The Good Ship Scientology

The Observer, xx August 1968


IF RON HUBBARD, founder and leader of the Scientologists, lives at all, then he is well and aboard a rusting and singularly grubby ex-Irish Sea ferry undergoing repairs in the harbour here in Corfu.

The Royal Scot Man, no port of registration upon her stern, flying the flag of Sierra Leone, and the initials LRH floridly painted on her black and white funnel, arrived here from Tunis a week ago. Her owner, said his lieutenants, when they came ashore, was a millionaire named Hubbard, who was also something of a philosopher. The Scot Man was a floating college where he taught that science and love could achieve all. This an explanation the authorities here seem to have accepted happily.

For this week the Scot Man moved into harbour for the £25,000 worth of repairs, including resurfacing of the decaying lower deck, building of cabins, and conversion of the sea-water ballast tanks into fresh water ones to increase her range.

And now a few select "sightseers" come gaily ashore with written orders to "spread the instruction of LRH" and expressing particular interest in the remoter parts of the island. But most of the 220 Scientologists never step ashore or pass through Greek passport control.

The largest national group is 'the Americans, followed by the British and South Africans. Many have wives and children on board. All have been with the ship for several months.

Visitors are discouraged. When I applied to see Hubbard I was, after a few moments' hesitation, hustled firmly down the gangway which is constantly guarded by an intercom-equipped quartermaster and whatever crew happen to he in the vicinity. The few visitors who pass a careful vetting must sign a visitors' book when arriving and leaving.

The captain of the ship is Hubbard himself. The "students," who, like the "officers" wear dark blue shirts and trousers, with white cords around their necks, say they never see him. Some officers, however, have said that they have frequent consultations with him upon written request. Certainly written orders are issued daily in buff envelopes to officers, probably by Hubbard. All official correspondence is on headed notepaper of the Hubbard Explorational Company Limited. No address is given.

Where exactly Hubbard's quarters are on board is difficult to establish, but, in the middle of the upper deck a corridor leads to what few cabins there are with a notice forbidding entry.

On the lower deck, which is even rustier and dirtier than the rest of the ship, there are two cars out of sight in the stern, both registered in Britain and believed by some students to belong to Hubbard. One is a Morris 1100, the other an American make.

On the starboard side of this deck rows of desks stretch along the promenade from bow to stern. Here "officers" are engaged in feverish paperwork, and shouting to messengers. They seem obsessed by paperwork, permits and memos. Even the messengers, before they graduated from the nursery on the upper deck, had to put in formal applications and receive formal permission to undertake "tasks" which would prove them worthy or otherwise of joining in the full life of the ship as "students" .

Opposite the desks is the impressive machinery of paper moving: batteries of baskets continually emptied by these messenger boys and girls aged about 8 to 10. Even the children in the nursery seem possessed by this grim fixity of purpose. Once a day a crocodile of then set off for a walk in town, accompanied by two women, and with an orderliness never before seen in so many children on a Greek island. There is no set graduation from nursery to student or student to officer, just the ability, to perform the set tasks - just as a Boy Scout might win a star.

The crew normally work an eight hour day, spending the evenings studying Scientology. What might have once been the holds are now rudimentary lecture theatres and study rooms with desks and armchairs. There seems no time for frivolous diversions, although occasionally small parties are held.

Those who had a relevant occupation before joining the ship (such as welding, engineering or mathematics) continue to practise it. The rest apply themselves with almost fanatical perseverance to learning skills necessary for running the ship. Few, if any; appear been professional seamen. Some have a tendency to talk in the exaggerated nautical parlance of those who are not nautical.

Yet there is something unnerving about this floating city state. Something almost dreamlike. Perhaps it is the inscrutability of its busy inhabitants; even their eyes seem devoid of any expression. Many seem like rather bad actors using language they do not understand, talking only on cue. Even this small community manages to resemble rush hour on the Underground as they pass one another purpose bent, with minimum conversation, or light of recognition.

Yet, beneath this dedicated veneer, there is a shambolic element: quite a few would pass as summer beatniks.

The exact nature of all this activity is difficult to discover. Some of it is certainly directed towards the organisation of the general meeting which should have taken place in Britain. The most likely spot for it now is the Scot Man herself - which could explain the sudden need for extra cabins: most of the crew sleep in dormitories. It is possible that most of the Scientologists themselves do not know exactly what they are doing. Despite all the rigid paperwork. the channels of power and decision-making evaporate into a haze somewhere near the top.

Hubbard plays things very close to the chest. Only he, and possibly one or two officers, knew that they were bound for Greece before they arrived here. The rest only heard that they were bound for Greece, so that their leader could "study ancient Greek civilisation".