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Passing muster

Passing muster
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Passing muster

Finance | 1 Jun 2007

Is it really that difficult to be on time, wonders Paul Bennett.  

I was sat in the coffee shop checking my watch for the third time, when in strolls my client 25 minutes late. ‘Is that the time? Sorry I’m late, my eleven o’clock ran on a bit.’ he explained. Without further elaboration he pressed on with the meeting as if all was well. All was not well. I was bloody annoyed. I had travelled early to make the meeting and had done so with ten minutes to spare. I always do. The legacy of arriving early has stuck with me since my earliest days in the Royal Navy. It was tradition to arrive ten minutes early for your watch on the bridge and woe betide you if you were late.

The penalties for being late on watch in the RN were quite severe ranging from stoppage of overnight leave to completing tasks onboard ship like painting and cleaning. The task of washing up the galley dishes after people had eaten was saved for the worst offenders.

The ultimate sin was that of missing a muster when under punishment, or being late for your punishment. What used to happen is the men under punishment would be mustered at a certain place at a certain time by the head of the police onboard the warship, a well liked man called the Master at Arms.

On one memorable occasion, a Glaswegian sailor was severely chastised by the Master at Arms for not turning up for a muster. When asked why he had not attended, he replied ‘I must ‘a missed the muster mustn’t a Master!’

Another serious time crime was that of missing a fire muster, which is when you were part of the ships fire fighting party and responsible for the emergency response to a fire. This was carried out as an exercise to test the response times. My abiding memory of this was aboard my first ship HMS Ark Royal, the largest ship in the Navy at the time.

Ark Royal was a floating town with over 2,000 crew and was absolutely vast inside. I met a chap 10 years later who had served on the Ark Royal at the same time as me for two years and we had never met. We used to joke that the guys at the front of the ship were in a different time zone to the ones at the back. The ship was divided up into compartments and decks for ease of navigation evidently. In reality this was a nightmare. The decks were simple – the flight deck was number one and as you descended into the bowels of the ship the numbers went up. So seven decks down you were on seven deck.

Now the tricky part. From the front of the ship to the back the compartments were alphabetical with A at the front and Z at the back. Facing towards the front of the ship all the compartments to the right of centre (starboard) were given odd numbers ascending from the centre. All the compartments to the left (port) were given even numbers.

The mess deck where I lived was at 3J3 – 3 deck, (third from the top), J section (10th from the front) and the compartment was the second one out from the centre. Still with me? If not go back six lines. The madness did not stop there. If a compartment was very large it would be subdivided again into smaller compartments using the same system. So at the front of a large compartment you would have another ‘a’ section and if it was out to the right it would be given an odd number dependent on how many sections were situated within the larger compartment.

On one occasion there was a real fire. The alarm was raised and the fire was in 7Na4 (you work it out). I ran like hell picking up a fire extinguisher on the run and started to descend the decks. However, I hit a dead end. This was not good. Not only was the ship on fire but I could not get to it. I doubled back and went up a deck and then tried again, but came upon another dead end.

It was then I realised I had hit the bulkhead at the front of the huge aircraft hangar which virtually took up the entire width of the ship. I was going to have to circumnavigate this. By the time I reached 7Na4 the fire had been put out and the fire party had gone.

Then the voice of the Master at Arms came over the ship’s tannoy asking me to report to his office. Running like a madman I tried to retrace my steps and took a further eight minutes to find him. I knew I was in big trouble. ‘Where the bloody hell have you been’ he screamed. ‘I have absolutely no idea,’ I replied. Washing up the dishes for 2,000 people is a memory that will stay with me forever and perhaps explains my intolerance to people being late without a good excuse.

Paul Bennett is client director at Henley Management College

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