Back in 1938 on the cusp of the Second World War, there were still a handful of sailing ships in active service. Many of these did the grain race, a round-the-world trip from Britain and Scandinavia to Australia. The ships’ route took their crews round both capes, whilst collecting corn midway in Australia to feed the hungry mouths of Europe.This was the trip that eighteen-year-old Englishman Eric Newby signed up for aboard the Finnish four-master Moshulu.
Newby was escaping. Bored of his middle-class life working in the city and buoyed up by wild salty sea-dog tales told to him by a family friend, he decided to sign up while the sailing ships still existed. Thus begins one of the longest, most visceral and unpleasant voyages that has ever been set to print.
The Last Grain Race opens with Newby working as an office boy in an advertising firm. This urbane calm before the storm is reminiscent of the opening to The Riddle of the Sands, and perhaps this is why Newby mentions that story in passing . Even this safe, self-satisfied corner of London gives Newby material for one of his deft character sketches:
Here I was in full view of Mr McBean, the Scots Manager, who, with his bald head, horn rims, and slightly indignant expression, seemed to swim in his glass-bound office like some gigantic turbot; only the absence of bubbles when he dictated to Miss Rundle showed that Mr McBean breathed the same air as the rest of us.
Soon Newby leaves this life behind, and travels to Belfast where he finally sights the Moshulu and joins her crew as the lowest class of sailor. He is the only Englishman abroad. He is also obviously a class apart from the other sailors, as he brings his shiny, creaky new possessions on board in a Louis Vuitton trunk, then as now, an item of no little value.
Alas his different nationality and wealth are against him, for despite his jollity, it quickly becomes apparent that the crew of the Moshulu do not like him very much. He suffers bullying, a brutal crossing the line ceremony, and is constantly harried by the First Mate. Once they bring a trio of pigs on board, it is immediately Newby who gets the role of mucking them out.
Nevertheless, as one who has survived a harsh schooling, Newby sticks it out. Indeed, conditions aboard are pretty miserable for everyone:
There were two kinds of meat; salt pork and salt beef. There were unlimited supplies of both. Salt pork, which appeared in various disguises at least once a day, was like theatrical property, produced to create an atmosphere and then whisked away uneaten. In its worse form it was fried and smothered with a metallic-flavoured bean stew. Only Yonny Valker attempted to eat this and he eventually complained of pains in the head.
Newby has such a comic touch that I wonder if his problems aboard were a linguistic one (the main language of the ship was Swedish). Had people understood him better, they surely would have enjoyed his quick wit.
He also has a fine eye for description, and his sketches of the crew’s few sightings of land have the detail of a Victorian watercolourist:
We were among a great number of islands all shrouded in a haze of heat and at ten we passed Middle Island, a brown desolate volcanic rock capped with yellow scrub. Low-lying, without beaches, it dipped straight into the sea and the rollers setting in on it broke in white columns on the south face.
He also does not hold back from the fear and horror which comes from climbing the rigging on such a huge vessel in the midst of a storm at sea:
Aloft the wind seemed as strong as ever, and I looked down to a deck as narrow as a ruler on which the tiny figures of the watch were clustered
Ultimately, Newby cannot hide the fact that he despairs of the voyage ever ending. The vast majority of the book is taken up with the voyage out, when everything was fresh and new. The voyage back is little more than a description of a vast tempest on the Southern Ocean, as he and his shipmates hide in their bunks and wait for the whole sorry affair to be over.
For the reader, there are also numerous bits that we have to skip over, due to detailed descriptions of rigging as well as conversations in Swedish. The Last Grain Race is a product of its time when publishers didn’t feel that they had to cater to the public at every step, and they weren’t afraid of detail. In his breezy fashion, Newby does warn us about this. At one point, he notes:
Technical Interlude (Surface at page 47)
It’s well worth taking the effort. This a cracking tale of a voyage. There’s also an added bonus for any of my readers in the North-Eastern USA, for Moshulu still exists. The ship is now a restaurant in Penn’s Landing, Pennyslvania: http://www.moshulu.com/, although I am sure that salt pork in its metallic sauce is no longer on the menu.