Monday, November 13, 2006

Book review: Idle Women

With winter now upon us, I'm going to reread many of my boaty books, and hopefully get some new ones too ... and after I've (re)read them, I'm going to say what I think of them here. Pure self indulgence really (well, what else is blogging for?). I'm starting with Idle Women, Susan Woolfitt's account, first published in 1947, of her year as a 'trainee'; a member of the all-female crews instigated by the Ministry of War Transport in response to the perceived or anticipated (but, Woolfitt suggests, not actual) shortage of male labour on the waterways. I got the book last February and first read it in the most depressing depths of winter, huddled by Andante's stove under the only light I dared use. For the few days it lasted, it cheered me up immensely.

Despite being identifyably of a very particular time and class (amid the privations, unbelievably hard work, and bombings, her greatest horror is occasioned by the prospect of being on first-name terms with people she doesn't know very well), Woolfit is an immediately likeable writer. Her prose is clear, but friendly and informal; and she has an actor's ear for the dramatic telling of a story. Her story is at times amazing, and frequently amusing, but tails off somewhat towards the end of the book, as the novelty wears off and a main thread of the narrative - the learning process - is lost, it becomes more bitty with isolated anecdotes and diary entries, in place of the fluency of the earlier chapters.

This focus on the learning process, the training of complete novices into competent, even skilled, boatwomen, is possibly the best aspect of the book, because it is so instructive. We learn along with the author what the different parts and tools are called, and what they're for and how they're used; I cannot imagine a better introduction to the workings of a working boat. Not only is it comprehensive, but it is brought to life through Woolfit's experience, both of learning the skills, and then passing them on to others. The book also vividly evokes the working and living conditions of boat families at the time, conditions which shock and anger Woolfitt, and, one imagines, awake her from her previous bourgeois slumbers. Sixty years later it is impossible not to share her indignation that servicemen and women in desk jobs were entitled to extra rations, while whole families doing some of the hardest work imaginable weren't, and went hungry.

I was particularly delighted to read of the author and her colleagues spending 'a riotous evening at the "Prospect of Whitby", a very well known pub on the banks of the Thames', because at the time (indeed, from 1919 until 1950) this pub was owned, and probably also managed, by Jim's Auntie Ada, who inherited three pubs from her husband when he died in the flu epidemic. Others of his aunts were installed as managers in the other pubs.

Idle Women is still available, currently in print in M & M Baldwin's 'Working Waterways' series; I've seen it on sale in museums and chandlers. They also publish accounts by two other 'Idle Women', which I look forward to reading soon.

1 comment:

Nev Wells said...


Please keep the posts coming - your thoughts and observation are always entertaining.

I went to have another look at your apollo duck advert for Andante tonight and it seems to have been withdrawn - have you sold Andante?

Take care