Monday, 17 May 2010

Book Review- "The Boat Girls" by Margaret Mayhew

I realised the other day that a feature of other peoples' blogs are book reviews. The most recently-read relevant book is "The Boat Girls" by Margaret Mayhew.

First impressions? Well, the front cover is a photograph, rather than a painting or illustration, and- to my cynical eye- I noticed the modern boats in the background. But then, I'm exceedingly picky and I went looking for them!

The plot seems to be pretty standard for this genre- women in wartime do Something Different, find themselves and form friendships and relationships with servicemen, and the plot proceeds on its way to a pretty foreordained conclusion.

The big difference to other books in the genre is the Inland Waterways connection. The women from disparate backgrounds- bank teller, out-of-work actress, fresh-from-school upper-class drifter- are united by their replies to an advert asking for volunteers for Inland Waterways service, working pairs of boats to keep traffic moving. Together, they learn slowly the skills of working the boats, after entertainingly-related disasters during the learning process, start to become skilled. But, being "off the bank", they will never really be accepted by the "real" boaters.

The hardships of living aboard seem to have been well researched, and certainly Mayhew does not skimp on the detail, taking an almost perverse pleasure in describing the bedbugs and lack of space in living aboard, the cuts, grazes and blisters of loading, unloading and sheeting up, and the hardships of working boats day in, day out. A few details do jar, however; do the rear fenders on a boat really protect the propeller, which is under the counter anyway? If one were to walk over the top-planks of a boat, set across the beams, surely the drop is only 4 or 5 feet to the bottom of the boat, rather than the more vertiginous nine feet described by Mayhew; and could a loaded boat really fall off an aqueduct, if the steerer were not paying attention?

These are all very small niggles, and I realise that I'm far too much of a finickity historian, picking small faults. The very vast majority seems to have been well-described, realistic, and Mayhew manages to convey the contradiction of a hard, physical, demanding lifestyle with the pleasure gained from it- of working efficiently through a flight, or being free to enjoy the sights and sounds of the countryside; of learning the boaters' names for places and techniques for working efficiently.

Overall? Well, it's not the kind of book I would normally read- but, drawn in by the canal setting, I couldn't help but enjoy it.


  1. James,
    I have to say that my own review was rather less positive!
    (not sure if the link works from the comments box, if not perhaps you could cut-and-paste.

  2. James
    It was a book I read some time ago, probably before you started living on the "Duck", I enjoyed it for the story, realising that some of the book contained "literary licence".

  3. Looks like one of those birthday cards with a daft caption the likes of

    "Mabel wore her Sunday best before opening 10 locks, she had no need to wash them in the canal afterwards - it's easy she said, just pose like this & all the guys do them for ya" lol

  4. I've reviewed that one too... The best fun was recognising her extensive research from the pages of Idle Women!