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Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Wavy Navy 1950. J Lennox Kerr and David James.

James Lennox Kerr (see other posts) was an experienced seaman who served in the RNVR (Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve) during WW2. Details of his service are sparse since his autobiographical writings finish in 1937. He edited (with David James) Wavy Navy by some who served in 1950 (Harrap) with a Foreword by the Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Cunningham of Hyndhope. In it he contributed three chapters. He also wrote The R.N.V.R.: A Record of Achievement with Wilfred Granville in 1957.
JLK's three chapters are written in his three writing names. The J Lennox Kerr chapter 'Third Officer Felicia McClusky' is a very amusing piece about a ship who invented a female officer, giving her a dressed up room and referring to her in ways that seemed to make her more real over time. The WRNS took her to heart and in the end, after visiting her, took her away with them. When an officer was married, a joke telegram was received from Felicia expressing her dismay but wishing them well. Under the pen-name Peter Dawlish, he wrote 'Those Charming Old Gentlemen' is an amusing appreciation of the old-timers who, brought out of retirement, worked behind the scenes to set up and inspect the raggle-taggle efforts of seamen in harbours across the land with no navy training or discipline. They are described as having worked miracles, in a job that was intended to marginalise them since they had kicked the hind-ends of My Lords of the Admiralty (as boy trainees) and knew senior officers as scruffy midshipmen. 
they possessed one tremendous quality: they were stiff with Naval tradition and pride in a craft they had never forsaken in their hearts. To these charming old gentlemen theirs was a holy task. They swept aside the rights of property owners like any 'damned socialist' and claimed the fairest vistas in England; they remembered every trick of scrounging orthievery they had learned as magistrates on the Bench; they tricked their bosom friends, lied, bullied and black-guarded; and they raised every sort and shape of hut in every possible material from asbestos sheeting to plywood and named it HMS This or That. A square of concrete became a quarterdeck. A tin hut was a wardroom. Their bridge was a varnished chair, and, I repeat, they built a Navy - our Navy
 They  were "quite the wrong people to be running us amateur sailors". In learning to fool them, they actually got what they wanted : "we had built our little Navy, and it worked.
Under the pen-name Gavin Douglas, 'Tell Us about D-Day' gives an account of a support vessel taking American troups over to Omaha beech on the second wave of D-Day. It sounds autobiographical, but he is using his fiction-writer's persona. He, the captain and supposed writer, is aged about 45 with most of his crew under 20, most of whom had never sailed before their training in Scotland. This is the right age for JLK. His age at the time of writing (1949) he gives as around 50, again right. In my view, he wanted to tell the honest tale of stubborn bravery without seeming to boast.
The boat was an LCT Mark IV in Q squadron. It was to carry 6 Sherman tanks, 2 half-track supply trucks, and a Red Cross jeep, plus 4 officers and 54 GIs. The Americans, well supplied with cigarettes and chewing gum, gave most of this away with obsessive generosity. The paperwork was so dense that it had to be sifted for things of relevance and the rest carefully burnt. The craft were gathered in orderly fashion in Plymouth Sound. The convoy departed at 2am on 4th June, only to be ordered back until next day. The author gives high praise of the efforts of these amateur crews.
The scene off the beach was too astounding for an emotion so inadequate as surprise. One accepted it because the the only way to marvel was to start counting the ships, barges, landing craft, concrete units, battleships, cruisers, sweepers and the hundreds of other types of vessels, and to consider how this multitude had been collected in the ports of England, and had sailed across enemy waters in one night...and none of us was in a mood for counting ships.
They all mustered without collision. The hands had dressed for the occasion in their best uniforms. The landing was difficult as battle raged, the jeep being lost in an invisible hole. But all was landed and some wounded taken off.
I am a seaman of many year's experience, and am a steady old man nearing fifty. I want to say how much praise is due to the young fellows who officered and manned those landing craft. No one, in our own or other navies, could have done the job better. There were no heroics, nothing but an even and high standard of ability as seamen and as men.Any attempt to make the voyage glamorous or exciting would be stupid. A cold description that requires no adorning is the only tribute anyone can pay.
Editors have a number of jobs, one to source material, and another to make the whole readable. JLK produced these three stories to add enjoyment to the mix of material. Another, 'First Trip' by Ronald Hope, is on a subject close to JLK's heart since he wrote two first tripper books. Hope produced an impressive list of seafaring books: any reader with information about his life please get in touch through comments.

Dr Ronald Hope OBE, after war service, left Oxford University in 1947 to become first Director of the Seafarers Education Service. This became part of the Marine Society (an ancient Navy recruitment charity) in 1976, a year which saw many such amalgamations as the Marine Society refigured itself into an educational support service. Hope was first Director of this new enterprise. He wrote several books on the Merchant Navy, including The Seaman's World: Merchant Seamen's Reminiscences (1982) from which these details come. See also the Wikipedia entry on The Marine Society.

Finally: J L Kerr also edited Touching the Adventures of Merchantmen in the Second World War in 1953. This was a joint enterprise with Dr Ronald Hope, then of the Seafarers Education Service, who did the "tedious clerical work and organization" (Preface) after an appeal for stories in nautical journals. This volume includes a story by "Peter Dawlish", a JLK pseudonym: it is a tale of a navy old-timer returning to serve during the war, finding that the navy had changed, and old skills were difficult to recover. Hostility to him by fellow crew disappeared when he spotted a mine and instinctively steered the ship away from it while everyone else panicked. He had served previously on minesweepers and now won instant respect for this newly needed expertise.
Touching the Adventures of Merchantmen can be regarded as the start of a programme to encourage seaman literacy which has matured today into the educational mission of the Marine Society.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Woman of Glenshiels - Lennox Kerr, 1935

This novel is about the tribulations and aspirations of a working class woman, Mary Bassett, within a system that constantly denies aspiration. The story follows her from adolescence to maturity, ending with the depression years of 1933-4, contemporary with the writing of the novel. The Scots town is no doubt similar to the Paisley were the writer was brought up and lived at the time of writing. It is not a 'socialist' book, but a story of working class struggle that includes scenes which comment on socialism. The heroine, Mary is not  ideological but pragmatic. She has her own views, which she will argue dogmatically: these are not given as the author's views, and although we readers may understand how she has reached them, we also may not agree with them. They show rather a working class woman trying to work things out. Although this struggle is general, the background is Scottish in two main ways, the place of religion in the social fabric, and the use of the Glasgow dialect throughout the dialogue. The readerly ear tunes into this, and it is not a drawback.
Young Mary walks out with Donald, a socialist whose dreams is to line up the bosses and shoot them. His mother was a socialist, his father a pacifist. He believed that the 1914-18 war was no concern of the working man. He didn't believe that private property was morally owned. Mary constantly nibbled away at his socialism and he constantly compromised, without changing deep down. He refused to sign up as soldier and was given a white feather. The story shows the pressure that Mary came under through her peer group, "the Table" [i.e. the women working at the same table].and hence the pressure she brought to bear on Donald. Such women's groups are called "the real parliament" where decisions are made whilst men focus on football, drink and work. Donald signed up and was killed within five days of arriving at the front. Ironically, as he became one of the boys, Mary didn't like what he had become. We see her  gradually justifying her opinions to herself, and telling herself that their relationship would not have worked. The issue did not fully resolve itself to the end of the book.
Mary worked in a cooked meat factory making veal, much as the author had done in his youth. She had a work ethic and a respect for her employer, whom she saw as a fellow worker (his lack of employer's drive led to bankruptcy, as Donald said it would). She was no shirker. Gradually she built up for herself a well-furnished sitting room in her father's house out of her earnings, ensuring its tidiness with dragon-like control even of her father. When she married Dan, this furniture was taken lock stock and barrel to her own house. She remembered times her parents had no furniture, having to tiptoe so neighbours did not realise they had no carpets, and was determined to ensure she could keep up appearances.
By the time she married Dan she was emotionally hard and brittle. They had a girl and a boy. Dan was Labour, not, he said, a communist. She was impressed by his emphasis on the need for collective bargaining and declared a support for Labour politics. However, she believed that the unemployed were at fault for not seeking work, much because Dan had a relatively safe and protected job. However, when his shipyard closed down and he could not find a replacement job, she attempted a doorstep sales business. When he couldn't sell her stock, she took to the road herself and realised both the impossibility of her self-help plan, and that closures were not the worker's fault. She returned to her meat factory, which was already failing as the veal remained unsold. She noticed that processes were inefficient and forced the younger workers to work more efficiently, which resulted in finishing early rather than as before spreading the same work over the day. The factory folded. The owner was too soft hearted and should have raised efficiency and cut staff.
The book reaches a crisis when her daughter failed to thrive and the doctor blamed under-nutrition because she was feeding her inappropriate foods. In this extract, the young doctor had given a passionate speech about social inequity and malnutrition:
Her cold determination shocked the man from his passion. He watched her curiously and saw the firm mouth, the burning eyes and that wide impressive forehead. From her he felt force and strength like an armour, a weapon thrusting. 'You've taught me a lesson, Doctor,' she said vibrantly. 'I was content to be like the others. I took what I got and made the best of it. I forgot for a while....But you've woke me up again. I drapped the fight but I can start again. Ther's money tae be had and I'll get it....If I have to work my flesh away....My bairns'll get what they need.'  He was slightly shocked. He wished he had not let himself go. In this woman was a quality that made him apprehensive. She would stop at nothing, he thought; she is fierce as an animal. God help those who stand in her way. [p.261]
 To provide the children with a more varied diet, Mary took a domestic job whilst Dan was 'on the Parish': this led to a court-case for fraud as this income was not declared. An official had spoken to the small son at the door and been told that his mother was at work. The court-case underlined how the system made it impossible to people to help themselves, and how current policies were leading to major child malnutrition in working class families. If you can't look after your family, Dan was told, they will be taken into care. They were fined £10; to pay Mary had to sell her furniture: she knew she was being swindled, but had no choice. Full circle. There the book ends.