Published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1940 at 8/3 (an increase on the prevailing 1930s price of 7/6 for a hardback novel), this book was the last of the six that Canning wrote as "Alan Gould". It was highly topical, describing events surrounding the outbreak of war in September 1939, and is utterly different from the other book Canning published in 1940, the escapist pastoral romance Mr. Finchley takes the road. It is also the first time that Canning used first person narration, something he rarely did over his writing career.
It is narrated by Arthur Buchan, recuperating on a farm in Kent after his ordeal at sea. He is a young teacher at a school in the town of March who, having written a book about the fens, decides to apply for a post as tutor to the son of George Knight, a shipowner. Knight plans to sail with his family on one of his own cargo boats, the Olantigh, travelling to South Africa and the Americas. In Buenos Ayres they are delayed by an engine breakdown and, with war imminent, Knight decides to call into Rio and put his wife and son on a liner bound for New York while he sails back to Britain with his ship. The ship calls at Para at the mouth of the Amazon where they take on cargo and are forced to accept four passengers with no other means of returning to Britain.
At sea they hear by radio of the outbreak of war. Within a few days they are fired on by a German submarine. The captain tries to outrun the submarine, but the Olantigh is hit by several shells and starts to sink. Three lifeboats are launched. Buchan finds himself in one which has the wounded Captain Hancock, a seaman called John Chinn, the steward called Christmas, five other sailors, the owner George Knight, a passenger called Bernard Kettner who is an alcoholic, and two lady passengers, the flirtatious Mrs Carlotta Manville and the demure Elizabeth Ansford.
During the first night the three lifeboats lose contact with each other. The next day the captain dies. The forceful John Chinn takes command and clashes with Knight. Watches are arranged and food and water rationed. They survive spells of bad weather. After several days they see the capsized hull of one of the other lifeboats. A rain squall lets them replenish their drinking water. One of the sailors is killed by a shark. When they are close to starvation, they see a small ship, the Gabrielle, but to their disappointment it is abandoned. It has been shelled, perhaps by the same submarine, and was holed, but its cargo of wool has expanded to seal the holes, so it has not yet sunk. On the Gabrielle they find food, tobacco and alcohol. But the Gabrielle could sink at any moment and the tension between the characters continues to mount.
This is a very good book, with a lot of real excitement in the events, insights into character and convincing descriptions of life in the boat. It is told in flashbacks, alternating passages of Buchan's musings on life as he looks out at a Kent farmyard, and recollections drawing on his diaries and the book he would have written of the voyage. Buchan himself is a fairly passive character; he tells the story but plays very little part in it. He implies that the experience has damaged him psychologically and he is writing to exorcise the memories, saying "The war, in its own way, has already done a lot to me." and adding "The problem [of finding a job] may be solved for me, for I am little over twenty-eight and the army may soon have claimed me." Conscription for men was introduced in age ranges from October 1939 onwards, starting with 20 - 23, so a 28-year-old would have been called up during 1940, as Canning himself was.
It is interesting, by the way, that Canning re-used the unusual surname Chinn for the sinister character Albert Chinn in The Finger of Saturn.
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