LITTLE SHIP, BIG STORY,
This is indeed a “big story” – at 459 pages it is also long, but endlessly fascinating. To review a book for “Little Ship” written by a distinguished Little Ship Club member could be a task requiring much tact and diplomacy. Thankfully none is needed for Rodney Pell has penned an engrossing story which astonishes both by the depth of his research and the verve and evident pleasure with which he writes. In essence this is a collection of “ripping yarns”, occasionally in almost Edwardian prose: lively, exciting, occasionally poignant, woven like a stout long splice around the 85-year history of the 25 ton motor yacht “Sheemaun.” Though a “fictionalised” account, doubtless with some poetic licence here and there, it is firmly based on a mass of diaries, letters, logs and other sources painstakingly acquired over many years. It is not only the story of Sheemaun and her 15 owners (and one crew member in particular) but of their worlds: a social and cultural history of life around the Thames Estuary and South Coast throughout the 20th Century. Beginning in the depressed aftermath of the First World War, we move to Glasgow where Sheemaun was designed and Fraserburgh where she was built by Nobles boatyard, a change from fishing boats: coming from the North East (of Scotland) himself, your reviewer can vouch for the picture the author paints so touchingly. We then enter the world of the gentleman’s motor yacht with a hired hand to crew Sheemaun on her 1935 maiden voyage; through the deprivations of the war-time East End and the defence of the River Thames, the post-war glories and demise of a luxury South coast hotel (complete with spy-story), to life in a 1950’s public school. The 7/7 2005 London bombings, in which Pell’s daughter Suzie had a very narrow escape, strikes a sombre note very personal to the author before he recounts Sheemaun’s last few decades as a distinguished and much decorated grand old lady.
The “Little Ship” of the title is also rather daring, though a small ship Sheemaun indupitably is. The Little Ship Club predates the “Little Ships” of the Dunkirk evacuation by some 14 years. (one of only two errors your reviewer found was the story of the award of the Little Ship Club’s defaced blue ensign: Lord Chatfield, not Duff Cooper, was First Sea Lord at the time). Sheemaun was at that moment “virtually a privateer ... [informally part of] the Royal Naval Thames Auxiliary Patrol Service” and could not be spared from her important duties, including “highly dangerous anti-mine activities”, though her two meetings with Sundowner (one of the little ships captained then by Little Ship Cub member Captain Charles Lightholler) are duly recorded. She remained at her post, first voluntarily and subsequently requisitioned, throughout the Second World War. Amongst the many pearls in this book, the vivid accounts of Sheemaun’s war-time engineer, cockney Stanley Dodd RNVR, ranks high; how the family adjusted to the wartime City of London and the Blitz; how he and his new wife’s Channel Islands holiday almost ended in German internment – they escaped on the last ship to leave, being shelled en route - ; why there were syphilitic rabbits in Whitechapel and how Stanley’s sons returned to Sheemaun in 2013.
The war-time exploits of some of Sheemaun’s future owners are recounted with gusto. Rear Admiral ‘Peter’ Gray was present at the Japanese bombing of Shanghai in 1937 and later, as First Officer of HMS Stork depth-charged and rammed a U-boat, before boarding her to seize her papers and winning a DSC (the U-boat’s captain and first officer both committed suicide). Acting Lieutenant Ingram Ord Capper paid for the US lend-lease corvette HMS Kilchrenen with his own personal cheque. Thomas Burton’s Lancaster bombing raids on Germany take us in atmospheric prose to a quite different theatre of war. Amongst the less personal, but equally arresting stories is the account of the sinking of the explosive-filled SS Richard Montgomery in the Medway.
This is a book equally at home by the armchair and open fire with a glass or two in hand, or on the bed-side table. Either way, you will not be disappointed.