Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book Review: Voyage East

Ex-Beatle Ringo Starr recently made the headlines by saying he missed nothing about his home city of Liverpool. It is indeed a city that is short of admirers, but there is one thing it was rightly famous for, and that was its shipping lines. And arguably the greatest of those was the Blue Funnel Line.

Ok, maybe I'm more than a little biased given it was founded by a great-to-the-something relative, but it seems that I'm not alone, and the Voyage East would be one of the exhibits in my defence.

This book describes the journey by a ship of the Blue Funnel Line in the last days of Britains once great mercantile fleet. There isn't a precise date as its an amalgamation of several journeys - I'm guessing around 1960 - into one, with names changed to protect the innocent.

Not that there were many innocents among the crew, for this book makes it clear the reputation of the merchant seaman was well earned, and the description of the temptations of shore are graphic, together with the risks and fears of STDs.

It makes a great companion to a book previously reviewed, namely the Surgeon's Log. There are strong echoes of this earlier book in Voyage East and I wouldn't be surprised if Richard Woodman, its author, was familiar with it. He seems well read, often quoting the likes of Conrad, just as the Surgeon's Log was frequently quoting my favourite buccaneer, William Dampier. 

In both cases the journey starts and ends in what was the great port of Liverpool, taking in the Suez Canal, Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Japan and back again via the Philippines and Borneo. The boat has a rich but realistic cast of "characters" from the old man, known as China Dick (and for a reason), the Mate (from the old school - efficient and married to the romance of the sea), to the engineers and deck hands. 

I really enjoyed it, and felt it captured the reality of that life, the hardship of endless watches and loss of roots that comes from continual travel, balanced by the wonders of strange lands and those experiences of the sea worth remembering: perfect sunsets and endless stars at night.

In the end the British merchant navy was to be destroyed not by war or angry seas but a metal box. For the soulless container ship operating under flag of convenience would make the general cargo ship an anachronism.

But there are many that morn its loss, and there are those Blueys still out there with memories of derricks and cargo storage, carrying anything from palm oil to the kitchen sink through storms and typhoons.

And I'm sure they will look back on those days with affection and read this book with a smile of recognition

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