time. And at the same time, it’s something of a mystery.
Born and raised in a house just up the street from the Liverpool waterfront, Frank Laskier ran away to sea when just fifteen. Shifting from ship to ship–many of them tramp steamers whose conditions resembled those of B. Traven’s The Death Ship–he spent most of the next dozen years as a merchant seamen. Aside from a short stint when he tried life ashore and ended up in jail for burglary, he spent much of the time filthy and miserable at sea or drunk and violent in port.
Then, sometime in late 1940, his ship, Eurylochus, was attacked and sunk by an merchant raider, the Komoran, off the coast of West Africa. Laskier’s foot was blown off by a shell, and he and the other thirteen survivors spent three days adrift in a life raft before being rescued by a Spanish trawler. He was eventually repatriated to the UK, where he idled away his days in a pub until a young BBC radio producer overheard him regaling some friends with a story. The producer thought him a natural radio personality and convinced Laskier to record an account of the attack and his rescue.
The piece proved immensely popular with wartime listeners and Laskier went on to write and broadcast more talks over the next year. These were collected as My Name is Frank. Of the book, a reviewer in the Spectator wrote:
Frank Laskier’s broadcasts had the stuff of greatness; put into print they lose nothing in the reading. By a natural genius this seaman has found an expression and a rhythm which the poets and artists of the modern world have been striving after for generations.
Although a genuine article, Laskier did allow himself to be used for maximum propaganda effect. In The Merchant Seamen’s War, Tony Lane refers to him as a Stakhanov–the Russian coal miner made a worker’s hero by Soviet propagandists. Laskier appeared in several films, encouraging others to join the Merchant Marine. You can see a preview of one at the British Pathé website.
A year or so later, Laskier published Log Book. The book is clearly an autobiography, as the story follows his own exactly. But, for some unexplained reason, Laskier chose to call himself Jack in the book, and to treat the story as fiction, avoiding most references to specific times and places.
The book suffers not at all by this choice–indeed, it may gain in power, as it thereby allows the writing to stand on its own.
And what writing it is. Reviewing the book in the New York Herald Tribune. Lincoln Colcord called it, “a work of art so simple and acute, that one often pauses to wonder. Here, for example, is Laskier’s description of the return from liberty of a hand who had watched his own brother fall and smash his skull on the deck a few days before:
Outside, beyond the pool of light over the gangway, the stand-by man and Jack could hear a man stumlbing along. He seemed to be having an hysterical argument with somebody. It was the donkey-man–still in his engine-room clothes–as he had gone down the gangway for a quick one. His face, as he came under the light, looked blotched, and red and swollen. He stopped at the quayside and looked up at the ship; a big, grimy figure, gazing up the gangway to the faces of the man and boy–then passing to the outlines of the ship. “You dirty, hungry, lousy bastard! You stinking, bloody old death trap.” His voice rose to a scream: “You … you death ship! Hey, boy, call the bosun–and tell him to come ashore and meet the bloody Madam.” He stood there swaying, and they could see the sweat slowly trickle down his face. Or was it tears–dead bosun was his brother. The stand-by man stood at the tope of the ladder. “Come aboard,” he said, “come up now mate and get some kip.” The donkey-man looked up at him, then he slowly started to crawl up the ladder. Up and up, dragging one foot after the other. his gnarled hands gripping the rail. Up and up, away from the land, away from the whores, and away from himself. He was all the Jims, all the sailors. Leaving all the sordidness and filth of the land–leaving that land–crossing that silent, inviting strip of water–stepping into a new world. One board, the ghost of his brother waited to lead him gently to his bunk. His footsteps rang hollowly as he slumped along the darkness of the deck and vanished into the fo’castle.
There are dozens of such passages throughout the book. I counted over twenty pages I’d dog-eared while reading it.
Laskier was thirty years old when he wrote Log Book, but his voice and perspective are those of a man of long and hard experience. After years of whoring, drinking and fighting, a year in Borstal and another in Nottingham prison, he finally experiences an epiphany one night when he takes a break to go on deck as his ship steams through the Bay of Biscay:
His old friends the porpoises came out and did their set of lancers in front of the bows. He could hear the rustle and swish of their bodies as they surfaced. And the gentle plop as they submerged. The sea, the sky, the moon and the stars–in unison–told him of the glorious heritage of beauty that belongs to the sailor. They would forgive him all, so long as he was worthy of them and could feel their beauty.
His personal peace is short-lived, those, as the Second World War breaks out shortly after he reaches port. He signs on with another ship and is soon convoying a load of Britsh children to Canada. On the return voyage, the old freighter’s engines fail to keep speed and the ship is forced to fall out and make its way back to Liverpool alone–a nervous week of scanning the surrounding waters for signs of U-boats.
The ship’s end comes, however, not in the bitter, rough North Atlantic but on a calm evening, as “Phosphorus gleamed in the wake of the ship, pale green; long, beautiful streaks of cold fire.” The attack comes abruptly, with great noise, fire, explosions, and is over in just two pages, as Jack throws himself into the water, not realizing his foot is gone. He and the few survivors endure three days, exposed, with no water and sharks constantly circling and scraping against their raft.
They have the good fortune to be rescued by a passing trawler and, later, by a Royal Navy ship, and Laskier and his shipmates are evacuated to a hospital ship anchored in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The book ends with Jack back in the UK, and, like Laskier, discovered by the BBC and speaking for the first time on the radio.
Despite the enthusiastic critical reception of Log Book and My Name is Frank, Laskier was quickly forgotten when his propaganda value had faded. He moved to the US and tried to get the movie studios interested in his stories. His first genuine novel, Unseen Harbor, was published in 1947, but received little notice. He died less than a year later, the victim of an automobile accident.