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Monday, 25 July 2016

My Picture Book of Ships

On the bottom shelf of my dad’s bookcase were some of his childhood books. He was nearly as daft as me for keeping things. There might have been many more treasures but for mum’s propensity for throwing things away, although the bookcase was sacrosanct, even to her.

I always knew he had them, of course, but never took the time for anything more than a superficial glance at the pictures. He must have treasured them greatly. All have his name and address inside and some also the date.

My Picture Book of Ships

The earliest and most dilapidated is My Picture Book of Ships which he got in 1926 at the age of five. To a child at that time the cover must have looked thrilling: the vast bulk of the ocean liner soaring proud above the waterline, the towering hull and funnels, the dense spray from the bow-wave hinting at the rumbling power of the great engines and propellers, the huge anchor tight against the ship’s side. People yearned to travel in the luxury of these floating palaces. They were the dream machines of their day: the supersonic jets, the Lamborghinis, the spaceliners, the high speed trains, the earth moving machines, the ice road truckers. Even their names implied substance and opulence: Majestic, Britannic, Olympic, Leviathon, Edinburgh Castle.  

My Picture Book of Ships White Star Line Majestic at Boston Dry Dock

We used to look at it together when I was little. We studied the sixty two illustrations but never read it. The text tells of two children, Tom and Betty, who ceaselessly ask Father question about ships. They also play at ships: Tom is Captain and Father the pilot, while Chief Officer Mother sleeps “on watch” below and poor Petty Officer Betty gets ordered around.

Father of course answers all their questions patiently, knowledgeably and at length. He tells them about how the voyage of an ocean liner is organized, how sailors are trained, shipbuilding, shipwrecks, coal and oil power, sail, cargo vessels, lifeboats, light houses and light ships, paddle steamers and ferries. How he knew all this stuff is not clear. He just did. Perhaps he was a seaman himself, or maybe like my own dad his grandfather had been a Captain and his cousin was at sea. Oh yes, all dads knew everything there was to know about ships; especially when they had grown up in a Yorkshire port.

London Docks 1920s Harwich-Zeebrugge Train Ferry 1920s

Dads could describe and explain all the pictures: cargo being unloaded at London docks, the Harwich-Zeebrugge railway ferry with wagons on board, a big ship under construction inside a massive gantry, and boys lining a high mast at a sailors’ training school. I certainly would not have wanted to have been the baby thrown through the air to a lifeboat in a rescue at sea. My dad used to pick me up and pretend to act it out.

Harland and Wolff Shipyard 1920s Sea Training School Rescue at Sea

But that is not what used to frighten me most. I was terrified of the strange double-page cartoons inside the front and back covers. Why a factual book about ships should contain such irreverent drawings is a mystery. They are not even proper ships. They show traumatised people in canoes, punts and rowing boats on an overcrowded river, being attacked by pigs, cows and swans, knocked overboard by clumsy oarsmen or tormented by badly controlled fishing lines. They all have ugly ears, gaping mouths and grotesque faces. I could never bear to look. It is still difficult now.

As Nick Ross used to say: “Don’t have nightmares. Do sleep well.”

My Picture Book of Ships
My Picture Book of Ships

My Picture Book of Ships published by Ward Lock & Co. (c1922) is believed to be out of copyright.

2 comments:

  1. What a lovely book. I do like the grotesque cartoons too, they're right up my street!

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    Replies
    1. I find the strangest thing about the cartoons is how grotesquely at odds they are with the main content of the book.

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