When World War II began Emma Smith was very nearly grown up. She saw young men she knew sign up, she heard news of deaths, she saw other working on the home front, and she wanted to do something too. In 1943 she found her role. She signed on with the Grand Union Shipping Company, who were employing women to get boats that had been lying idle moving again, to move cargoes up and down the country.
I read about those years in Emma Smith’s second volume of autobiography, ‘As Green as Grass.’ It’s a wonderful books, but the Cornish library Service’s copies are in heavy demand, and so I had to hand my copy back before I had time to pull my thoughts together and write about it.
But I had this book, the book that Emma Smith wrote about her wartime experiences right after the war, the book that won the James Tait Black Memorial Award for 1948, on the shelf; I had to pick it up and read.
‘Maidens’ Trip’ is fiction, but it is very close to fact; this is the story of one journey, up and down the canal, inspired by many trips made and many people met until the end of the year.
It is a wonderful adventure for three young women - Nanette, Emma and Charity - all from conventional, middle-class backgrounds, who have completed basic training and have been dropped into the very different world of the boating fraternity.
They will manage two boats – a motor boat to provide the power and a butty boat to provide the space – and they will move cargo between London and Birmingham.
“It must have been an astonishing imposition for the canal people when the war brought them dainty young girls to help them mind their business, eager young creatures with voices pitched as to be almost impossible to understand. It must have been amazing, more especially since the war changed their own lives so little, for they read no newspapers, being unable to read, and if they did possess a wireless, seldom listened to the news …..”
Emma Smith paints wonderful pictures of those people: some are curious, some are helpful, some are competitive, and only a few are hostile.
The three girls take to their new life with gusto. They live in cramped conditions, rising early, cooking on a camping stove, and go out in all weathers to do hard physical work. They learn much along the way, they laugh, they cry, they squabble; but it is clear that they have a wonderful camaraderie, that they are completely wrapped up in what they are doing, and that they are absolutely determined to succeed.
The war, home, family, seem so far away, and are barely mentioned. That’s how caught up they are …..
The workings of the boats, the mechanics of the canal and the boats form the backbone of the story, and though I knew little it was easy to understand, and the spirit of the girls always held my interest. If they could do it then I could read it!
There are some wonderful incidents along the way. A kitten is rescued and named Cleopatra. A girl is forced to run along the canal bank when she is left behind, after going in search of proper bathroom facilities. A few tins of food are turned into a wonderful feast. A leak creates panic …..
Emma Smith took all of this - day-to-day minutiae and wonderful memories – and she turned it into a wonderfully engrossing tale. She told it with such verve, such wonderful economy, such subtle wit, such elegant prose; and she brought a world and a time that she clearly loved to life on the page.