As the official Voice of Older People, journalist and broadcaster Joan Bakewell sets a
shining example by publishing her first novel at the age of 74. It takes place in 1942,
when the war was going badly for Britain, and in 2003, during demonstrations against
the Iraq invasion. It's also about sexual mores, which should alert Bakewell-watchers
who remember the fuss over the explicit content of her BBC2 series Taboo.
It has to be said, however, that the few scenes of intimacy here are remarkably tasteful.
The modern narrative is frustratingly sketchy - necessarily so, it transpires, in order
not to give away the wartime mystery - but it does serve a useful purpose in providing
a framework for the historical account and the "relevance" that modern readers seem
to require of the past.
Grandmother Millie, born during the war and still, at 60, resentful of her chilly
upbringing, has received a box of memorabilia from her dead mother's estate. Within it
she finds some school magazines. As she scans them in vain for her mother's name, she
can't help being intrigued by accounts of the school's wartime involvement in the Ship
Adoption Scheme, which aimed to educate the students while providing moral support
for the crew of the adopted ship. Ashworth Grammar, it seems, was entrusted with a
merchant navy vessel from the Atlantic convoys that braved German U-boats to fetch
vital supplies from North America. It's the interaction between the crew of the SS
Treverran with staff and girls of the school that provides the main drama.
Bakewell delivers a warm, good humoured story of wartime relationships and a
thrilling account of life and death on the convoys, but she's also keen to impart an
impression of wartime England and its values. She writes with equal facility from male
and female viewpoints, and it may come as no surprise that one of the relationships
dealt with most sympathetically is adulterous. Crisply evoked headmistress Cynthia
Maitland, at 42, determines to snatch her last opportunity for personal happiness with
the married ship's master, Josh Pearson. War has damaged Josh's marriage to fun-loving
Wren Jessica, whose new, dissipated pals disgust him, considering the dangers
he and grown-up son Peter face on their behalf at sea. One desperately wants this
affair to work out.
Contrasts between past and present attitudes are pointed. Back then, pregnancy
outside marriage often meant rejection for the mother and adoption for the child.
Today, Millie, her unmarried daughter Kate and grandchild Freya form a tight, loving
family unit. Ashworth Grammar was staffed by spinsters whose chance of marriage was
destroyed by the first world war. Two sixth-formers, Polly and Jen, form attachments
to Treverran sailors, but though one girl suffers her teachers' tragedy, the opportunities
for single women after 1945 will be far greater.
One aspect of authorial commentary is too forced. Miss Maitland's after-school
discussion group gives an opportunity for speakers representing different sections of
society to speak about politics. These thumbnail sketches of local newspaper journalist,
bohemian female artist, councillor, trade unionist and bigoted school governor verge
on the stereotypical. Fortunately this is a faint blight on an otherwise enjoyable read.