There’s a fairy tale aspect to this book’s genesis – a daughter finding in the attic her father’s account of a cruise he took with some friends and deciding to publish it. But it’s the timing and itinerary of the journey itself that make it such an extraordinary tale. The crew of the Naromis are young men who enjoy cruising, meeting people, and sharing a few drinks. But there’s another telling sentence in the introduction his daughter wrote which gives their voyage a wider perspective: ‘He was’, she writes ‘afraid of being afraid’. And fear was an understandable part of the mix at the time because it was August 1939, he was 21 years old and their trip would take them across the North Sea to the Baltic and even to Germany.
The result is an account which combines anecdotes of the ‘ordinary’ fun and perils of small boat cruising with descriptions of uneasy encounters with minesweepers and other warships all obviously preparing for the conflict that was about to start. It’s reminiscent of the famed ‘Xmas truce’ of 1914, which highlighted the coexistence of the horrors of war and the simple humanity of those involved in waging it. In the course of their voyage the crew meet and befriend various people, including Germans, and for the writer, George Jones, the encounters are ‘normal’ and interesting. Simultaneously, though, he’s forced to acknowledge the evidence of tension and threat embodied in the vessels past which they sail. As they enter a German port, children onshore wave and smile 'at the hated English', the crew make ‘temporary political adjustments’ with their German drinking friends, and ‘good will’ prevails in their relations with nearly all the Germans they meet. At the same time, George notes that some of the places they visited would soon be ‘targets for Bomber Command’.
The immediacy and unadorned frankness of his observations are strangely reassuring and yet their very ‘ordinariness’ serves to underline the true horror of what the next six years would bring. Indeed, the end of the trip in a way reflects the contrasts and essence of the whole experience. On the final leg of the voyage on September 1st, the Naromis ran aground a few miles north of the Humber. The crew waded ashore but returned later and had to ‘sit in the sloping cabin waiting for the tide’ to lift her off again. The various activities associated with the whole incident are recorded with humour and warmth. On the same day, Germany invaded Poland. Two days later, war was declared.
The main account is book-ended by an introduction and afterword written by George’s daughter, Julia, who edited his notes for publication. Her love for and pride in her father are self-evident but equally, she’s sensitive to the 'unreality' of the whole enterprise, and the afterword in particular stresses the awfulness of war's ghastly intrusion into the innocence of daily things. The whole book is a fascinating read and provokes reflection on the huge gap that separates those wielding power and the rest of us who suffer the consequences of its misuse.