Monday, 17 September 2012

James Johnston Abraham The Surgeon's Log

Lowry refers to James Johnston Abraham's The Surgeon's Log in his short story 'Enter One In Sumptuous Armour'; "Closing the dictionary I jammed it back next to The Surgeon's Log."

We must assume because of Lowry's mention of The Surgeon's Log that he had read the book. The Surgeon's Log was published in 1911 and ran to 31 editions with photographs.

Ship's surgeon and his first book

For an impecunious young man this was bad news as he could not afford to take the time off. He had agreed, after graduation, that he would not be a financial burden on his father who could well have afforded to help him out. Indeed, he had offered to buy him a practice had he not pursued the surgical route. The pathologist roommate came up with the idea of a sea voyage and he enlisted for a six month spell as a ship's surgeon on a 10,000 ton cargo ship which carried no passengers, sailing from Birkenhead. 

He had such a splendid time that he became somewhat of a bore about it upon his return and his pathologist friend persuaded him to write a book about his experiences. He did, and hawked it around nine publishers; they all turned it down. One day, when having afternoon tea in the Staff Room of St Peter's Hospital, Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, he looked out of the window. Across the road he saw the offices of Chapman & Hall, Dickens' publishers. He sent them the manuscript and the Managing Director, Arthur Waugh (Evelyn's father) accepted it. He had originally called it The Voyage of the Clytemestra, the name of his ship, but Waugh changed the title to The Surgeon's Log' and it became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and was still selling steadily in the late 1950s, particularly in its Penguin form. It is a beautifully written descriptive travelogue, not dissimilar in style to that of Eric Newby.

It must have been a wonderful and restful experience which was what he needed. With only the crew to look after he had little medical work to do and was able to relax on deck in the tropics and go ashore in the ports. They sailed non-stop to Port Said, traversed the Suez Canal and then crossed the Indian Ocean to Penang. They sailed down the Malacca Strait to Singapore. From Singapore they sailed to Japan and visited Nagasaki, Moji and then by the Inland Sea to Kobe and on to Yokohama (and Tokyo). From there they sailed to the Dutch East Indies and thence home via Marseilles. J S Bingham A publisher, a bobbin-boy and the Society Presidential address to the Medical Society for the Study of Venereal Diseases, 28 April, 1995 at The Royal College of Physicians of London: Genitourin Med 1995;71:314-322

The appeal of such a book to the young Lowry is not surprising given that his work is littered with references to readings of books about ships and sea voyages. The apparent 'splendid time' had by Abraham may have convinced a young Lowry that he could replicate the experience and write up his own 'log'.

Lowry's 1927 voyage to the Far East followed a very similar route to one made by Abraham. Both Lowry and Abraham sailed on Blue Funnel ships and both disguised the name of the real ship they sailed on. They both had similar mixed attitudes to race and gender apparent in both the Surgeon's Log and Ultramarine which could be argued reflect white/European attitudes of the period though both temper their racism with sympathetic views to peoples they come across.

Abraham informs  the reader that he carefully logged conversations and details for later use which may have tied into ideas Lowry was having in the mid-1920s about being a writer. One major difference is that Abraham's book is an out and out travelogue whereas Lowry's Ultramarine is a far more complex text though Lowry was accused by early reviewers of the novel of adding 'local colour' to the novel.

Lowry's eventual log details a socially different class experience to the one detailed by Abraham who concentrated on the officers as opposed to Lowry's attempts to empathasise with the crew. Though Abraham does explore details of the Chinese crew's experience and life aboard the ship.

One possible major influence of The Surgeon's Log is providing Lowry with the title of his novel Ultramarine as Abraham describes the sea as ultramarine; "gazing dreamily out over a sea of ultramarine." (Pg. 189) and the sky as ultramarine; "smiling under a sky of purest ultramarine shading gradually to a pearly-grey as it touched the horizon." (Pg. 227).

The only similarity in 'plot' between the two books is comparison can be made between Horner's desire to rescue the Japanese woman Ponta from the 'tea-shop' in Kobe and Dana's fantasy of rescuing Olga from the brothel in Tsjang Tsjang (Dairen). There is also the possibility that the references to Moji in Ultramarine stem from Lowry's recollection from The Surgeon's Log, which features a visit to the port where his ship takes on coal (Pgs. 122-144).

James Abraham was born in Coleraine, County Londonderry, and was educated there and at Trinity College Dublin where he studied medicine. He practised in County Clare and was appointed Resident Medical Officer to London Dock Hospital and Rescue Home in 1908. In 1914 he travelled to Serbia, where he administered to the Serbian army and played a major part in bolstering morale. He coped with inadequate supplies, outbreaks of typhoid, scarlet fever, recurrent fever, smallpox and a typhus epidemic. He was the first doctor on location to diagnose typhus, and he and the Serbian Army Medical Corps managed to contain it. He was then called to the Middle East and latterly became a Harley Street specialist. He was created a Knight of St John Consulting Surgeon at the Princess Beatrice Hospital in London. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, President of the Irish Medical Graduates' Association and in 1949 won the Arnott Medal. He was author of The Night Nurse (1913); Surgeon's Journal, Balkan Log and The Surgeon's Log, which ran to thirty-one editions. He was awarded an honorary Doctorate in 1946. The Dictionary of Ulster Biography 

Read a detailed obituary in Royal College of Surgeons of England Annals

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