After art school, I worked as a deck hand on a Danish freighter.
Only one other bloke on the boat spoke English as his first language.
He was Irish, and he said to me, “You don’t want to come on here, they’re all fucking Nazis.”
I asked him what he meant, and he said I’d find out.
He was right.
We had a really miserable Norwegian bosun (kind of a foreman).
And he took a dislike to me, always putting me down.
So I tried being polite to him.
And that made it worse.
I tried ignoring him, but it didn’t help.
In the end it became obvious the logical conclusion of this would be a fight.
I’m not a tough guy, I’d just spent four years at art school.
This guy had spent his whole life at sea, toughening his body, battling with the elements.
A fight was only going to end one way.
And I was on my own with him, in the middle of the Atlantic.
So I had to find a way to even things up a bit.
I’d been told that fights took place on top of hatch number five.
A big square of canvas about the size of a boxing ring.
So I tucked a length of chain under the canvas.
I thought, when it kicks off, maybe I could wrap it around his head.
And, while he couldn’t see, I’d at least have a chance.
That was the theory.
So that night, in the mess, I started provoking him.
I began putting him down, loudly in front of the rest of the crew.
Then the strangest thing happened.
He started being nice to me.
The more I put him down, the nicer he was to me.
I couldn’t understand it.
Then gradually it dawned on me.
I’d been brought up to believe that the mark of a civilised person was politeness.
Especially to people that were weaker than you.
Anyone could be polite to people that were more powerful.
Or when there’s something in it for them.
But what was really classy was to be polite to people who you didn’t have to.
Old people, poor people, disadvantaged people.
People who couldn’t do you any good.
But that was just the way I’d been brought up.
In a lot of the world, people don’t behave that way.
They’re polite to people if there’s a reason to be, and rude if there isn’t.
They kiss the arse of people above.
And piss on those below.
Kiss up, piss down.
So that was how it worked for the bosun.
If I was polite to him, he’d piss down on me.
If I was rude to him, he’d kiss up to me.
So, lucky for me, we never had to fight.
But there were some other guys on the boat who he also didn’t like.
Four Brazilian blokes, really nice guys.
I got on well with them, they liked to laugh, they liked to drink, they liked women, and they liked football.
But the Norwegian bosun gave them a really rough time.
One night when all the crew were asleep, me and the Brazilians were drinking and chatting.
One of them said to me, in broken English, “David, maybe tonight we all go to the Norwegian’s cabin.
Maybe we take him and throw him over the back of the ship.
In the morning, we turn up for work as usual.
After a while, the first mate asks where the bosun is.
We say, “He’s not his cabin?”
And he accompanied it with a shrug.
I thought about it briefly, these guys were serious.
I didn’t like the bosun, but I wasn’t ready for this.
I said, “No, count me out boys.”
And as far as I knew, that was the end of it, it never happened.
When the boat got back to New York I jumped ship (deserted) and ended up getting a job in advertising.
And a month or so later, the ship came back to Brooklyn and I went down to meet the Brazilian guys for a drink, in a bar at the dock.
I asked how they were getting on with the bosun.
They said, “No problem.”
When the ship docked in Brooklyn they had paid two longshoremen (dock workers) to break both his arms and legs and throw him in the East River.
Obviously he couldn’t swim in that state.
So, when he was fished out he was rushed off to hospital, and that was the last they’d heard of him.
As the Brazilian guys said, “No problem.”
The downside of “Kiss up, piss down” is that sometimes, the people you piss down on piss back up.