Thursday, 25 February 2010

Boat Girls

I came across this book in the local library, attracted by the title and the cover illustration of what looked like a Grand Union lockside. Its one of a series of seven by the same author all with “girls in wartime” plot lines and purports to be a work of fiction about three young girls from middle-class backgrounds who work a pair of boats for the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company during the Second World War, carrying essential cargoes between London and the midlands. .
If that sounds familiar, then so it should. The canal company participated in a government scheme to encourage women to take to the boats to provide replacements for boaters who had joined the armed forces. The war had brought a sudden upsurge in freight traffic and although the boats were available to carry it, the crews were not. 
Although the number of women involved in the scheme was never large, many of them seem to have left a written record of their experiences and if you’ve read just one of their books you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from “Boat Girls” 
Having already read “Amateur Boatwomen” (Eily Gayford), “Troubled Waters” (Margaret Cornish) and “Maidens Trip” (Emma Smith) I found “Boat Girls" eerily familiar. The characters – and most of the plot – appears to have been taken directly from one or other of these works, with some additional material from Tim Wilkinson’s “Hold on a Minute” 
The author acknowledges the “help” of these authors -  and canal historian and ex-boatman David Blagrove – but I’d say they did more than help – they virtually wrote the book!   
The boaters are at first suspicious and unfriendly, but the girls gradually win them round. They make enemies of one particular crew, but win their respect by standing up to them. One of the girls has a brother who is a “high ranking officer in the RAF” and who comes to visit, risking scandal amongst the canal community. They make a crack of dawn start to get ahead of another boat; but lose the advantage when wire on the prop brings them to a stop . At Christmas they eat a miserable Christmas Dinner in a gloomy hotel and so on and so on.
They teach a boater’s child to read  and help another get medical assistance for a sick child. They steal from a lock keepers secret stash of coal when their own stock is exhausted: every one of these incidents occurs in one or other of the autobiographical accounts by the real boat girls.  The book even ends by moving forward 50 years in time when a one of the girls has a lockside confrontation with a present-day hire boater, just as Margaret Cornish really did in "Troubled Waters". 
To be fair, Mayhew does acknowledge the assistance of Gayford, Smith and Cornish as well as David Blagrove, but I wonder if they realised just exactly how much they had "helped" in this work. 
If you’ve already read the other books (and if not, you should do) you’ll find nothing new in this one but, like me, I feel you’ll be amazed at the effrontery of Mayhew's approach and wonder how she got away with it.

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