By J B Atkins

John Black Atkins (1871-1954, RYS 1924-1952) was an eminent journalist and war reporter who wrote Further Memorials of The Royal Yacht Squadron (1939). In this short passage from his autobiography, he writes about bereavement and the consolations of living on a yacht.

In November, 1926, my only son died unexpectedly at the age of twenty-five. One of his friends, Esme Howard, died within a week at the same age — an unusually grievous coincidence. Until my wife and I received letters of sympathy we had not appreciated how Jimmy’s friendships were distributed. The letters came from boys and girls in about equal numbers, but also from elderly men and women to whom, as they showed, he had been attentive. They had not forgotten. He had some characteristics which his mother and I cherished and which may have been observed by others. Even as a small boy he was gentle with all animals; the common callousness of masculine childhood had not appeared in him. And he had a natural absence of self-consciousness. This was noticeable at an age when most boys regard babies with indifference or dislike. To Jimmy babies were as naturally interesting as puppies or kittens, which are never despised by small boys. And why not?

My wife never lost the mark of this sorrow. She had endured a series of grave operations, all borne with unwavering courage, but now her desire to face whatever might come declined. She could not summon up the old high spirits. Her chief consolation was to spend months in a year on board my small yacht, the Thyrza, at Brightlingsea, where I could join her every week-end. To most of her friends this ‘mania’ for living in a little prison — as they imagined it to be — was unintelligible; but to her the prison was the way of liberation and of all the spiritual calm that was possible. She loved the ‘liquid-flowing syllables’ of the tide at the ship’s side and even the jar of rigging in the wind, the sense of being water-borne at night, the unceasing changes in the weather and the scene, the feeling that the sea was an open highway that led to every part of the world, even though she might never share in a long cruise again, the clang of work in the yacht yards and the sailing to and fro of the oyster fleet and the Thames sailing barges. Her last operation came in May, 1931, and after it she died. Her bravery was conspicuously inherited. As Corneille says, Les hommes valeureux le sont au premier coup.

Incidents and Reflections (Christophers, London, 1947), pp. 220-221.

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