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  • Writer's pictureShaun Lewis

How a top secret intelligence report inspired the title of my first novel

I am often asked why I chose to call my first novel, The Custom of the Trade. Given that the plot revolves around WW1 submarine operations, the answer would be obvious to any submariner.

Ever since submarines were introduced into service with the Royal Navy in the Edwardian era, submariners have been looked down upon by their surface ship counterparts for inevitably being dirty and unkempt. Officers were no less derided and nicknamed "unwashed chauffeurs" for their habit of wearing long, leather coats to protect against the waves over the open bridges of their submarines. As a mark of self-deprecation, the submarine service referred to itself as "The Trade" and their precious submarines as "boats" and not "ships".

Many years ago, whilst working in Naval Intelligence, I read a fascinating patrol report from the Commanding Offcer of a Royal Navy submarine that had recently conducted a clandestine "black" intelligence operation. For obvious reasons, I cannot reveal more, but what lodged in my memory was that the CO had started each chapter of his report with a line from a poem about "The Trade". Later, I was to learn that this poem was written by Rudyard Kipling. As one reads the following lines, it will become obvious why my next book, about submarine operations in the Baltic in support of the Russians, is called, Where the Baltic Ice is Thin.

They bear, in place of classic names,

Letters and numbers on their skin.

They play their grisly blindfold games

In little boxes made of tin.

Sometimes they stalk the Zeppelin,

Sometimes they learn where mines are laid,

Or where the Baltic ice is thin.

That is the custom of "The Trade."

Few prize-courts sit upon their claims.

They seldom tow their targets in.

They follow certain secret aims

Down under, far from strife or din.

When they are ready to begin

No flag is flown, no fuss is made

More than the shearing of a pin.

That is the custom of "The Trade."

The Scout's quadruple funnel flames

A mark from Sweden to the Swin,

The Cruiser's thund'rous screw proclaims

Her comings out and goings in:

But only whiffs of paraffin

Or creamy rings that fizz and fade

Show where the one-eyed Death has been.

That is the custom of "The Trade."

Their feats, their fortunes and their fames

Are hidden from their nearest kin;

No eager public backs or blames,

No journal prints the yarn they spin

(The Censor would not let it in! )

When they return from run or raid.

Unheard they work, unseen they win.

That is the custom of "The Trade."

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