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Book review.

March 15, 2019 March 2019 No Comments

Perusing the Library’s book files can be a worthwhile exercise – the four South Wairarapa Libraries’ files are available on the combined library website with books from neighbouring libraries being able to be ordered for pick up at the local library the following day. An excellent service.

It was while so looking that I spotted this book ‘The Last Great Grain Race’ by Eric Newby. The book was first published in 1956 and has recently been reprinted by Harper Collins – Bless them. 

Up until the Second World War Australian wheat was carried to Europe by sailing ships. These would travel to Australia in ballast and line up at Port Victoria in readiness for the arrival of the freshly harvested wheat. Once loaded there was keen competition to be the first ship back to the continent.

The story is of the twenty year old Newby’s experience as a crew member on one of these ships, the Moshulu, for its two month voyage to Australia and three month return trip. The Swedish owned ship was crewed by Nordic people whom did not speak English, which was Newby’s only language.  

Crewing such vessels had little to recommend it: minimal wages.  Appalling living conditions, wooden bunks with straw bed bug infested mattresses jammed together. Food mainly consisted of salted beef and pork with rice. In the southern ocean the crew were permanently soaked to the skin, sleeping in their wet clothes as their quarters were wet as well.  Plus every present danger  of being swept overboard or blown off the rigging when reefing sails in a gale. Plus all this the captain and mates were deeply unlikeable characters. 

Fully loaded with 60,000 sacks (4,875 ton) of wheat the Moshulu was well down in the water resulting in high seas leaving the deck frequently awash.  

As a boy Eric Newby had been enthralled by an uncle’s tales of the wonderful life on the tall sailing ships. When in 1939 he found himself unemployed he saw it as an opportunity to try this life and so signed onto the Moshulu . He quickly came to realise that the uncle had been a  good story teller whose experience of being at sea came from reading adventure books rather than the actual experience.

Newby is a very good writer with an eye for detail,  the fellow crew members and life aboard is depicted in a lively style. Along with being an entertaining read the book is full of interesting information of a time which it is for readers two or three generations later  hard to imagine. This is a book which I really enjoyed.  Mike Beckett

(The library has eight other Eric Newby books. I have also read and enjoyed ‘Something wholesale, my life in the rag trade’)


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