One of the books which I should have included in my Top 15 last year, but somehow didn’t, was Emma Smith’s excellent memoir of a Cornish childhood, The Great Western Beach. I wrote about it here, complete with a jaunty picture of a little bucket. When I heard Maidens’ Trip: A Wartime Adventure on the Grand Union Canal was being reprinted by Bloomsbury in the same format, I hurriedly asked for a copy, and the journey to and from London enabled me to read it.
Last time I praised David Mann’s jacket design, and I can only do so again – The Great Western Beach and Maidens’ Trip sell well for the content, I daresay, but there must be lots of casual browsers who picked it up on the basis of the brilliant design. And then there might be people like me who have a liking of Maidens’ Trip simply for the excellent apostrophe use. It’s reminiscent of some of Bob Dylan’s best work. Man, I love Bob Dylan.
[I should add that I left the computer unattended for a few minutes, and it was sabotaged by Colin.]
I knew approximately nothing about the Grand Union Carrying Company and the wartime work which happened. Women were employed to ‘make use of boats lying idle’, and transport goods up and down the canal. Emma Smith did this in 1943, with several other girls at different points, but with authorial licence she condenses these trips into one trip, and the girls into three girls – Nanette, Charity, and Emma. Yes, Emma is Emma Smith, but an edited version. In The Great Western Beach Emma Smith had a slightly surreal narrative voice – the vocabulary of an adult, the ignorance of a child. Maidens’ Trip demonstrates that she always used an unusual angle – though she always uses ‘we’ and ‘us’ to describe their experiences, there is no ‘I’. Emma, like Nanette and Charity, is always referred to in the third person, even though she alone has thoughts and reflections revealed. It took me 60 pages to discover why the book was a little unnerving, and then I realised what was going on. ‘We’ but never ‘I’.
There are too many mini-adventures in Maidens’ Trip for me to describe them all, and each feels representative of a boating life. Their interaction with professional boating fraternity shows a world now lost. These families would travel up and down the canals all their lives, marrying within the fraternity, bringing up their children in the same ways, with little knowledge or care about the world away from the water. Their friendships would survive on seeing people for only a few minutes a week, passing on the canal. Still Nanette, Charity and Emma made friends – and made enemies. Though the girls have distinct characters, each also has the stubbornness needed to battle the elements, the privations, and the locks. The overriding impression is of dirt, weariness, hunger and a constant triumph that they were succeeding at all.
Just like The Great Western Beach, Emma Smith writes in a continually captivating and energetic manner in Maidens’ Trip. Her experiences were unusual, but it is her writing voice which makes them fascinating. A sparse honesty pervades, and the book is without a drop of sentiment. Though perhaps not as good as The Great Western Beach, which deserves to be a classic of memoir for generations to come, Maidens’ Trip is a wonderful journey into the bizarre episode in the life of a very interesting woman.
“The trouble is,” said Charity, hearing, as always, only what she wanted to hear, “that no one knows a thing about canals till they come on one. People have said to me so many times: ‘But what do you do?’ and I can’t explain. They seem to think you do nothing but lean on a tiller all day.”
Perhaps we can’t share the same experiences as Charity, Nanette and Emma – but Maidens’ Trip is a close second best.