Monday, 1 July 2013


It's a good thing metal can't tell stories, because if it could, secrecy in the Royal Navy would be a completely different story.

HMS Ocelot, an Oberon-class submarine, was launched from Chatham in 1962. Less than thirty years later, the vessel was retired, and is now a tourist attraction back in it's hometown of Chatham Dockyards. The thing is, what happened in between those two points is very much a mystery. The words are never uttered explicitly by government documents, but the phrase isn't flinched at among sailors who know her - Ocelot was a spy vessel.

Many of the vessels in Chatham dockyard - or indeed any dockyard - have stories to tell. I stood atop the canvas-roofed helm of HMS Cavalier, and harked back to when the ship was posted in the Far East - with the power of imagination I could feel the hot sun beating down on my bare skin, I could look out over the dockyard and see the Orient. Aboard Ocelot I felt a much different feeling.

Living in cramped conditions was one of the more obvious disadvantages of being posted on Ocelot - the main living area (Sleeping, eating, entertainment, and all necessary furniture) was no more than four metres square, and housed 22 crew members. To add to that, there were portholes instead of doors, anyone taller than 5'9" had to bow their heads to avoid hanging pipes, and batteries and engines buzzed underfoot at all hours.

But as I traversed the cramped crusader I felt a very different dread as I imagined life on board.

When on board a spy vessel such as Ocelot, information of the submarines location in the world, and why it was there in the first place, was on a need to know basis - and this meant that for the large majority of men on board, nobody knew where they were in the world. To avoid being spotted, they were submerged underwater for most hours of the day.

In 1952, science fiction writer Ray Bradbury penned the short story 'No Particular Night or Morning'. It told the tale of two men on a spacecraft billions of miles from the planet Earth. Surrounded by darkness, one crew member begins to believe that whatever he cannot perceive does not exist, and drives himself crazy with the notion that his entire home planet is dead and nonexistent.

It sounds cheesy to say it aloud, but I considered life on Ocelot to be somewhat similar to the predicament of the spacemen in Bradbury's story. Submerged underwater without windows, the men on-board had no evidence or idea of what was on the other side of the metal walls that enclosed them together. They would have none but a vague idea of where they were in the world, and in much the same way, the outside world had no evidence of them. The crew of the Ocelot, at any time, could have found themselves not just stir-crazy, but at metaphysical odds with the world. Between the crew and the rest of the population of the world, there was an equal and opposite force of nonexistence for three months at a time.

I tried to think about what this meant. It seemed that all the romanticism of sailing in any conditions was sucked out by being in a submarine under this level of secrecy. Maybe my frets of nonexistence were just that of an over-read student, but this idea of secrecy perpetuating fear was reflected in the world of the time. The high-point of Ocelot's activity would have been during the Cold War of the 1980's. My father often recalls the fear felt on either side of nobody knowing what was going on.

When fears of nuclear attack became rampant in both Russia and the rest of the world, plans to protect themselves became near-fashionable. But down in the Ocelot, there could be no such plans. They could not dream of the outside world, and in the event that something did happen, it was kill or be killed: fire Trident missiles, or be hit and have to evacuate and make the 100 metre upward swim to the surface. And what then? Would crew members suddenly burst into a world they had never seen before?

It was a confusing way of life, and I thought for a long time about it. I guess I could bring it to some sort of philosophical conclusion, but what roused in me was a level of curiosity which could not be satisfied by any thoughtful meanderings. What was lived under the sea was a life of uncertainty and sparse definition. Any question I had could not be answered. And in the surroundings of a museum, that was what I found the most unsettling.