ERNLE BRADFORD AND ULYSSES FOUND
My interest in Ernle Bradford began through picking up a copy of his Ulysses Found when on holiday in Malta, a happy coincidence being central to Ulysses’ track and where Bradford lived for some years in Kalkara and later at St Paul’s bay. I had spent five years on the island as a boy when he was there. We lived in a waterfront house at Spinola, St Julians, boat house at the foot of the garden and father’s sailing dinghy on a running mooring off it so I have salient memories of those days. I had helped a Maltese boat builder replace planks and the transom of the dinghy in the open on the quayside. I held the dolly, a pointed anvil, on the copper nail head while he, Zammit, clipped off its end and peened it over the rove. I burned off paint with a paraffin blow lamp, filled nail holes with linseed putty and painted, the smells of which still evoke those days.
Like The Riddle of the Sands, Ulysses Found repays the effort required to read it. First published in 1963, it is not the easiest of reads but to the cruising yachtsman is fascinating, Bradford bringing in the multitude of practical navigating considerations faced by the yachtsman, spiced with his lively Royal Naval and own boat experience. He makes a very plausible case for Ulysses’ voyages being based on fact.
Kalkara creek is the main centre of traditional boat building in the Maltese Islands. I have visited several times whilst following the restoration of the Gozo boat Sacra Famiglia built there in 1933. It is a different world to the other side of the Birgu (Vittoriosa) peninsula, a scene of upmarket yacht marinas where the last word in motor yacht luxury berths.
Little changed in years, Kalkara is appropriately referred to as 'Malta in miniature', colourful traditional boats on their moorings filling the creek. In Bradford’s day famous expatriates could live there undisturbed in cool spacious harbour side houses in peace and quiet. The then ubiquitous water taxi the dghajsa with its high stem and stern posts, long loomed oars, boatman standing and facing forward, could row them across Grand Harbour to the capital, Valletta.
Factor in the odd pavement cafe/bar and it is easy to see why Kalkara appealed to Bradford. However the area is not immune to change. The modern yacht scene is slowly encroaching on this traditional waterfront. On the east side pontoon yacht berths of the Kalkara Boat Yard Ltd now extend out into the creek.
So what of the man? We have many details but they are scattered in his books and his publisher’s dust jacket biographies. Collating them from some of his nautical works, Ernle Dusgate Selby Bradford was born on 11 January 1922 at Cole Green, Norfolk, a few miles south of Hunstanton on the Wash, the same corner of Norfolk as Burnham Thorpe, birth place of Nelson. He was educated at Uppingham School, Rutland in the English midlands between Leicester and Peterborough, a few miles from Rutland Water. On leaving school he volunteered for the Royal Navy, joining on his 18 th birthday as an Ordinary Seaman. He become one of a gun’s crew, rising to navigating officer, the first lieutenant, of a Hunt Class destroyer, serving in the Mediterranean and later on Arctic convoys. He was the son of Temporary Major 60194 Jocelyn Ernle Sydney Paton Bradford MBE, MC Duke of Wellington’s Regiment and Ada Louise Dusgate.
Bradford records in the introduction to Ulysses Found that his interest in Ulysses began in 1941 at the age of 19 in Alexandria, reading volume one of his two volume Loeb translation of The Odyssey in his swaying hammock. Professor Richard Lattimore’s translation (1) was not published until 1965. Later he could read the Greek text. It is a remarkable comment that Bradford found room in his meagre wartime service baggage allowance for a small library. Uppingham really had given him a taste for the classics. It is no surprise that he became a prolific author (2) and historian but he was a man of many parts, an international authority on antique jewellery and silver, BBC broadcaster and founder editor of the Antique Dealer and Collector’s Guide. Sailing round Sicily, amongst other things he gathered material for a book on antique jewellery.
Like so many of academic, creative and artistic temperament Bradford smoked cigarettes and as the Maltese journalist Charles Flores recounts ”I, for one was frequently involved in the almost daily chore of carrying a not-so-sober Ernle Bradford from our favourite watering hole to his home and bed, much to the relief of his sweet wife.” This lifestyle and the hardships of wartime RN service were possible factors contributing to his early death in 1986 at the age of sixty four. The various strands of Bradford’s career and his publications list leave one in no doubt that he was an exceptional individual, having crammed so much into a relatively short life.
Of Janet Bradford one finds little other than references to her part in their cruises but one gets a picture of a very competent yachtswoman. She was a keen sailor before marriage and won the Little Ship Club trophy for seamanship and navigation. She was also very capable with sail needle and marlin spike.
Bradford returned to Malta in 1951 and being a former Naval officer was privileged to berth his boat in the small rock cut harbour at Fort St Angelo, then a Royal Naval establishment. The fort is on the head of the promontory forming the west side of Kalkara creek. The former Royal Naval Hospital Bighi, proposed by Lord Nelson, occupies the end of the peninsula on the east side. St Angelo harbour was the moat separating the fort from the town of Birgu (Vittoriosa). Over wintering afloat he had the mast down, enabling the boat to pass under the road and pipe bridges at the harbour entrance. Bradford and his wife lived aboard for five months whilst he researched for writing projects. From the foreword to Ulysses Found he spent most of the years between 1950 and 1960 sailing the Mediterranean in his own boats. The three years following 1951 he used Malta as a base for expeditions to Greece and the Aegean islands and as many other places in the central and eastern Mediterranean as he could. From 1960 onwards another twenty odd years were lived in Malta with frequent sailing.
From Naval service and sailing his own boats Bradford got to know the Mediterranean exceptionally well. He says “I grew to know this sea, and in doing so I also grew to know the Odyssey, almost as thoroughly as the charts that led me through the Messina Strait or across the Ionian to the islands and to Ithaca. In the course of my wanderings [over more than twenty years] I came to a number of conclusions about Homeric geography and the navigations of Ulysses.”
Bradford sailed a number of boats, the smallest a 7-ton sloop and the largest an old 20-ton Bristol Channel pilot cutter. Most of his Mediterranean cruising was in a 10-ton Dutch cutter Mother Goose, a boeir, LOA 30ft, draft 2ft, clinker built in 1918, of galvanised iron on iron frames and powered by a twin cylinder diesel auxiliary. Like many an ex-serviceman Bradford struggled to settle to the routine of an office job after adrenalin fuelled active service. As a 21 year old he had read the words of Chekov which were forever to haunt him: ’Life does not come again; if you have not lived during the days that were given you, once only, then write it down as lost...’ This was the prompt that led him and Janet to buy Mother Goose, sell their London flat and furniture, leave their jobs and four months later set off for France. The Journeying Moon and its sequel The Wind off the Island are enchanting accounts of this sailing.
Later, aspiring to own more of a deep sea boat than the shallow draft barge style yacht Mother Goose, Bradford sold her in Malta. Like E.B. Tredwen’s barge yacht designs she had proved to be remarkably seaworthy but obviously a vessel with a ballast keel would have more stability.
For many years the now famous Bristol Channel pilot cutter Mischief had lain afloat deteriorating at Kalkara. In 1953 Bradford bought her with the intention of sailing her back to England. After three months of dawn to dusk work “recaulking the decks, renewing and replacing or cleaning and stripping down practically everything” she was sailed to Mallorca, the old mainsail not being fit for an end of season crossing of the Bay of Biscay. At Port of Andratx, around fifteen miles south west of Palma she was over wintered, lying to three anchors, while Bradford returned to London to recoup funds and earn a new mainsail. He returned the following year, moved Mischief to a boat yard slip at Palma near the yacht club where with a friend and local tradesmen she was extensively refitted. In midsummer, just after completion she was sold to the Everest climber and explorer H.W. Tilman, to make her name with him in high latitudes and circumnavigating Africa. An old boat of this size had been too much of a drain on Bradford’s financial resources and posed crewing difficulties, needing four of a crew. She was lost off Jan Mayen Island in 1968. A replica is now in service offering cruises in Scottish waters.
One might surmise that a classical education and the serendipity of war service would account for Bradford’s interest in the Mediterranean. In fact the inspiration goes back much earlier, to an enigmatic figure. The dedication of his 563 page magnum opus Mediterranean, Portrait of a Sea reads “I dedicate it to Mrs. Freda MacIver-Reitsma – traveller. It was she who, many years ago, first inspired in a small boy the desire to sail this sea and to know these lands”. The result, “a youthful ambition to be either a painter or an archaeologist had long centred my ambitions on this area of the world”.
Details of Bradford’s war service and small boat sailing in the Mediterranean are the key to a critical appraisal of Ulysses Found. In the preface to Mediterranean Portrait of a Sea one reads that Bradford first saw the Mediterranean as a nineteen year old from the foredeck of H.M.S. Glenroy, then a fleet supply ship, later converted to an infantry landing ship, breasting out of the Suez Canal into a long northerly swell, a product of the summer northerly wind in that area. He was to spend most of the next four years in the eastern Mediterranean as a rating and then commissioned officer. He got to know most of the North African coast and much of the Agean; as well as the coastal waters of Malta, Sicily, Italy, Corsica and Sardinia. His year spent as the navigating officer of a destroyer enabled him to familiarise himself with the charts and many of the ports and harbours he was to visit later in his own boats. Under pressure of war the navigational considerations of his ship were a concentrated learning experience.
Many have attempted to localise the track of Odysseus. Very few have been so well qualified to do so as Ernle Bradford. Ulysses Found will not be to everyone’s taste but the small boat cruises that went into its genesis, The Journeying Moon (1958) and The Wind off the Island (1960) are lighter reading and are both available as Grafton Books paperback editions.
Following the sale of Mischief there were two more Atlantic crossings as delivery crew and a Mediterranean schooner trip recounted in The Journeying Moon, then sadly Bradford’s sailing writing tailed off. He continued to live in Malta and write more academic material. Siege:Malta 1940-1943 was published in 1985 the year before his death.
1. The Odyssey of Homer, translated and with an introduction by Richard Lattimore, Harper Perennial, 1991, ISBN 0-06-093167-1.
2. Ernle Bradford Publications list
12 October 2012
Harbourside house at Kalkara
Ruinous but still beautiful harbourside house at Kalkara
Dghajsa at Kalkara
The old Kalkara boatyard
Fort Angelo rock cut harbour
Kalkara Boatyard Ltd surmounted by the former RNH Bighi