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Book Review: A Century of Sea Travel

By (September 15, 2014) No Comment

A Century of Sea Travel: Personal Accounts from the Steamship Eraa century of sea travel cover

by Christopher Deakes & Tom Stanley

Seaforth Publishing, 2014

When the delightful American humorist Julian Street wrote his light-as-air book Ship Bored in 1912, he was confident enough about the universal nature of his comic riffing to sub-title the work Who Hasn’t Been? When Street took it into his head to write his book (the idea and the composition time both presented themselves during a trans-Atlantic voyage), the tediums, terrors, and temporary romances of shipboard sea travel were travel commonplaces as thoroughly ingrained in the public imagination as eco-tourism, airport delays, and dropped cellphone signals are today. As today, so a century ago: thousands of people needed or wanted to travel on routes that involved sometimes vast stretches of water. But commercial air travel was in its extremely dangerous and limited infancy, so steamships were, to use the title of John Maxtone-Graham’s wonderful book on the subject, the only way to cross.

In the age of aviation, passenger ship travel has become an exorbitantly expensive novelty-experience for priapic, clinically morbid over-eaters, but this is a world away from the bulk of the experiences related in a beguiling new volume from Seaforth Publishing, A Century of Sea Travel: Personal Accounts from the Steamship Era. In these well-written and briskly-organized pages, authors

brochure art for the first-class dining room of the Queen Mary

brochure art for the first-class dining room of the Queen Mary

Christopher Deakes and Tom Stanley have assembled an intensely interesting collage of first-hand impressions of what it was like when some form of steamship travel featured in the lives of virtually all international travellers. Julian Street isn’t mentioned in A Century of Sea Travel, but it sometimes feels like every other maritime voyager – from Robert Louis Stevenson to Jonah (he of the whale) – gets a turn at the microphone to tell their stories. And as our authors correctly point out, a great many of those stories tend to dim the nostalgic glow that usually surrounds this subject:

It is fitting that these voices from the past should describe the experience of sea travel at at time when the passenger ship was queen in ‘the golden age of travel’. But the golden glow of nostalgia shines very thinly on some aspects of steamship life, and in these pages travellers sometimes shine a different light on how things really were.

The book is lavishly illustrated; there are paintings, period posters, photos of furniture and boarding passes and postcards and passenger lists. Deakes and Stanley cover all the major aspects of their subject, from the industry’s beginnings to onboard life (not just the amenities and entertainments but also, naturally, the food) to the lives of the crew and workers to the range of exotic locations whose ports of call were touched by these hard-working vessels. They also spare a chapter for everything that could go wrong: “The Howl of the Wind, the Tumult of the Sea” narrates the hardships, mishaps, and outright disasters – including the most famous one of all, the Titanic – that were the risks every passenger took.

But the main strength of the book is the way it puts this now-exotic mode of travel in the context of its time and its rich history. Our authors do far more than simply curate their stunning collection of artwork and artifacts; they use considerable skill to narrate one of the most romantic eras in the long tale of travel. Passengers both obscure and famous are quoted, yes, but their impressions are

Elder Dempster Lines

Elder Dempster Lines

always easily set in the larger pattern:

Ships that sailed in less-travelled waters were no less characterful than the famous liners. In 1916 the writer W Somerset Maugham obviously enjoyed his voyage on the Talune, ‘thirty-six years old, twelve hundred tons, and very dirty, overrun with rats and cockroaches, but steady and a wonderful sea boat, with one very primitive bathroom, no smoking room and dingy cabins.’ This small ship was owne by the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand, and on this voyage ‘was laden with bananas when I took it from Suva to Auckland … and it was crowded with passengers, children returning to school in New Zealand from Apia and Suva, soldiers on furlough, and the nondescript crowd that travels on the Pacific.’

“Earlier,” we’re further told, “the ship had carried Rudyard Kipling as a passenger, and in 1918 transported the killer influenza pandemic virus to the Pacific Islands, with devastating results.” It’s as far away from a pretty collection of old postcards as a book could get, and it makes A Century of Sea Travel something for even the armchair traveller to treasure. The book was first published in the UK in 2010, and its appearance now from Seaforth is welcome indeed.