Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Book Review: Those In Peril - a Blue Funnel Story, by Ian Cook

When I ordered this online I got a message back from the New Zealand vendor: it was heavier than expected and so the postage would be higher than quoted - would this be ok? Yes it was, I replied, but I can see why they would ask that as it clocks in at nearly 1.5 kg.

Those in Peril, A Blue Funnel Story, is the autobiography of Ian Cook who grew up in Scotland and was to travel the world, ending up in New Zealand many years later.

In 1944 he signed up with Blue Funnel and after training was appointed as midshipman to MV Prometheus: it was to be the start of a lifetime at sea. The book describes that life in its main stages:
- the Blue Funnel years, travel between Britain and the far east
- the Malaysia years, first with the Straits Steamship Company and then as a pilot at Penang
- the New Zealand years as pilot and harbour master

Its a rich story and I wasn't surprised to hear in this YouTube recording of a Skype interview that he constantly kept at diary which must have been the basis of this book.

Its a record of a time of much change, the last years before the container revolutionised merchant marine life, turning sailors into components to feed a mechanised distribution system. It also covers the end of empire, with independence from Britain, which was one of the motivations for the end of Cook's Malaysian years.

Intriguingly there is mention of him piloting the boat in which Victoria Drummond (another Blue Funnel old hand) was chief engineer into Penang but I couldn't see any reference to him in her book or actual reference to them meeting which is a bit frustrating.

What was common theme was Cook meeting fellow Blueys over the years and for that company to be a bond to connect them across time and space. But there was also a feeling that the Blue Funnel line changed when Lawrence Holt retired, and Cook decided to leave the company at that point.

During those years he got married three times and played a lot of golf, but that is mostly in the background, as the main focus in on his life as a sailor, ending up in New Zealand as "Captain Cook" (very appropriate).

Its a rich record of a life, though it could do with a bit more dates to tie down when events occurred, and probably more of a specialist than general read.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Book Review: Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein

I mostly liked this book a lot, but there was a definite qualification involved.

Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein, describes the Thames Estuary and has sub-title "Out from London to the Sea" and that is indeed the scope. It's well written and often captures the edge-land mood of these flat landscapes.

There is of course some debate about what exactly is meant by the Thames Estuary. Wikipedia gives a range of start points, some as far inland as Teddington (which seems unlikely), but Gravesend sounds plausible (though not definitive). There is a similar confusion about the end point, but maybe that is appropriate as this is where land meets sea under a sky that reaches from horizon to horizon.

The writer covers a lot of ground - including literally - from Southend Pier to pirate radio stations to Sealand to fishing folk to their families to musicians, artists, poets, writers, sailors, divers, historians....

Some of it seemed familiar and it turned out for good reason. Lichtenstein was one of the organisers of the Estuary Festival I went to back in 2016 - indeed some of the installations I saw were described in this book. Plus I've explored places she describes when searching for the London Stones.

There was also this short film which I described as "very arty" and that is both the strength and weakness of this book. It's a strength because she clearly knows about this field and has lots of interesting ideas. It's a weakness as sometimes you have to get the facts right.

Take the case of her describing the estuary during World War 2: on the 22nd November 1939 German's machine-gunned Southend Pier and after that "doodlebugs roared constantly overhead". Err... no, there were no doodblebugs aka V1s until 1944.

Or towards the end of the war when she says that commanders were told "where they would land at Normandy during the Battle of Dunkirk". Again, these are two completely different events: the Little Ships and D-Day might both involve boats but there are separate in many ways, not the least years apart and different direction of forces.

I suppose if you're an artist with an interest in oral history then what matters is narrative (not necessarily non-fiction), emotion and feelings. But it means that readers can disconnect from the text a bit as it forces you to keep asking if something really happened.

It didn't help that she doesn't seem at ease at sea, partly because of a sailing accident, but her fancies are too quick to turn wind howling through the rigging and the squeak of the timbers of an old sailing barge into ghosts hearing in those sounds "a woman's scream and the dreadful noise of children sobbing".

She is more at home on land than on water, and her sympathies are for the women of the fishing community rather than the men who die all too regularly doing their job. She reminds us of her local connections but to the sailors on the estuary itself she is a stranger.

There are plenty of photos but badly reproduced and without any titles so it is often hard to tell what they are and when they were taken.

It would have been better to call this book not "Estuary" but "The people of the Estuary" for that is what interests the author and on that level it could be considered a success.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Ocean Liners at the V&A

There are three major museums in South Kensington, but when I was young there was really only two: the spaceships and robots museum (aka Science) and the dinosaur museum (aka Natural History).

On the other side of Museum Road I knew there was something called the Victoria and Albert (V&A) but it seemed to be all about textiles, clothes and plates, which was clearly really dull.

So it is only recently that I've been inside and found out that V&A has a fantastic courtyard (one of the best in London) and is only mostly dull, for there are sometimes exhibitions of interest, such as the one on the moment about Ocean Liners.

This exhibition covers the world of the ocean liner when it was a glamorous way to travel, so from the end of the 19th century to the start of the 2nd World War (mostly). It's also limited to a few of the big firms and routes, with a large emphasis on the transatlantic route to New York.

So nothing about the Blue Funnel Line then.

It was full of interest, from the old posters (like the one above) to magnificent models, such as this cut-away that shows the different levels of opulence from 1st to 2nd and finally 3rd class in the bowels of the boat:

There is of course mention of that most famous of all liners, with this deck chair from the Titanic:

There's also focus on the glamour of liner life during the roaring twenties and fabulous (darling) thirties when top movie stars and socialites graced the decks of the super-ships battling for the Blue Ribbon:

Post war the emphasis was on leisure, swimming and sunbathing:

Then air travel took over and the super liners ended up dismantled or in the case of the Queen Mary, turned into a museum in its own right.

At the exit, film clips show the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Leonardo DiCaprio, as if to remind us of how they influence us still. The memory of those glamorous vessels, and the rich and famous that sailed on them, remains strong; echos of those glorious days and nights at sea.

An exhibition worth popping into the V&A for, even if, like for me, it isn't your usual haunt.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Thames Tideway Tunnel - April 2018 Update

In the last few months those travelling on the Thames, such as the commuters in the Clippers zooming up and down between Putney and Gravesend, will have seen more and more tunnel boring machines (TBMs) appear on the riverbank.

The one at Fulham (with cutting head above) has been assembled from parts (as blogged here) and similar constructions can been seen at other sites, such as by Battersea Power Station. In total there are 5 TBMs on this project.

The acoustic shed that was under construction (as described in this blog) is now finished and within it a shaft is being cut down to the level of the tunnel:

This pic must have been taken a few weeks ago as its now just over 20m down of the total 50m depth where tunnelling will happen.

The soil is being removed by barge down the Thames. When the TBM is fully operational it will be continually generating waste and which a series of conveyor belts will transport onto these lighters 24 hours a day.

A couple of years ago I walked the Thames Tunnel, constructed between 1825 and 1843 by the father and son team of 20 year old Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir Marc.

This project will take a lot less time to complete and use a lot higher tech but its fascinating to see this new part of London's infrastructure take shape.

Images from: Thames Tideway Tunnel

Thursday, April 12, 2018

William Dampier on Ascension Island

Recently SV Delos has been on Ascension Island.

Well I say recently: what I mean is that they recently published a set of videos about their time on the island, in practice they were there back in July 2017.

While I can't see myself ever getting to what looks like an amazing place, it appears an alleged relative of mine did, namely William Dampier. I've posted about him and his amazing life before and my go-to book on the subject is A Pirate of Exquisite Mind. So after watching the Delos video I picked up my copy, looked in the index under Ascension, and yes there it was.

Dampier was on his way back from exploring the waters between north Australia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea as captain of the Roebuck. Alas his command was rotten and worm-eaten and while passing Ascension in 1701 it sprung "a great leak". After frantic attempts to save the ship (not helped by a carpenter who felt the best idea was to cut an even bigger hole) he was forced to beach the Roebuck on the shores of the island.

At the time Ascension was uninhabited and described as a "desolate island" but the castaways found a spring, turtles, goats and land crabs on which they survived until rescue came from some passing Royal Navel vessels and an East Indiaman.

Three hundred years later relics of that Roebuck were unearthed by archaeologists on Long Beach, Ascension including the ship's bell and a giant clam-shell, one of the specimens Dampier was returning for the Royal Society.

The bell is now on display in the museum on Ascension and the incident was depicted in a set of stamps issued by the island government showing Dampier, the Roebuck, its grounding and then recovery of the bell by divers:

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Thames history fades

This is the Lots Road Power Station, built between 1902 and 1904, and it stands where Chelsea Creek meets the Thames.

The photo above shows the view as of spring 2018 (in black and white) and you can get an echo of what it must have been like for about a hundred years: focused on a working river - much like the previous post about Greenwich.

Not for much longer, though, as this empty shell is about to be transformed into Chelsea Waterfront including two glass and steel towers containing apartments that gleam with polished granite.

But I have decidedly mixed feelings about this: what London needs is affordable housing, costing between £ 300 - 500k not multi-million pound condos for those looking for "a study in sheer opulence".

Does their glossy brochure describe the London I know?

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Dire Straits: Single Handed Sailor

Bit of a blast from the past this morning

Two in the morning, dry-dock town
The river rolls in the night
Little gypsy moth, she's all tied down
She quivers in the wind and the light

Yeah, and a sailing ship is just held down in chains
From the lazy days of sail
She's just a-lying there in silent pain
He lean on the tourist rail

A mother and her baby and the college of war
In the concrete graves
You never want to fight against the river law
Nobody rules the waves
Yeah, and on a night when the lazy wind is a-wailing
Around the Cutty Sark
The single-handed sailor goes sailing
Sailing away in the dark

He's upon the bridge on the self same night
The mariner of dry-dock land
Two in the morning, but there's one green light
And a man on a barge of sand

She's gonna slip away below him
Away from the things he's done
But he just shouts "Hey man, what you call this thing?"
He could have said "Pride of London"
On a night when the lazy wind is a-wailing
Around the Cutty Sark
Yeah, the single-handed sailor goes sailing
Sailing away in the dark

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Transgender ship demands right to be called he

Traditionally all ships have been identified as female but in a shock move this morning a representative of the world's ships has said that in future they want to be referred to as "he".

"Gender is a dynamic concept" he said. "It makes many of us uncomfortable that the sailing community would force one particular gender upon the ships and boats of the world. No longer are all sailors male: now we have women racing in the Volvo and Olympics just like the men."

The move was supported by gender neutral monarch Neptune, who noted that river and sea gods can be either gender and therefore welcomed this introduction of diversity into shipping.

Editors note: following a top-level all-staff meeting involving JP, Sassi and (reluctantly) Buff it was agreed that forthwith this blog will use the gender neutral "it" to describe all boats, ships, yachts, dinghies or other marine craft.