Hester: Ship’s Officer by Valerie Baxter

After yesterday’s debacle of a book, I decided to treat myself to a known favourite by an author who has managed to include a plot in his job description. His? Well, yes. Valerie Baxter is actually Laurence Meynell. Clearly Bodley Head felt it would be inappropriate to have a male writer of their career novels for girls – although he did write under his own name for Chatto & Windus. Kay Whalley, who, as Kay Clifford, wrote Career Novels for Girls, commented on another post that Hester: Ship’s Officer feels like bits of two books mashed together. And she might have a point as there’s a good bit of story before Hester realises what it is she’d like to do.

Like me, Hester’s first voyage was made when she was very young. In 1938, at the age of two, she and her parents set sail for Australia where her engineer father is to supervise work on a dam. As war intervenes, he is transferred to more pressing duties and the family settles in to life in Sydney where they remain for ten years. I would make the journey the other way, from Melbourne back to Edinburgh, just less than thirty years later. I was even younger than Hester, being yet unborn!

My first departure from Sydney

It is Hester’s return voyage to Britain in 1948 that makes the impression on her. Back in Blighty she is sent to boarding school where she excels at tennis and swimming and generally enjoys life. Having no idea what she wants to do with her life when she leaves school, she accepts her father’s suggestion that she goes to a commercial college for six months. Unenthusiastically, she agrees and does well. On the strength of this she gets a job as secretary to Julian Manners, the owner of The Wine House. (Somehow it is also relevant that his father is ‘Sir Wraybury Manners, the big surgeon’…)

Hester enjoys her somewhat unconventional secretarial position but she’s always beset by a nagging desire for more freedom. In the end, though, Hester feels forced to leave the Wine House by the behaviour of another of Julian’s employees, a widow with designs on the boss. With no good reason she is jealous of Hester and the two cannot work together. So Hester goes and, after a few months, gains a typing post at the offices of the M&E Steamship Navigation Company. She’s put on the sea-going list and settles down to wait until a post at sea becomes available.

Hester: finally a ship’s officer

We meet Hester’s flatmates: the steady Zoe and the racy and flamboyant Pat. Then there’s Hester’s new friend, Felicity, at M&E and her parents in the background. So Valerie Baxter gives us a proper setting and a bit of a storyline along with career advice. Pat is particularly unexpected in a book for teenage girls published in 1957. We see what we think is the last of her having an affair with a married film director. Her other flatmate follows a more accepted line and gets married the day before Hester finally makes it to sea.

She is given a job in the Deputy Purser’s Office on board the Mendip and will sail the round trip to Australia, leaving Tilbury in early September. It is pointed out forcibly to the reader that Hester is a stenographer and not an assistant purser. Women cannot aspire to such dizzy heights. But she is classed as an officer. And so, almost two thirds of the way through the book, Hester finally becomes a ship’s officer. If I thought I could, like Hester, have a single outside cabin, I’d definitely be looking for a job on board a ship. That I wouldn’t have such a thing is what puts me off.

MS Midnatsol: my ship

Hester quickly adapts to life at sea and gets on well with her fellow workers. She falls into the rhythm of life on board ship easily and can imagine no place she’d rather be. ‘Hester tried to imagine what she would do with the first leave that she had to spend in England and found…that the whole fabric and framework of her shore life now seemed so remote and unreal that she could scarcely work up any enthusiasm on the subject’. That’s exactly how I feel on board a ship, which is why this is one of my favourite books.

“The more the ship rolled the better she liked it; and the harder it blew the more exhilarating she found it.”

We hear about Hester’s routine, the funny ways of passengers and the ports of call, not that she sees any of them on the outward voyage. And then the ship arrives in Freemantle (yes, with a double e) and life once more becomes hectic. Few of the passengers disembark there but Hester has time for a quick sightseeing tour of Perth before heading on to Melbourne and finally Sydney. There she visits her old school and is promptly press-ganged by the headmistress into talking to the sixth form about her job.

Perth

The return leg of the journey proceeds much as expected and Hester begins to feel that she can take anything in her stride. However, she is stunned when the female part of the luxury suite, a self-obsessed, unreasonably demanding diva, turns out to be her former flatmate, Pat. A more pleasant diversion comes at Gibraltar with the embarkation of Julian Manners. Hester realises how pleased she is to see him and by the end of the voyage has agreed to marry him three years hence. In the meantime, however, she is immediately to take the place of a sick colleague on a Scandinavian cruise. Trondheim, Bergen, Oslo, Copenhagen and so on…

I didn’t mean to but I’ve reread the book as I wrote this and I’ve remembered all over again how much I enjoy it and how much I envy Hester her life at sea. There’s a lot of useful information crammed in but there’s a story and proper characters as well as a believable setting. I commend it to you!

Bergen

My Lockdown Books: Thirty Two

This is a piece I wrote a couple of years ago.  I don’t think I can improve upon it.  

To the Edge of the World is set on the west coast, in the Hebrides and beyond. It’s the story of Jamie, recently returned to his mother’s island home, and of Mara, an incomer for whom the wild surroundings are everything. Jamie is afraid of the sea whilst Mara is afraid of losing it. In the course of the novel they both face their greatest fears. Will they survive the encounters?

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival I had the great pleasure of meeting Julia Green and chairing an event with her and Elizabeth Laird whom I have known and admired for some years. We were discussing their recent novels for young people, both set on the Scottish coast.

In the course of a long career working in libraries and interacting with authors I have never lost the excitement that comes with hearing a writer talk about her work. Listening to Julia chat about her book with Elizabeth and me brought its landscape into clear focus and her characters vividly to life. And the audience’s questions – along with Julia’s answers – made me think about different aspects of the novel.

The sea is a major player in the book. Julia’s descriptions of it in its many moods are perfect. She completely captures its capricious nature so that the reader feels as though it is there. And for me the descriptions of the sea, its vagaries and the characters’ responses to it were what the book was all about. I choose to live by the sea because I love it but I have seen and experienced how it can wreak devastation. I’m not an outdoors girl by any stretch of the imagination but I’ve lived away from the sea and been frantic for the sound and smell and taste of it. So I empathise with both Jamie and Mara and understand their opposing fears.

If all that To the Edge of the World had going for it was its depictions of the sea, I’d have been happy. But, of course, there’s more. There’s an interesting supporting cast, interwoven plot strands and a satisfying story to captivate the reader. Let that reader be you.

My Lockdown Books: Twenty Four

I’ve been reading Mabel Esther Allan’s books for about forty years.  I’ve collected them more seriously recently but have limited myself to her teenage novels as her output was prolific.  Originally I was only interested in the travel romances but now I’ve branched out into the mysteries as well.

I have visited more places than I’d realised because of her books or to see specific things she mentions in them: Kandersteg, Lugano, Montmartre, Lindau…  The list goes on.  Mabel loved to travel but hated to be a tourist and I can relate to that.  I love travelling and trying to blend in.

A Summer at Sea is almost my perfect travel novel.  As you do if you’re a middle class girl who’s not interested in a career and has been unwell, Gillian gets herself a temporary job in the shop on board a small cruise ship.  (Actually her aunt, who works for the company and is well in with the Captain, gets it for her.)  I read this one as an adult and I was so jealous!  Not only does she spend a summer at sea, but she visits Bergen multiple times.

Bergen is one of my favourite places in the world and I have only ever been there when embarking or disembarking a ship.  But that’s not as a result of this book.  I first visited Bergen on its own merits and because it is the departure point of the Hurtigruten ships.  The Bergen in this book, set in the 1960s, is very different to the Bergen I know in terms of economy and tourism but the geography of the city is perfectly recognisable.

Oh, to be able to spend a summer at sea in Norway.  I’m saving up to do two Hurtigruten coastal sailings back to back.  That might have to do!

To the Edge of the World by Julia Green

To the Edge of the World is set on the west coast, in the Hebrides and beyond.  It’s the story of Jamie, recently returned to his mother’s island home, and of Mara, an incomer for whom the wild surroundings are everything.  Jamie is afraid of the sea whilst Mara is afraid of losing it.  In the course of the novel they both face their greatest fears.  Will they survive the encounters?

At the recent Edinburgh International Book Festival I had the great pleasure of meeting Julia Green and chairing an event with her and Elizabeth Laird whom I have known and admired for some years.  We were discussing their recent novels for young people, both set on the Scottish coast.

In the course of a long career working in libraries and interacting with authors I have never lost the excitement that comes with hearing a writer talk about her work.  Listening to Julia chat about her book with Elizabeth and me brought its landscape into clear focus and her characters vividly to life.  And the audience’s questions – along with Julia’s answers – made me think about different aspects of the novel.

The sea is a major player in the book.  Julia’s descriptions of it in its many moods are perfect.  She completely captures its capricious nature so that the reader feels as though it is there.  And for me the descriptions of the sea, its vagaries and the characters’ responses to it were what the book was all about.  I choose to live by the sea because I love it but I have seen and experienced how it can wreak devastation.  I’m not an outdoors girl by any stretch of the imagination but I’ve lived away from the sea and been frantic for the sound and smell and taste of it.  So I empathise with both Jamie and Mara and understand their opposing fears.

If all that To the Edge of the World had going for it was its depictions of the sea, I’d have been happy.  But, of course, there’s more.  There’s an interesting supporting cast, interwoven plot strands and a satisfying story to captivate the reader.  Let that reader be you.