A Whaler's Library

Tuesday, 31 December 2014

During my recent trip to South Georgia, I spent an hour or so in the whaler’s library, housed in the white clapboard Norwegian Lutheran church at Grytviken, which is, coincidentally, celebrating it’s centenary, having been consecrated on Christmas Day 1913.

The church, it has to be said, was never popular with the whalers, who were, by all accounts, too busy to attend what with making hooch in their Spartan accommodation, usually from women’s perfume, a surprisingly strong seller at the whale station shop, despite the lack of women.

The library, unlike the church, did brisk business, and the books remain in situ. I took a few ‘shelfies’, perhaps the world's most remote, to record what kind of reading material whalers chose to relax with after a hard day spent up to their necks in blubber and entrails. The Norwegian shelves were crammed with sober tomes of philosophy, like Knut Hamsen, and respectable novelists, like Graham Greene in translation.

The English shelves were less demanding, featuring escapist trash by writers whose stars have dimmed to near-extinction in the intervening years. English readers on South Georgia were immersed in titles like She’ll Love You Dead and The Body on Page One, or the Ngaio Marsh thriller Spinsters in Jeopardy.

Some of the writers I’d never come across before, like Miles Burton, whose novel A Village Afraid sits mouldering in South Georgia decades since it was pulled off library shelves back home. Burton’s real name was John Street and he served as an artillery officer in the Great War, winning the Military Cross and then working for MI7, the defunct cousin of MI5 and MI6 dedicated to propaganda.

After the war, Street turned to fiction, putting those propagandist skills to less patriotic ends. He became the leading light in what one critic dismissed as the ‘humdrum’ school of crime fiction, first under the pseudonym John Rhode, writing a series of mysteries featuring the forensic scientist Dr Priestly and then as Burton, introducing the investigator Desmond Merrion. His books are paradoxically highly collectable, although don’t bother coming to South Georgia to make your fortune – the books are, thanks to that famous South Georgia weather and the draughty church, in a decrepit state.

Two books along the shelf is a Berkeley Grey thriller, Dare-Devil Conquest, nothing to do with climbing but a reference to Grey’s hero, Norman Conquest. Grey was the pseudonym of Edwy Searles Brooks, who started his career writing for short fiction magazines, including the Sexton Blake mysteries, and then switched to novels in the 1930s when that market faltered. He is reckoned to have written four million words over the course of his writing life, much of it edited by his wife.

Right alongside is Max White’s The Man Who Carved Women From Wood, which sounds like another potboiler, which it is in its way, but in a more literary style. I love books with quirky titles, especially travel books, but there is a lot more to White’s work that that according to the blog Neglected Books.

There are a few more curiosities: Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God about the experiences of a young black woman in Florida is now a staple of Black Studies in America, but what it’s doing in Grytviken isn’t obvious.

Then there’s Johnny Jones, Guttersnipe by John Moray Stuart-Young, and that really got my attention. Born in a Manchester slum in 1881, the sole survivor among his siblings who otherwise died of tuberculosis, Stuart-Young recreated – and re-created himself – in outrageous ways.

With a little schooling, he cast himself as a litterateur, changed his name, and began stealing from his employer to speed his ascent of the literary social ladder. Caught forging cheques, he served six months hard labour and then began work as clerk for a trading company that sent him to French Guinea.

He later claimed an intimate connection to Oscar Wilde, and published Osrac, poems, letters and a memoir of Wilde, the last two clearly faked. Stuart-Young is sometimes termed a Uranian, part of the gay literary movement of the last nineteenth century, but his tastes extended to pederasty, especially during his long sojourn in West Africa, where he formed close relationships with African boys.

A recent biography of Stuart-Young, by Stephanie Newell, lifts the lid on Stuart-Young’s extraordinary life. He made a fortune in Africa, setting up on his own as a trader in palm oil. Maybe that’s the link with icy South Georgia, where whales were rendered for their oil for much the same reasons as Stuart-Young found himself in Africa. Men on the margins of the known world, sending home the fuel of industry to feed an ignorant population – and now fossilised in their eclectic library.

Posted by Ed Douglas at 8.16 PM