Literary Review: W. A. Harbinson - All At Sea On The Ghost Ship

Paperback Cover - All At Sea On The Ghost Ship

W. A. Harbinson

All At Sea On The Ghost Ship
Booksurge Publishing, 2005

ISBN 1-4196-1764--8

Available from

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All At Sea On The Ghost Ship

Best-selling novelist and biographer W. A. Harbinson (see also his autobiographical The Writing Game and exquisite, outstanding prose novel Into The World of Might Be) received a most unusual offer from his son in 2001. The offer was a free trip as the lone passenger aboard a container ship operated by the shipping company that his son is employed with. The voyage was to be from Shanghai to Haifa, with a number of ports in between. That, however, was broadly the only thing that would be certain about this unusual journey. Everything else would be as uncertain as the Heisenberg principle of quantum mechanics.

Having recently turned sixty and seeing himself forced to confront his ever decreasing horizons, as happens to anybody sometime after about the age of fifty or so when advancing middle age forces all of us sooner or later to face up to the increasingly finite nature of our mortality, and also facing the very real possibility of a cancerous prostate (it fortunately turned out not to be in the end) that might curtail his horizons even further and much sooner than might otherwise be expected, Harbinson felt that this might be his last chance to travel to such an extent and that such a trip was just what he needed.

This journey at the end of 2002 eventually resulted in All At Sea On The Ghost Ship, W. A. Harbinson's account of this trip.

Now I have to confess that, having traveled by sea already in the past, the thought of say any kind of cruise fills me with absolute loathing, for there could be nothing more dull and mind-numbingly boring, as far as I'm concerned. There is absolutely nothing you can do aboard a cruise that you couldn't do at least equally as well on terra firma. As for seeing different places, a stop of the odd day or two (or occasionally a few more if you're very lucky) here or there is definitely not my idea of "seeing", let alone exploring any place, especially when you're basically pretty much confined to the "tourist circuit". (And I've seen enough of that kind of nonsense while living in the Caribbean. Cruises are exploitation of the worst kind, of both their - admittedly all too willing - passengers and the local population and local economy, particularly so in the case of so-called third world nations.) And when it comes to meeting other people, well, meeting other folks on their holiday is never the best time to meet them, you really need to see them in their ordinary day to day lives to really get to know anybody, and besides, they'd more likely than not be pretty sad, boring people in the first place (having nothing better to do than going on a cruise), and you can meet sad, boring people anyday anyplace if you want to.

That said, however, I also have to admit that the idea of Harbinson's very different kind of journey intrigued me to say the least. It somehow seemed to hold the promise of 'getting down and dirty', of experiencing something truly different, and maybe even of adventure of some sort. For a start, there is this awesome piece of modern engineering, that modern behemoth of a container ship, packed with all the latest and greatest in electronics to make its journey smooth and easy with almost no crew to speak of, usually with south Asian or Far Eastern crew as nobody in the West wants to spend long stretches at sea to earn a crust anymore. What is all that really like, how does it work, what do people do to pass the time if indeed, they have any to spare? And how does a normally landlubbing 'civilian', a passenger, fit into all this, what does he do to keep himself from going stark raving mad with boredom. What of the stops at various ports, is there time to explore, how do you get away from today's usually huge container ports, how exactly do you spend whatever short time you may have on land? What do you do, being literally as well as figuratively all at sea on a modern working ship? These and a thousand more questions came to my mind about an undertaking such as this. Most intriguing and fascinating.

W. A. Harbinson's All At Sea On The Ghost Ship is no mere dry account of his journey from Shanghai to Haifa. My initial intrigue and fascination were richly rewarded with what turned out to be the most gripping travelogue of modern times. The journey turned out to be a lot more unpredictable than expected, and always fascinating. Night and day, whenever and wherever possible, Harbinson kept himself busy committing his every thought and experience to his dictaphone, transcribing it on his laptop on an almost daily basis.

The resulting narrative is as riveting as you would expect from a seasoned master storyteller like Harbinson, and then some. (I am utterly convinced that Harbinson could turn a routine and uneventful trip to the local supermarket into a gripping yarn!) All questions find an answer, and it certainly proves to be a journey with a difference. Harbinson turns it into a genuine adventure (no, not the kind of improbable Indiana Jones adventure but a real life one), 'getting down and dirty' along the way. At all times you have the feeling of actually being there with the author. W. A. Harbinson's All At Sea On The Ghost Ship is like a movie, but the pictures are so much better of course, even if that is perhaps a slightly corny old cliché. Harbinson's acute and astute observations are always fascinating and delivered with a wry wit and humour, and with feeling. For the pedantic, there are one or two geographical inaccuracies, but these are of no consequence and certainly don't detract. I mention them merely for the sake of completeness and accuracy.

Being all at sea on his ghost ship, for such is what Harbinson describes it as, he also had a lot of time to think. Thus, we gain perhaps a little more of an insight into the mind of the otherwise very private writer than intended. Harbinson is disarmingly, sometimes brutally, frank about himself, his thoughts and preoccupations. This is a further fascinating aspect of All At Sea On The Ghost Ship that makes both the story and W. A. Harbinson himself so much more human and real. In the course of Harbinson's thoughts, the more imaginative and perceptive will also encounter more than a glimpse into the creative mind and the creative process itself.

Just as interesting, we also get a perspective on how Harbinson approaches and conducts interpersonal relationships. In spite of his perhaps somewhat reserved, certainly very private, nature and his innate shyness, the author very quickly and, in the end, easily, makes friends with officers and crew alike, even in some cases where language, or rather, the lack of a common one, proves something of a hindrance. By the time you're less than halfway through W. A. Harbinson's All At Sea On The Ghost Ship, you'll find you think Captains Singh and (later) Misra, assorted other officers, Zhan, and assorted other crew dear old friends, and you'll miss them terribly once you finish reading the story.

For me personally, some of the places visited proved familiar and certainly brought back a lot of memories from long ago. The Mount Lavinia Hotel and beach in Sri Lanka, where some of the scenes of David Lean's classic Burma railway movie Bridge on the River Quai were filmed (the whole movie was shot at various locations in Sri Lanka) and where I spent occasional Sundays swimming and booz... err, sipping cocktails during a sojourn in the island many, many moons ago, in particular. Colombo's Gold Street or Gold Road threw me somewhat, until it was clarified as Galle Road. So many memories... Suddenly, even though Harbinson missed it (or maybe it's no longer there), I even remembered the old clock tower at the top of (yes, got the name!) Chatham Street, and.... Ah, far too many memories. Or Singapore and Raffles Hotel. And quite a few more. And some yet to be acquired - the promise of the Promised Land, to at least see it even once before my own horizons become too constricted...

But if you never visited any of the places covered, All At Sea On The Ghost Ship and W. A. Harbinson's vivid descriptions and observations are just as delightful and fascinating and will take you there almost physically. More so than any other travelogue of recent times that I have encountered.

Utterly compelling, W. A. Harbinson's All At Sea On The Ghost Ship is above all a riveting story brilliantly told, and a real life adventure to boot. As ever, the excellence of Harbinson's writing and the genius of his storytelling alone would make All At Sea On The Ghost Ship unmissable. You'll want to read this gripping tale over and over.

NB - W. A. 'Allen' Harbinson's All At Sea On The Ghost Ship is published as a "print on demand" book, one of the blessings of the digital age that has made possible this alternative to the modern conglomerate publishing monster, and is available through (and I believe I have also encountered most of Harbinson's recent "print on demand" works on Amazon UK). Do note however that this method of publishing is not some new form of the "vanity publishing" of old, rather, it is akin to the independent marketing of music CDs by "unsigned" artists. (The literary equivalent of the music MP3, the digital book or e-book, is still in its early infancy.)

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