During the Second World War a
Manchester girls' grammar school
decides to take part in the British Ship
This worthy scheme was originally set up
as an aid to teaching about the Empire
but with the start of war it became a
popular morale booster with mariners
visiting schools and children going on
outings to ships.
Letters were written and shapeless,
hand-knitted jumpers sent as gifts to the
brave men at sea.
This little footnote to the war is the starting point of Joan Bakewell's fiction debut.
Her preface to the effect that this is a story grounded in fact and her own schooldays is hardly
necessary. This is a novel full of period detail, lovingly retrieved from her memory bank and set to
There's a name check for Pond's Cold Cream and Bourjois face powder. We're in a world of lisle
stockings, ITMA, syrup sandwiches, the curl of cigarette smoke in the
cinema where In Which We
Serve is the "big picture".
Signs at a dance read "Those in uniform, Entrance Free". These, you gather, are the years when
there were fears the Allies might lose, when the dreariness of deprivation and tension were taking
Hope and good humour, bedrocks of the Blitz spirit, were in short supply.
Cynthia Maitland is the foxy-yet-demure headmistress of Ashworth grammar School for girls.
Josh Percival is the rugged captain of SS Treverran, which sails out of Liverpool, joining the
Atlantic convoys on their perilous missions, always in danger from attack
by German U-boats.
Ashworth grammar adopts the Treverran. Cynthia is a virgin (her first love died in the great War)
who lives with her mother.
Josh is married to a strapping Wren called Jessica. After a decent interval of nearly unbearable
yearning Cynthia and Joss begin an affair while Jen and Polly, two of Ashworth's finest girls, date
There's a parallel story set in 2003 with Britain poised to invade Iraq. A woman called Millie is
researching her past and has a grown-up daughter called Kate who is in need of a kidney
The reader, one supposes, is meant to contrast and compare the mood of Britain six years ago
with that of 1942 but it's a bit clunky and didactic and whenever the story returns to the near
present you look forward to it settling back into the Forties.
Millie and Kate are rather boring, downcast modern women whereas Cynthia, Jen and Polly, Jess
and the other dramatis personae of long ago are infinitely more fascinating.
Knowing Bakewell's Swinging Sixties past ("thinking man's crumpet" and all that) one might have
expected rather more raciness in the writing. The material is there after all, as the teenage girls
are coaxed into going all the way with their sailors, while Josh and Cynthia find bliss in a dingy
hotel with an ill-lit foyer.
Here Josh undoes her pink suspenders with great delicacy and tenderness. Again it is romantic
rather than erotic and none the worse for that.
More surprising is the In Which We Serve episode, when the SS Treverran is torpedoed and the
survivors take to the lifeboat. This is marvellously exciting, heartbreaking, gruelling and an
unexpectedly muscular and masculine treat in the middle of what is essentially a wistful romance.
But back to Millie and Kate. It doesn't take long to work out that they are essential to the rounding
off of the plot - even Kate's kidney problem has a narrative point - and the outcome is poignant,
romantic, deeply satisfying and deliciously predictable.