Tuesday, 26 March 2002

The last grain race

Listening to:

Shostakovich, string quartet no. 12 in D flat major, Op. 133.

Just read:

Eric Newby, The last grain race.

This book is the author’s memoir of sailing from Britain to Australia and back again in 1938-9. He was on a big four-masted barque called the Moshulu as an Ordinary Seaman, having decided that his office job in London was stultifying and a dead-end. By this time, the number of commercially active sailing ships was very small, but a few still sailed to Australia and back to pick up South Australian grain for European consumption. Apparently some aspect of the docking procedure or conditions meant that self-powered boats didn’t want to do this route.

The ship that Newby joined was mainly crewed by Swedish speaking Finns, which meant that in addition to learning how to climb ratlines and shrouds and to haul sails in the appropriate manner, he also had to learn the Swedish terminology for all these activities so that he could understand what he was being told to do.

I definitely enjoyed this book. Newby writes well, with the scenes and personalities (the other seamen) he describes coming across vividly. He also sees and conveys the humour in many situations. There are a couple of short sections early on, which he flags, that are heavily “technical”, being about rigging and sails and masts, but not understanding or skipping these two shouldn’t be a problem. I read them, but I don’t think I grasped them in their entirety, and the rest of the book was still very enjoyable.

The edition I read included some very nice B/W photos that Newby took while on the voyage. These were taken from his book Learning the ropes, which consists entirely of these photos.

To read next:

More nautical matters, but fiction this time: Conrad’s The shadow line.